There were a lot of wet saddle blankets under Linda Vicks’ saddle before she even thought about running barrels. Raised at her father’s riding stable under the famous Hollywood sign in Hollywood, California, Vick was perched atop a horse from the beginning.
Spending a decade or more galloping and training Thoroughbreds with her former husband instilled a sense of speed into Linda’s horsemanship. While schooling junior rodeo horses for her kids, she decided to apply her skills to barrel racing and the rest, as they say, is history – history still in the making.
“I didn’t get into rodeo until way late in life,” Vick, 65, said. “When my kids started competing I got them horses and trained the barrel horses they rode. Then I bought a 5-year-old off the track and trained it and joined the IPRA (International Professional Rodeo Association). We made the 1982 finals in Oklahoma City, the first year I ran him, and that kind of got me started.”
Vick joined the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association in 1984 and promptly claimed Rookie of the Year honors for the California Circuit (known then as the Sierra Circuit). By 2005, Vick was leading the world standings and was bound her first National Finals Rodeo. Unfortunately, too many tipped barrels left her settling for the reserve championship, a milestone she still enjoys.
“I’m wearing my NFR buckle,” Vick said with a laugh. “It was a real thrill just to be able to win a go-round there. It is a tough rodeo with so many elements to it. I’ve had a lot of success and I’m real fortunate.”
Vick has celebrated too many circuit finals qualifications and wins to count or remember. Equi-Stat lists her official earnings at $195,884, although that amount doesn’t account for her first decade of competition.
Vick still runs hard and, due in part to her years at the racetrack, steps up her training as well. She truly enjoys running barrels and clearly admits that when the money is up, she’s a very competitive gal.
Welcome to Hollywood
Vick’s father, Julian ‘Jute’ Smith, operated several riding academies as she was growing up – the Hollywood Stables, Sunset Stables in Culver City and another in El Monte on the Los Angeles riverbed that was run by Wally Johnson.
In the pre-Linda era – she being the youngest of six siblings – Jute also produced local rodeos. Her sister, Zera Varian, and 2008 Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee Audrey Griffin used to trick ride at his shows.
Linda never showed horses or partook in any type of horseback competition until she started barrel racing, but she did cover a lot of miles riding out from the Hollywood Stables. In fact, she remains close to childhood friends and fellow barrel racers Elaine Wells and Linda Adair.
“Linda was always at the stables and her sister, Elaine, was at the Western store at Pickwick Stables,” said Vick. “I used to ride over the hill from our stables to Pickwick and tie up and go to the bowling alley or Viva’s Restaurant to eat with them.”
Jute also dabbled in racing stock and enjoyed the racetrack. When Linda married her first husband, John Walker, they trained and ran Thoroughbreds at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. Linda thoroughly enjoyed galloping horses and by all accounts was a top hand.
“I loved riding the race horses, just really enjoyed it,” she said. “We had a couple of nice horses. We trained Miss Cal Poly for my sister, Zera [a reined cow horse competitor and mother to barrel racer Katie Varian], and her husband.”
The Walkers left the racetrack and owned a commercial roping arena in Norco, California, until the freeway came through. They had two children, John ‘Johnny’ Walker, Jr., who lives in nearby Riverside and a daughter, Becky Walker Jensen, who lives in Huntsville, Texas. Vick’s three grandchildren are involved in Little Britches Rodeo and musical interests. Linda and her current husband, Joe Vick, have known each other for years through junior rodeo. Joe also has two granddaughters from his first marriage whose interests don’t involve horses, but they do well in gymnastics and cheerleading.
While junior rodeo piqued Vick’s interest in running barrels, at least part of her training strategies for barrel horses likely evolved from knowledge gained around the racetrack.
The walls of the Vick house in Hesperia, California, are covered with memorabilia. There are coffee tables full of Linda’s barrel racing and Joe’s team roping buckles—Western décor adorned by several decades of success stories.
Although Vick has people stop by for training input, she has never wanted to give lessons or train outside horses. She has, however, always trained her own horses and figured the barrel racing game out quickly once she took aim at rodeo. “I didn’t know anything about training barrel horses,” she confided. “But, I’ve ridden all my life so I have a feel for horses. I went to a Lynn McKenzie clinic and I was like a sponge; I got a lot out of that. Then I also went to Sharon Camarillo and Ed Wright clinics.”
The Vicks bought property next door to their house and main arena so Linda would have room for a practice area and a track – track being the key word. She keeps her horses quiet and works them slowly, but isn’t afraid to teach one to run either.
The area is set with poles, four barrels in a line and a short barrel pattern. It is a perfect training pen for the first young horses Linda has fooled with in several years. She has a 2- and a 3-year-old coming along and also maintains her good rodeo horse AR Will He Tell, aka “Willy” – WPRA California Circuit 2012 Horse of the Year.
Both of her young prospects are geldings purchased sight-unseen off the Internet; not her first unseen purchases. The 2-year-old is the first barrel-bred horse Vick has had and she could not be more pleased. The palomino came from James and Beth McKinney, Pueblo, Colorado, and had a wonderful start by James, according to Vick.
“I’ve only had him about 45 days and can hardly believe how he’s coming around,” Vick said. “He already lopes a nice barrel pattern and acts like he knows what he’s supposed to do. I have not been this excited about a horse this early in the process, which surprises me.”
Fast & Easy
Vick jumped on the palomino, dubbed “Frenchie,” the day after he arrived from Colorado. She knew instantly he was very broke with a sparkling disposition. He was soft in the face, giving to the leg and bent automatically at the ribs.
She first rode him in a snaffle, then changed to a reining style Myler bit that was included with the purchase. He loved the bit, but according to Vick, this colt works well in anything, including a little gag she uses on him. She does school her horses at home in a different bit than she runs in at events.
“Right now, [at 45 days], I warm him up both directions around my track,” said Vick. I lope circles around some trees I have out there, lope around the four barrels and go through the poles. He does the poles pretty nice already too.”
Vick starts her young horses on a barrel pattern early in the training process, doing everything “slow and easy.” She doesn’t like to pressure horses, preferring to avoid jamming them, and keeps them contented with their job.
“I don’t take as long as a lot of people to get my horses going,” she mentioned with a chuckle. “I’m not a young kid anymore and I have a feel – they’re either going to make it or they’re not. They’ll let you know if they’ve got the ability and if they’re worth going on with.”
“I do have to be careful with Frenchie,” she added. “He is working so good and he’s just a May foal; I don’t want to overdue him. Because he is so sweet and willing, I have to keep myself in check. I don’t do fast with him, everything is slow, but it is all positioning right now. I try to make everything perfect. If things are not perfect, I just do it again. Nothing hard on him, no pressure at all.”
Catching problems before they become ingrained is important to Vick. Often, she said, smart horses like Frenchie will begin thinking ahead of their riders, making their own decisions instead of following direction.
“When they get to thinking ahead they can start dropping down into the barrel and get too tight,” she said. “But, if you’re not going too fast you’re brain is still working and you can control the horse and make sure he’s listening to you at this point. I do poles with my horses and with poles they starting thinking for themselves and cut the turns; I then slow them down and make bigger swooping turns.”
Vick admits she does train differently than many of her peers. No big circles around a barrel in the pattern. She might circle a single barrel or barrels in a row, away from the pattern, however. When working the pattern, she prefers to put her horse exactly where she wants them to be. She makes approximately a 4- to 5-foot pocket going in, comes around the barrel and leaves close. No individual way of doing anything is wrong, she pointed out, if it works for you.
Get Up, Turn & Go
Her racetrack background subtly influences Vick’s barrel horse training. For instance, she believes horses have to learn to run. So, she teaches them how to turn forward motion into forward propulsion.
“I breeze my young horses like a race horse,” Vick clarified. “People don’t realize these horses don’t know how to run; even some off the racetrack. I’ve already kicked my little palomino out a couple of times. Not hard yet, but I’ll teach him to extend himself and come right back to me – both directions, both leads. I’ll blow Willy out too sometimes. He has a tendency to be too fat and it’s good for them physically and mentally.”
Young and older horses also learn to hustle around and away from a barrel under Vick. With much the same philosophy, horses approach a barrel, are asked to turn quickly and correctly and then come back to a more tepid mode before approaching another barrel.
“I want all my horses to learn to get in and get out of those barrels because that’s where the money is,” Vick explained. “They can all learn to run straight across and straight down. They’ve got to sit and come around a barrel. I also like my horses to finish their barrel and use my outside leg to finish their ribcage so they go straight leaving the barrel – so they are not still bent and they have more speed and strength to drive off. Straighter is faster.
“And you can do that slow. Too many people run a barrel pattern over and over making the same mistakes. Slow it down where you can think and your horse is under control and make it pretty. Approach the barrel quietly at a walk, trot or lope. Smooch at them, [hustle] them around that barrel and slow them back down again. You don’t have to do the whole pattern, but it takes the sluggishness or boredom out of horses and makes it exciting and fun for them.”
Vick always works with an individual horse’s style. Being “no kid anymore,” she also starts horses progressively. Citing that they will either make it or not, Vick is convinced horses that enjoy running barrels train easier and are usually those that are consistently good at their jobs. She doesn’t waste time with a horse that doesn’t show promise or doesn’t personally suit her.
“There are horses that you can work on a long time and they’re maybe going to give you a good run now and then,” she said. “But, in the long haul, they are not going to be as solid as the ones that want to almost train themselves.”
The horse that Vick rode at the 2005 NFR was Running Episode, but his nickname is probably what drew her attention. Vick bought “Hollywood” online and he is living out his retirement at her place. Both he and Willy had the same basic training that Linda’s colts are getting now.
“I think a lot of training these horses is feel,” Vick offered. “Like training for any event, you have a feel for what you want and know how to position the horse. And experience helps. When I first started riding barrel horses I didn’t know anything and I just rode. I didn’t have a clue about training either and after a couple clinics just started doing it.
“I have listened to all the information offered to me over the years; some stuff I like and some stuff I don’t. I just filter through it and keep an open mind.”