Kate McMahon stepped into barrel racing amid a new season in her life. Here’s how she prioritizes her time to learn the sport of barrel racing.
Kate McMahon lives on a thoroughbred breeding farm with her husband and family in upstate New York, about 20 miles from racing mecca Saratoga Springs. The mother of three teens, Kate began barrel racing five years ago, which was quite a change from her previous riding experiences in English tack. Last year, she transitioned from a role on the family farm to a veterinary assistant at at nearby veterinary hospital. The job change, paired with her oldest children going to university, have shifted Kate’s daily rhythm, but she still makes sure to block time for her barrel racing aspirations.
Kate got her start riding as a preteen. She began working on a polo farm three miles from her house when she was 13, riding her bike to get to work.
Next, Kate began working with harness horses, and she pursued this interest at Delaware Valley University in Pennsylvania, where she got a bachelors in equine science. She attained certification to teach English riding, with the goal of becoming a riding instructor. But the year before she graduated, Kate began working at a thoroughbred breeding farm in Saratoga Springs. There, she met John McMahon, her future husband, and changed the course of her career.
“I decided that [working on the farm] is what I wanted to do, so I went back there when I graduated,” Kate said. “Basically, I’ve been there ever since—22 years.”
John and his parents own and operate McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, a breeding farm with about 250 head of mares, foals, weanlings and yearlings. They foal out around 100 mares each year.
Intro to Barrel Racing
Five years ago, Kate met up with her friend Amy Quinn, whose husband Shawn Quinn is a top team roper, and they went to watch the Adirondack Stampede Rodeo.
“Watching the barrel racing I thought ‘wow, that’s really cool. I would love to do that,’” Kate said.
Kate had ridden in a western saddle aboard her English horses, but she was intrigued by barrel racing and wanted to learn more. She turned to Amy and got connected with George Peters, Shawn’s stepfather. George and his wife, Terry, own Win$um ranch, about 20 miles from the McMahons’ place, and he’s a western event trainer.
The Path to Gus
After trying two different horses loaned from friends and acquaintances, and neither of them working out, Kate determined she needed something different. So George and Terry helped Kate find her first barrel mount, which wasn’t actually a barrel horse.
“I did not want to buy a barrel horse, because I didn’t know how to do barrels,” Kate admitted. “I wanted to buy a horse that was broke, but not broke on the barrels. I wanted to learn with the horse.”
So George found a broke ranch horse named Two Snip Hickory four years ago. The blue roan gelding “Gus” is very cowy and has become more and more trustworthy — traits Kate greatly appreciates.
Learning Her Horse
Over the past few years, Kate and Gus have learned the barrel pattern. Kate wanted to be totally prepared before she began competing.
“I’m extremely competitive, and I didn’t want to look like an idiot,” Kate said. “I wanted to be ready to do it and do it right.”
Kate enjoys working with George because of his approach.
“He believes in total cross-training,” Kate said. “Not just running the barrels or going through the pattern. He believes in working cows and other tasks too. I really think this has helped both Gus and I be better at barrel racing.”
Kate has worked with Gus using the Parelli method, which she credits to building their relationship.
“We are just very in tune with each other, which is pretty cool,” Kate said. “I’ve done a lot of work with him to have that relationship, and George has helped too. He’s had a lot of knowledge to offer.”
When asked her favorite characteristic of Gus, Kate says it’s his eye.
“He’s got a really kind eye,” Kate said. “Even when he’s really nervous or scared, he has that nice eye.”
In 2016, the pair won a wildcard at the National Barrel Horse Association Syracuse Super Show, which allowed them to compete in the NBHA World Championship Show. Kate and Gus qualified for the finals, and out of the top 250, they ended up 75th.
“That was huge to me,” Kate said. “Gus was really awesome. I owe it to George and Terry — they really made Gus and I what we became. I was really happy with that.”
Gus is consistently a 1D horse at local jackpots and in the District 2 NBHA region. In 2016, the pair competed at a local rodeo at least once a weekend and earned money 80 percent of the time. Kate says she’s made a great group of friends through her barrel racing adventures.
“It’s great to see the same people a lot,” Kate said. “There are friendships that weren’t there before — it’s really nice.”
Kate’s kids are 19, 18 and 13. Her older two boys, Johnny and Kyle, are in college, and her daughter Sarah is in eighth grade. The children aren’t much into horses — they play sports and ski. But as her children are growing up, their needs are changing, which opens up room for Kate to pursue barrel racing.
In December 2016, Kate left her position at the farm and joined the veterinary practice. Her job includes doing a little bit of everything — holding animals, cleaning, running bloodwork, receptionist duties and more. Instead of being on-call around the clock as she was when working at the farm during busy season, Kate now works 40-45 hours a week.
Though his background includes exercising his family’s Thoroughbreds, John purchased a 17-year-old Quarter Horse in May 2017 and has gotten back into Western riding.
“He loves to work cattle with his horse,” Kate said. “He does sorting and cattle drives over at George’s place.”
Kate works Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — Wednesdays she’s there at 7:30 a.m. to set up the clinic. Sometimes she gets off earlier on Fridays, which allows her to head to local rodeos. Kate rides on her off days, but she also has to fit in her other obligations — kids’ appointments, doctor’s appointments, various errands — but she works them in around lesson times.
Even though her two oldest are in school, there are many obligations Kate has on her calendar. She struggles with worrying about taking off to do her own thing.
“There’s always the guilt factor,” Kate said of balancing life and barrel racing. “I feel like I should be doing something else besides riding or taking off for the barrel races. I try to make sure I get good use out of my horse, truck and trailer because I overspent, but I also want to make sure I spend enough time with my family. So it’s a double-edged sword anywhere.”
But Kate’s family is supportive, which helps. John encourages Kate to pursue her barrel racing passion, and that helps her feel free to do what she enjoys so much.
“I have tried to put the family and kids first,” Kate said of her priorities. “But I really enjoy barrel racing. It makes me so happy to do it. I love it. It is so rewarding.”
Advice From the Trenches
Right now, Kate says her riding time comes third or fourth in priority in her life, making it difficult to learn how to run a consistent barrel pattern.
Kate’s best advice for balancing work, family and barrel racing is that she gives herself grace if she’s not able to practice like she needs to in order to be prepared for a barrel race.
“Don’t put too much pressure on yourself or your horse,” Kate said. “As much as I want to run Gus, if I haven’t given him enough riding time one week, I will skip the race that week. There will always be another race.”
If family and work obligations interfere with lessons or barrel races, Kate reminds herself of her priorities.
“You can’t get discouraged about those times, because you have to remember, family comes first and your job is a necessity—that is life,” Kate said. “I have told my trainers many times when I had to call and cancel a lesson that life got in the way.”
Kate also recommends taking the time to organize yourself the night before you compete.
“It may mean going back to the barn after dinner to check all your tack and necessities for the next day,” Kate said. “Hook up your trailer the night before. Fill up your horse’s hay bag and water jug the night before so when you wake up in the morning, you will be calm and can just focus on getting yourself ready to go.”
Organization is the name of the game for Kate. She has a calendar on her phone and a calendar on the counter for the family, and all her barrel racing lessons and competitions are marked.
Even if she can’t take her horse to the trainer because she got off work late, she still tries to ride her horse around the farm or at least spend time with him.
Kate takes to heart the adage that you’re never too old to start something new. Five years after she watched barrel racing at the Adirondack Stampede, Kate aspires to compete there someday. She’s getting close, although Gus had a sidelining injury this past year that put the goal on hold temporarily.
Kate continues to set and achieve smaller goals and says she loves the process of working toward and finally reaching them.
“As long as you’re having fun, and you are enjoying yourself, making time for yourself, I think that makes this worth it,” Kate said.
This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.