Karma Loftin won the 1985 Texas Barrel Racing Association Futurity. Photo by Kenneth Springer

A BHN-exclusive interview with a seasoned breeder who has watched what goes around come back around.

I met up with Karma Loftin in the Brazos County Expo Center arena and we found a place behind the second barrel from which to watch the derby finals of the Diamonds and Dirt Barrel Horse Classic. I wanted to share with her a collection of pages that Kenneth Springer had recently resurrected from his personal archive and made a special trip to the Barrel Horse News office just to share with me. “1985 TBRA Futurity Money Winners” was scrolled across the top in Springer’s handwriting. Below it was a vintage list of some of the most prominent names in the history of barrel racing, paired with horses whose names reflected equally identifiable lineage, and followed by impressive dollar amounts for that era. She took one look and her gaze shifted inward, rewinding through decades of memories, horses and hard work.

I brought her back after a moment, asking about the name written next to her own—in first place—at the top of the page.

He was a natural. He was a lot like Martha’s horse,” she said, referring to Firewatermakemehappy, the bucksin gelding she raised and sold to her long-time friend, Martha Smith, who was seated in front of us. “Junior” would run later that evening, under Kassie Mowry in the futurity finals. “Everything is so nice about him.”

“He just wanted to do it,” Loftin continued, turning back the pages again. “He just craved it. But I couldn’t keep him sound. I think he had foundered as a yearling, before I got him. When he was 5, he got navicular real bad. I guess it was before I knew what to do.”

Sitting there with me 29 years later, her words were still saturated with the exasperation of dreams that were never realized. The end of Charge On Rocket’s career, however, delivered a new one for Loftin.

“This horse got me going back to school to be a physical therapist because I had tried to keep him together. He was a world-class horse. I wanted to go rodeo on him; I wanted to go on, but I didn’t know what to do. At that time back in Mississippi, there were good vets, but they didn’t know anything about injecting joints or anything like that. I wanted to know, physiologically based, what to do. That’s why I went to PT school, because I could not keep this horse sounds.”

“You didn’t want to go to vet school?” I asked.

“I did! I did! This is what happened to me: When I was little, I wanted to go to Texas A&M so bad to be a vet. Kristi would probably like this,” she smiled, looking up to where Schiller, the Diamonds and Dirt producer and host, was seated. “That was when Texas A&M was all still male. So my mama and dad laughed at me and said, ‘You can’t go to Texas A&M to be a vet, that’s all men!” I didn’t know there was anyplace else to go, so I just gave it up! I wish I hadn’t now, but I wanted to ride more than I wanted to study and go to school.”

In order to follow what she refers to as her “other calling,” Loftin had to do what most devoted barrel racers would consider unimaginable.

“I sold all of my horses. Yes, I sold them,” she said, as if she couldn’t believe it herself. “I had to. You’ve gotta have a 4.0 average to get into physical therapy school, but I knew if I had horses, I couldn’t dedicate my whole time to them, so it was like, OK. Set it aside for later, so I could have the finances to be able to keep me going on the other end.”

Top: The only dry spot for awards presentations at the 1985 TBRA Futurity in Fort Worth, Texas was behind the barn, where TBRA officials Jean Galbreath, Nancy Anderson, Sue Sistrunk and Barbara Cummings presented Loftin with her championship saddle. Bottom Left: With Kim Green of Big Spring, Texas, aboard, Confederate Leader as a 5-year-old won the 1998 BFA World Championship Derby, banking checks totally $17,996. By virtue of his winnings in Oklahoma City, he was the high money derby horse in the BFA for 1998, but the championship was awarded based on points rather that money won throughout the year, putting him third behind Kay Blandford and Frettas Fortune (a granddaughter of Slash J Harletta) and Sue Bologna and Joe B Jammin. Bottom Right: Interestingly, both the sire and dam of Epic Leader competed at the 1998 BFA World Championships. Confederate Leader, a 1993 stallion, was in the derby, and Firewater Fiesta, a 1994 mare, was in the 4-year-old futurity. Kelly Yates, Pueblo, Colo,. is shown aboard Fiesta earned $25,030 at the same prestigious events and would later be paired by Loftin and Kassie Mowry to produce the great stallion, Epic Leader, now the lead sire at the Schiller Ranch in College Station, Texas. Photos by Kenneth Springer.

Building on Old Blood

Loftin’s TBRA Futurity champion mount Charge On Rocket influenced her future in more ways than one. “Rocky,” a son of Master Rocket, by Rocket Bar, out of a daughter of the Three Ohs son, Tex Oh, introduced her to the old running blood that would become a cornerstone in her breeding program throughout the years.

“I always did good on the Three Ohs horses. I really loved them. I’ve done really, really good on the old, good breeding that’s coming back. That’s what excites me about breeding now. Look at them,” she said, motioning to the arena as if to let the derby horses speak for themselves.

“We used to go to the racetrack and buy horses economically and try them and then weed out the ones that just wanted to run versus the one that still had a little turn in them. Then, the racehorses started bottlenecking. They wanted the ones that could sure enough run down the track. I think that we kind of parted ways because we got too much speed bred into them and people were forgetting about that style that we had in these horses. I think that’s what we’re trying to put back in them, going back to horses like Fire Water Flit. Fire Water Fanny — look at her colts. We put the speed in them, now we’re getting the style back in them, and the turn back in them, and the want to go out there and run barrels.”

“I won’t ever know a tenth of what she knows,” Smith chimed in with admiration. What Karma knows is the product of a lifetime of dedication to generations of proven producers and performers alike.

“People ask me, ‘Karma, how do I find a horse?’ You gotta go where the horses are winning, where the great trainers and the great riders are. When I was a kid, I was so shy, I’d just sit on the fence and just watch them work. I wouldn’t go ask questions. And I was fortunate to ride some great horses. I rode Paul Cooper’s Seco Pep. That horse put the love of barrel racing into me.”

Loftin grew up showing Paint horses in multiple events, developing her horsemanship, an unassuming competitive nature and an early understanding of the logistics of genetics and heritability.

Epic Leader and Loftin
Every day since he hit the ground in 2008, Epic Leader has made Loftin and Mowry’s dreams a reality. As a 4-year-old, he commanded the attention of the rest of the barrel racing world when he turned in the fastest time of the 2012 BFA World Championships Futurity, stopping the clock at 15.034 to win the second round under Mowry’s direction. He ultimately finished as the reserve futurity champion for his owners, with $29,958 in earnings. Photo by Kenneth Springer.

“It wasn’t easy. I did whatever I could do, rode whatever I could get my hands on. That particular horse,” she said, referring back to Cooper’s grandson of Magnolia Bar, “. . . I think I was 19. I’d always run some of my Paint horses around the barrels, but they were reining horses or cutting horses or things like that. The first time I rode Pep, he put the feel in me. That was an awesome, awesome horse.”

And so Loftin began closing the door on judged events, and with some familiar Paint horse breeding, she started going the way of the stopwatch. She came within mere points of a Supreme championship on one of her first barrel horse, a Paint stallion named Bionic Bid. The TBRA Futurity-winning Quarter Horse Charge On Rocket came next, and as she competed, she took a vested interest in proliferating barrel horses of that breed.

Handing Over the Reins

Loftin will tell you that everything she ever bred was for herself to ride, but eventually, her own physical limitations would bring her training career to a screeching halt.

“One night, I crawled up the hill. I’d worked all day and I’d come home and ridden and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I’ve got severe arthritis and it just hurt too bad, but the breeding part was already going well so I thought I’d just go that way.”

With that, Loftin hung up her spurs. About that time, Kassie Mowry was building a training program of her own and caught Loftin’s attention aboard Perks Alive, a standout she was riding for Jolene Hales.

“I’ve never sent a horse to anybody but Kassie to ride,” Loftin explained. I’ve sent some to colt trainers, but she was the first one I ever called. I’m trying to place my colts in the best hands I can. That was the deal with Martha’s colt. I told her, ‘If I sell you this colt, you’ve gotta leave him here in Texas and Kassie’s going to run him or you’re not going to get him.’”

The two soon realized that they shared an affinity for similar family lines, and the “what if” conversation about the then yet-to-be-conceived platinum stallion Epic Leader ensued within the first year of the Loftin-Mowry partnership.

“It was at the same time that she had Dashing Dillon, by Confederate Leader,” Loftin explained. “I remember watching Confederate Leader with the derby at the BFA and falling in love with that horse. But he fell off the map, to me. I was still in Mississippi at the time and I didn’t know where he went to. When I first went to Kassie’s, she told me Dillon was by Confederate Leader.

That memory, while sitting there with me in Bryan, Texas, sent Loftin even further back as she replayed Dashing Dillon and Confederate Leader’s highlight reels in her mind.

“Oh my gosh, I loved that horse! And especially Kassie’s Dashing Dillon. He was awesome. He won the 2006 BFA Juvenile and a lot more,” she recollected. “So we got to talking about how much we liked a lot of the same breeding. One night, we were sitting there at her house and she asked me a question.

“’Do you want to go in and breed the two baddest horses together?’

“’Who are you talking about?’

“’(Firewater) Fiesta and Confederate Leader.’”

Loftin gasped again, a reaction that I imagine was very similar to the first time Mowry proposed the pairing.

“Sometimes I think about breeding this horse to that horse and it’s like nah. . .” she said, shaking her head and waving off a hypothetical cross. “But this. . . oh year. And I did not sleep. I called her three days later and I said, “I have not slept in three days. Are you serious? Are we going to do this?’ She said, ‘I’ll call Kelly (Yates) now.’ So that’s how we got Epic. It was her brainchild, but we liked the same horses and it was just meant to be. It’s been a blessing from God. Everything I’ve done, I believe, is from God.”

“And now, at Schiller Ranch, he’s going to have every opportunity,” I mused. I meant well, of course, but quickly wished I could retract that journalist faux pas.

“And that’s why I did it, because my heart is broke!” Loftin exclaimed, as if she needed to explain herself.

She looked away for a moment, and then turned back to us with a misty-eyed laugh.

“She made me cry! But I did it for him. He advertised himself when Kassie ran him, but we couldn’t advertise him like Schillers can. I want him to be a great sire and that’s why I did it — not because I wanted to do it”

Epic Leader
Epic Leader as a 4-year-old, enjoying some downtime from a sensational futurity year. Cross B Photography Courtesy Karma Loftin.

“I’ll tell ya a funny,” she added, bouncing back. “After I sold Epic, I thought, ‘I have to sell all of these colts. I love them to death, but it’s a business and I’ve gotta sell them to keep going. If I can sell Epic, I have to sell the colts.’ When I sold him, I was so heartbroken. I went to the Four Sixes Ranch and bought two ranch geldings. I didn’t go buy a barrel horse, I bought a ranch horse that I won’t ever have to sell and Kassie won’t ever get to ride and he’s going to be my trail horse! They’re my personal horses. I’m telling my accountant not to put them in the business. I like them, too! I like a good horse. I like a good mustang,” she said with a nod to Bobby Kerr’s act in the arena. “A good horse is a good horse.”

Junior Country Girl

Epic Leader now lives comfortably at Schiller Ranch 200 miles away, but Loftin’s barn in Morgan Mill, Texas, is a lively place this time of year, full of his offspring and a string of mares that have been checked in foal for the 2015 season.

“We’ve got a brother to Firewatermakemehappy. He’s a grey yearling our of Junior Country Girl,” Loftin beamed. “I love Epic and Country Girl, and I believe this colt is an ‘epic’ combination of both parents.”

Smith bought this colt, as well, under the same terms that she bought Junior, the most recent Jackson Hall Memorial Futurity champion. He, too, will be in Mowry’s program when he comes of age.

“I think we’re going to call him My Epic Moment. Do y’all like that?” Loftin asked to those listening intently around her.

“I call him Mo after one of the Olympic runners I like,” added Smith, referencing Britain’s highly-decorated Mo Farah.

“What about this mare?” I asked, curious about the bottom side of the pedigree that has produced colts so highly favored by their breeder.

Epic Leader as a newborn
Epic Leader, as a newborn. Photo by Karma Loftin.

“Country Girl!” Loftin said with her Mississippi drawl and a twinkle in her eye. “That’s my heart! OK, my two favorite horses in the world are Epic and Country Girl. I saw her tied to a girl’s trailer in Mississippi in the fall of her 3-year-old year. Angela Gambrell was taking her around the barrels – I used to ride racehorses for her dad. I went to a barrel race a few months later and they had the exhibitions on the same stakes as the open. There were probably 450 open horses and she, as a long 3-year-old, ran the fastest time.”

Loftin is adamant that she would not have traded Kelly Yates’ great mare Firewater Fiesta for Junior Country Girl at the time, and although she couldn’t get her bought initially, she never forgot about her.

“When they finally gave her back to the man who owned her in North Mississippi, I called up and he wasn’t home. So I got discouraged, like, ‘Oh, I’ll never get her, I’ll never get her.’ But three days later, he called me back. I thought I’d give him $7,500 for her and he said, ‘Well, maybe I can get five for her.’ I would’ve given more and he would’ve taken less! But I didn’t care.”

Loftin bred Junior Country Girl, a daughter of Deep Note Jr and out of a Bugs Alive In 75 mare, to Perks Master. The pairing resulted in Grace Master, Perks Master’s highest-earning offspring.

“Kassie won the Future Fortunes round at the BFA on her,” Loftin said. “We already had Epic in the works, but that’s what allowed me to be able to move to Texas. She won over $76,000 that year.”

Proven Mare Power

After graduation from physical therapy school, Loftin began rebuilding her band of horses and looked again to her mentor, Paul Cooper, for guidance.

“I asked Paul because I’d been out a few years. He said he really liked the Hempen and Easy Jet horses. I went to the Louisiana Quarter Horse yearling sales and bought a mare by a son of Hempen out of a daughter of Easy Jet. I still have her. She has a 3-year-old by Epic that is the only one I’ve kept. Kassie is going to run her for me as a 5-year-old.”

Four 3-year-olds by Epic are expected to run this December in the BFA World Championships Juvenile Futurity, two of which Loftin raised out of Streakin Sider and Junior Country Girl. With his fourth foal crop on the ground, Loftin has made Epic the paternal pillar of her breeding efforts.

“I keep going back to God and that’s what I truly believe in. I think sometimes, no matter what you know or do, if you’re in the right spot, you’re in the right spot. When I moved over here, I told Kassie I’d like to have a daughter of Streakin Six to breed to Epic. She called and said, ‘I know a girl that’s got a daughter of Streakin Six. Do you want her?’ I said yes, and as soon as I got halfway settled, I took off to South Texas and bough a daughter of Streakin Six for $1,500. She wound up being Andrea Cline’s Stitches Streaknfame’s mama. I bought her from Shelly Martin because she couldn’t get her bred after that cold, but I thought I’d take a chance on her. We’ve got three Epics out of her.

“I’ve also got a maternal sister to Martha Wright’s good horse, Famous Little Dasher, that is in foal to Epic. Streakin Sider, Country Girl and the Famous Little Dasher sister are all 20. I also bought Dashing Dillon’s mama, Pass The Belle, from Kassie. She’s 22 or 23. We never thought we’d ever get to breed her to Confederate Leader again, but that first year we had him, I got a yearling filly, a full sister to Dashing Dillon. I’ve got a Dash Ta Fame out of Pass The Belle that when she was three days old, the recip stepped on her and broke her hock. She’s 4 years old now, but she’s got two Epic babies.

Thus far, the junior stallion has produced more colts that fillies. While this has granted Loftin a little extra cushion for her bank account, the window is closing for her aging mares.

“What I want from these mares is, please Lord, please Epic, give me fillies. Good old mares like Country Gril, Pass The Belle, Streakin Sider, that’s what I want to continue. Daughters are going to produce out of producing dams. A great stallion needs to have a great mama; Fire Water Flit had one of the greatest mares for a mama,” she said of the blue hen mare, Slash J Harletta. “I’m not just going and buying mares. I’m trying to preserve what I’ve got that works. I’ve culled I don’t know how many because you can’t keep doing it to be doing it. If it doesn’t work, don’t do it anymore.”

Tried and True

Curious about how she has recognized the potential in so many untried horses – often before they’ve even been physically conceived – I asked Loftin what she looks for in a barrel horse.

“I don’t know what it is, but if I see it, I know it,” she replied. “It doesn’t have to be by a certain stallion or out of a certain mare; to me, it could be an individual. It’s the movement and how they stand, if they look like an athlete or not. Country Girl had two full brothers that were both AAA racehorses. One was a stakes winner down at Delta. He was so good looking, he also won AQHA points in halter. That’s Country Girl’s look. You could do anything with those horses.

“I’ve got this old Bugs Alive In 75 mare. She’s not a pretty mare at all – until she moves, and then she’s beautiful. It’s movement and how they’re made to look like an athlete. It’s not necessarily how they’re bred, although the tried and true barrel horses do have that look. It’s totally form to function.”

We went back to the pages of results from the 1985 futurity. The names of the money-winning horses hinted at Easy Jet, Top Moon and Magnolia Bar ancestry, among others.

“How have things changed, from then until now?” I asked her.

Left: Grace Master, Junior Country Girl’s first foal by Perks Master, was instrumental in allowing Loftin to make the move from Mississippi to Morgan Mill, Texas, where she would be reunited with Epic Leader and able to work more closely with Mowry. The mare is pictured here with Charles Brock, Loftin, Mowry and Tiany Schuster after winning the Future Fortunes round of the 2009 BFR World Championships Futurity. Photo by Kenneth Springer. Right: Junior Country Girl has been a cornerstone in Loftin’s breeding program for the better part of two decades, epitomizing performance in the arena before proving her value as a broodmare. She is pictured here with Firewatermakemehappy, a 2010 gelding now owned by Martha Smith of Hazelhurst, Miss., and currently being campaigned successfully by Kassie Mowry. Photo by Karma Loftin.

“Somebody asked me that a few years ago when I was in Mississippi. The great horses from 30, 40 years ago could probably still come in here and be great. These horses on this page could run right here today. I think there are just more of them.”

She mulled over some of the reasons behind the growth of the barrel racing industry, citing advancements in veterinary care, reproductive technology, and most importantly, the dedication of breeders.

“People are breeding them now to be barrel horses,” she said. “There’s more availability, more knowledge, more people involved in it and a lot more money. Look at us now, being able to get all these embryos out of these great mares. People are really more educated and studying it more. The opportunities have grown, too, and that’s what excites me. I would run Rocky back in Mississippi for a sack of feed; nowadays I could run him for several thousand somewhere.”

Through the years, her breeding objectives have stayed the course, consistently producing winners even when she couldn’t ride them herself.

“Let’s be honest – I could ride a nice horse, but I’d never be able to train like Kassie and ride like Kassie. As long as I could have someone like that on them, doing what we’re doing, OK,” she said with resolution. “I appreciate her help riding my horses, her support of my breeding program and buying horses from me. I don’t mind being at home and continuing to try to make them if I can. It’s been hard. I get frustrated, but I’ve just stuck with it. Do I have to work six days a week? Seven days a week? I’ll keep doing it.”

As a breeder, Loftin’s continued success has been as much about resilience as it has been about making the right matches.

“I haven’t been able to always capitalize on everything I’ve wanted to do because I’ve had to work two or three jobs just to have what I’ve got, but I don’t compromise with the breeding program. If you’ve got a lot of money, you can try different things, but I don’t. I can’t compromise soundness of leg or mind. I don’t have time to gamble.

“I’ve been a trainer, I’ve been an owner, and now I’ve been a breeder. Some of the breeders might not get to come out here and have recognition for some of these horses. There are a lot of really smart, educated breeders out there that may not be on par with what the bigger ranchers are doing, but they’re good horse people. There are a lot of good horsemen in Mississippi, and other places that aren’t on the forefront, with a wealth of knowledge. We can’t let go of that; we need to remember those. Everything is built on everybody else’s shoulders.”

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Barrel Horse News.