By Mary Burger with Kailey Sullins
In my career I’ve trained a lot of good horses. I’ve had a lot of super nice horses; I’ve had horses for customers that were awesome and I’ve had a couple of others that I didn’t train that were really exceptional. There have been a lot through the years, and when you get into the group of the cream-of-the-crop in the futurity and derby divisions, you feel like you’ve got something special.
Finding something really special takes a keen eye and a lot of miles. For me, I really look at their eye. A lot of time the first sign of a remarkable horse is in its eye – I can see a lot of things in a horse’s eye. And, I personally like to look for a kind eye.
I like my horses to be pretty well proportioned. I don’t want a low wither. I don’t want them to be lower in front than behind. I either want them to be level or a little bit above [in the front end]. I like a horse’s hock set a to be a little lower, and I definitely don’t like a high headset. They need to be reasonably correct in their legs and more short-coupled (short back and loin) than most. I like a nice hip and a lot of slope to their shoulder.
The bottom line on conformation comes down to an overall nice looking horse. I don’t buy anything that looks like physically that barrel racing might be a challenge for them. I also like to get a little history on them and find out how they’re broke and where they come from. Most of the time I’ve worked with ex-racehorses, so I like to find out how they come out of the gates, what distance they’ve run, if they were quiet in the gates and if they had any special quirks that I wouldn’t care to start out with. I have my own little group of questions and history I like to know before the purchase, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make it if they don’t fit my criteria, it’s just my preference.
All horses are a little bit different in style, and I’m not the greatest jump-rider—I’m the type of person who likes to bond with my horses. Sometimes it can take a little while to figure each other out and learn to trust each other. It’s important to get comfortable with the individual and let him get comfortable with you. I don’t force a horse to be a certain style. I have my pick of what I like, but I do try to bend for them, to meet them part way so they can become comfortable with me and have the ability to do the best they can.
The one thing all the standout, memorable horses of my career had in common was a really great personality. They were all willing and kind and wanted to work. I could gain their respect and they respected me. They really tried hard. That’s why they were outstanding to me.
Remembering the Good Ones
Before my rodeo years, a horse that really sticks out was Showum The Gold. That was years and years ago. He was an exceptional futurity horse as well as an American Quarter Horse Association champion. He died at age 7 from an aneurism, but he was one of my favorites. After his futurity years he went to the Prairie Circuit finals two or three times after we moved from Indiana to Oklahoma.
My first world champion was named High Bars Wimpy. He was an AQHA world champion barrel and pole horse in 1974. Then, I had one called Jim Ragland I bought off the track as a 3-year-old and won the AQHA Congress on. Another Congress winner was Leo Dixie Dandy, and I also went to the International Finals Rodeo on him.
On the futurity scene, along with Showum The Gold, at one point I had a mare called Miss Mergie that I won the Fort Smith futurity on, and after her I had several of that line that came from the Jerry Wells Ranch.
When we moved to Oklahoma and I got more into the rodeo part of [competing]—that was around 1985—I started trying to get my horses introduced to rodeo, mostly just in the circuit rodeos until 2005 when I went pretty much with only “Fred” (Rare Fred). I started going to the big pro rodeos with Fred in 2005 but never really set it in my mind to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo until 2006, and then we won the world that year. I continued to pro rodeo on Fred and went back to the finals on him again in 2008 and 2009.
After Fred was gone, I got two other stars I really liked: Atlas Peak and A Bit Of Gold Dust. I didn’t train either of them, but they came in after Fred and filled in exceptionally well for me.
A Bit Of Gold Dust won a lot of futurity money for Chris Coffey, and Atlas Peak of course has done well for Sherry Cervi. He and I just sort of clicked—the first week I had him, I won around $11,000. He had that super, want-to-fit-your-personality style.
Then of course along came Mo (Sadiefamouslastwords), and he’s been my hero the past several years. Sailors Wind is my backup horse right now and filled in well for me throughout the 2016 season. I also rode Roanhorse Rita in a couple rounds at the [2016 NFR]. Both Sailors Wind and Roanhorse Rita stepped up and did great for me, but of course Mo is my favorite.
I’ve never really crossed paths with any horses I couldn’t stand. I value building a relationship with a horse, and I feel like if I can’t bond with them, then I don’t have the correspondence and trust with them to get them to perform their best.
To me, the quality that puts these horses at the top of my career, both in performance and in my personal memory, are their personalities and willingness to work. If you’re looking to find your world champion or your once-in-a-lifetime horse, then I encourage you to look at their personalities, as well as their pedigree and athletic ability. Then if you find one to take the chance on, spend the extra time outside the arena, outside the training process to really build a lasting bond.
This article was written by 2016 WPRA World Champion Barrel Racer, Mary Burger, as part of her World Champion Reflections column, published in BHN throughout 2017. Email comments on this article to [email protected]