These young barrel horse trainers are proving they’ve got what it takes to train and compete alongside the industry’s top veterans.
Building a name for yourself as an emerging horse trainer requires more than just raw talent and a knowledgeable mentor in your corner. A constant desire to grow, a never-quit spirit, a humble attitude, an unbelievable work ethic and a few nice horses along the way are some of the ingredients that have helped these four young barrel horse trainers with different backgrounds find their foothold in various niches of the barrel racing industry.
Cierra (Chapman) Nelson — Kiowa, Oklahoma
Cierra (Chapman) Nelson has a strong family history raising and training horses—her father David Chapman roped calves and is one of the leading American Paint Horse Association racehorse trainers, her mother Rondia Chapman rodeoed and trained barrel horses, and Cierra grew up running barrels on family-bred horses.
“I loved the racehorses. It was something we did all on our own. We had our own stud and mares, so when we watched them win it was a huge compliment, because we had them from the ground up and my dad trained them himself,” Cierra said. “He proved to me that you can do it yourself and make a name for yourself. I don’t come from a lot of money, so buying horses wasn’t something we were ever able to do.”
The first horse Cierra trained that set the tone for her career was APHA mare I Need Help Too, born on the hour her father had quadruple bypass surgery when Cierra was 8 years old.
“We ran her on the track; she broke her maiden and was Double A. The whole time she did that, I was 10 years old and had her loping the barrels, loping the poles, you could swing ropes on her, you could drag stuff,” Cierra said. “She was the very first one I trained, and I told myself ‘I can do this!’ That’s how it started, and I haven’t looked back.”
Cierra’s first self-trained, real-deal winner was Pistol Packin Hero, a mare she tragically lost in March 2020 to colitis. “Pistol” qualified Cierra for the College National Finals Rodeo three times and earned Cierra her first professional rodeo win. By Another Hero and out of Katys Luck (APHA), Pistol’s full sister Lever Action also accomplished one of Cierra’s biggest career goals. “Mini” sold to Jimmie Smith and was in her lineup for the National Finals Rodeo in December 2020.
“Those three are the first big ones I ever trained. We bred, raised and trained them—we had their mothers; I ran barrels on their sires,” Cierra said. “I’ve never had this big dream that I wanted to rodeo. My goal has always been to see a horse I trained go to the NFR, so for that to be accomplished this year is huge on my watch.”
The do-it-yourself model has worked well for the Chapmans. Cierra earned more than $43,000 in Equi-Stat reported earnings aboard their cornerstone sire Sun Frosted Rocket since she started running him in 2008, all while working to put “Sunny’s” foals on the map as well.
“What makes my program so different is I’m extremely old school. I want to see things from start to finish,” Cierra said. “I am one of the few people out there who owns a stud, rides his progeny, wins on them, sells them and repeats the process. I’m not necessarily doing this for the money. I do this because I love it. It’s all I know. I got a college education… do I want to use it? No. I would rather do this.”
Cierra’s biggest piece of advice for others aspiring to build a career as a trainer is to tone out the noise, study and ride bloodlines, and find quality help.
“You’re going to be your own worst enemy and care about what people think more than you should. As long as you believe in yourself and want to see yourself succeed, that’s all that matters,” Cierra said. “Find a bloodline that works for you. Go ride with people. One of the best things my dad ever did was take me to ride with Ad Waddell when I was younger. Don’t be dead-set on riding like one person; go ride with different people and find what fits you and your program.”
Most importantly, don’t forget the big picture—there’s more to life than winning the barrel race.
“My son is my motivation,” said Cierra, who became a first-time mom in June with the birth of her and husband Trevor Nelson’s son, Waco. “It sounds cliché, but I want one day for Waco to look back and go, ‘Oh my gosh, my mom was kind of cool! She did this from start to finish; it was just us, our family.’ I want to be someone so that he sees he can do it, too.”
Morgan Anderson — Reydon, Oklahoma
Morgan Anderson spent her childhood in northwest Missouri riding and training whatever she could, from running in playdays aboard her father’s pack mules until her first colt that she trained into a three-time Missouri State Fair champion show horse. She began starting colts for the public at 14 and learned to breakaway rope until she took her first barrel racing lesson with Christi Durfey.
“That day really changed my life,” Morgan said. “We ran barrels in playdays, but it was just fun. I had no idea how to do anything right, and Christi showed me how to do it right. She taught me feel, how to make one soft, how to collect a horse, how to use my body instead of just my hands, how to use my seat, my legs—she laid that solid foundation of horsemanship for me. It didn’t take very long for me to realize I didn’t want to do this for fun anymore.”
She worked at Durfey’s every day through high school, cleaning stalls in exchange for lessons while continuing to start colts and pursue roping. Morgan earned a breakaway scholarship to Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, but her life changed again when she went as help to the Old Fort Days Futurity while working for National Finals Rodeo qualifier Stevi Hillman.
“It was my first futurity, and I was sold. I remember loping around the arena on one of Stevi’s horses watching Jolene Montgomery ride, and I was just mesmerized,” Morgan said. “I knew with my whole heart this was what I wanted to do.”
Morgan sold her breakaway horse and began doing whatever it took to get her career going toward futurities. While going to school full time, she found work riding barrel horses, continued to start colts and began taking lessons with Ashley Schafer, leading to a job with Schafer.
Working for Schafer was crucial in getting her own program off the ground and learning every angle of the futurity business.
“Ashley opened up the industry for me,” Morgan said. “The key to success as an up-and-coming trainer is having someone who shows you the ropes not only in training, but the business side of things. You need to go ride with someone, go help them even if it doesn’t pay, work for someone in the industry who’s a notable, knowledgeable trainer and make sure this is really what you want to do, because it requires a lot of sacrifice.”
She graduated early and has been training barrel horses for the public on her own since late 2019. Morgan says the three things aspiring trainers need to understand are how much work it takes to get good horses, the importance of mentors to guide you and being patient with the process, no matter how tough it gets.
“I rode a lot of horses I didn’t want to ride, quite a bit of junk, but all those horses played a part in the person and trainer I am today. It feels rewarding to get to where I can be selective about what I want to ride and choose my number,” said Morgan, who has now scaled back from riding 15-20 horses a day to around 10. “The good Lord played a huge hand in this, but I lived and breathed it from the start and was blessed with good mentors. Third, you have to love the process. You’re going to be uncomfortable, you’re going to have to ride too many, you’re going to have to work another part-time job to be able to ride. You have to do what you don’t want to do, to get where you want to be.”
Focusing on winning is a surefire way to get discouraged, Morgan says. Finding meaning beyond just barrel racing will help you enjoy the daily struggles as much as you do the achievements in the arena.
“Between Christi and Ashley, those women changed my life. When we talk about barrel racing having a bigger purpose, I hope I can impact others positively and help and inspire others like those two did for me,” Morgan said. “Winning is great, but winning is temporary. Everyone wants to be successful, everyone wants to be a winner, everyone wants to train barrel horses for a living. But you have to love the failure, love the humbleness that comes with training horses, love the struggle, because at the end the winning is not what’s going to fulfill you.”
Jordan Bailey — Onalaska, Washington
At only 20 years old, Jordan Bailey has been training and running futurity horses for three years. Aboard mostly horses bred, raised and trained by herself and her mother Tammy Lynne Bailey, the West Coast team has built a program that’s proving itself.
“The first futurity horse I trained was Sucha Smooth Judge three years ago; he was the first one I broke out and trained myself,” Jordan said of the 2012 gelding her family bred and raised. “He didn’t win a whole lot, but he was very consistent and started the futurity thing for me.”
Jordan has since committed to training their horses for futurities and says Paul Humphrey’s training model has been one of the biggest keys to helping her produce top-level horses consistently.
“The last five years we have been on Paul Humphrey’s training program, so he has helped us a lot with our futurity horses and given us a really good direction and program,” Jordan said. “We train all of our own horses. We send them for 30 days to get broke out, and we do all the rest ourselves.”
Having a good mentor is essential to success as a young trainer, especially in the futurity business. Jordan is thankful to have such a resource in Tammy.
“My mother grew up on a dairy farm and rode horses pretty much all her life, and she futuritied a little when I was younger,” Jordan said. “Now that I’m older I’ve taken over the program, so she’s more of a coach to me.”
Jordan’s goal is to produce marketable horses that are easy to ride. She says this is important so the horse can have a successful career with a new owner when it leaves her program.
“One thing that is consistent with every horse I have is that just about anybody can get on and ride them. They’re consistent with their work ethic and the way they’re trained,” Jordan said. “If I’m the only one who can ride them, then what’s the point? What am I striving for? I want to sell my horses so they can go win with other people. I want them to do well in somebody else’s hands.”
She advises others to stay grounded by not losing your perspective on the reality of young horses and a budding program.
“This is super challenging. We’re all on babies—one weekend they can work so good, and the next weekend they can be the complete opposite,” Jordan said. “No matter how hard it gets, keep going. In five to 10 years down the road, it will get better. When you train them yourself, it gives you a different sense of accomplishment than when you win on a trained horse.”
Ceri (McCaffery) Ward — Wayne, Oklahoma
Training futurity horses wasn’t necessarily a career goal for Ceri (McCaffery) Ward until the last several years. She grew up like most rodeo kids competing in every event and went to college with the mindset of using her degrees to launch into a career.
“I actually went to college and got two degrees—I wasn’t going to train for a living, but here I am. It’s what I love,” Ceri said with a laugh. “We didn’t have money to buy horses when I was younger, so we had to make them. I’ve always had some open horses and sold some and trained some and roped a bunch, too. It’s only been the last two years that I’ve gone hard to the futurities, but that’s been my main goal.”
After Ceri graduated college, she made her first step into the futurities with Eye On Fame. 2019 was a breakout year for Ceri with her MP Jet To The Sun gelding Hiccup, who won close to $42,000 as a futurity horse and is still running at the top with Ceri. Hiccup is a special horse to Ceri because his dam, a Brisco County Jr daughter named Miss Patricia N (ApHC), was the first bigtime winner Ceri trained herself.
“I had a horse when I was little that was my grandpa’s old feedlot horse, and we trained him, so I learned a lot from that horse,” Ceri said. “But the first true win-the-1D was Miss Patricia, and that was early in my high school career. It’s a totally different feeling when you’ve raised them.”
Ceri notched her first career futurity win in 2020 aboard her royally bred stallion Chasin Misty at the Cornhusker Futurity. She says winning is obviously the goal in any sport, but the key to finding success and gratification out of a career training horses is to have a passion for everything that goes into making the horse a winner.
“If you’re going to train, you have to love it. You have to love the horse and the everyday progression and problem solving,” Ceri said. “It’s not for the weak, but the reward is so great when you get on one and send them down the alley and know you have a chance to win. I just have to do my job, and I created that chance I get.”
The endless challenge of daily problem solving with green horses is what Ceri enjoys the most about day-to-day life as a trainer.
“It’s a test of how you think. I like the progression. I like to get a colt that doesn’t lope circles and then in a year we show up at the juvenile and they’re 3-year-olds and they run competitively,” Ceri said. “It takes a lot of patience, and you problem solve constantly, all day. How do I have to change as a rider? What do I need to change with this horse?”
A huge key to success is not being afraid to ask for help. Ceri says the futurity industry can seem intimidating from the outside, but most trainers have been in your shoes and are willing to offer help if you’re willing to learn.
“I’ve always asked people for help. Pete Oen and I are very good friends, and he helps me not just with my horses but with my mental game too—don’t be too hard on myself and keep going forward,” Ceri said. “That’s special about the futurities. I can think of someone who’s helped me somewhere who are all top trainers, just riding around in the warmup pens.”
Everyone has a unique style, and no one trains the same. Ceri says remaining true to your own natural way of riding and training will help you develop a consistent program that’s distinctly yours.
“Asking for help is important through your whole career, no matter if you’re a world champion, but I also can’t forget what does work for me,” Ceri said. “What I do makes me, me. Don’t forget your cores of what works for your training program. Don’t be afraid to get help, but don’t try to mimic someone exactly. Stay true to what’s you.”
This article was originally published in the November 2020 issue of Barrel Horse News.