Jessie Telford takes a candid look at how she balances family, a multi-faceted equine operation and her drive to win in the barrel pen.
Article by Abigail Boatwright; Photos by Kate Bradley Byars
Watching Jessie Telford turn in a smoking barrel run at the 2018 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, you’d think she spends every waking moment focused on reaching her goals. But her reality is far from that single-minded pursuit. Jessie is a devoted mother to two horse-obsessed—but also sports-focused—teenagers, and her husband, Jake Telford, is an in-demand reined cow horse trainer. But despite a packed schedule, Jessie makes it work.
A Lifelong Passion
When Jessie was young, she lived on her parents Dave and Patty Clark’s large cattle ranch in Riley, Oregon. When she was 10, her family moved to a smaller ranch—about 1,000 acres—in Redmond, Oregon. After that, Jessie and her brother, Tom Clark, started competing at junior rodeos. She ran barrels and competed in goat tying and roping.
Jessie studied ag business and competed for Cal Poly’s well-known rodeo team, running barrels, team roping, breakaway roping and goat tying.
Jake grew up on a ranch with his family in Southern Idaho. His mother, Bonnie Christianson, showed Paint Horses while his dad, Mike Telford, farmed. In high school, he started rodeoing and roping.
Right out of high school, Jake worked for Bob Johnson training rope horses before going out on his own. During that time, he met National Reined Cow Horse Association Hall of Famer Dan Roeser, who was training American Quarter Horse Association all-around horses in halter, reining and cow horse, which exposed Jake to the versatility of cow horses.
“I saw how many different events cow horses could do and how good they were at them, so I saw it could be a way to make my rope horses better,” Jake said.
Starting with a 2-year-old program and gradually building up more cow horse clients, Jake transitioned from being a colt starter and rope horse trainer to one of the most accomplished cow horse trainers in the business. In fact, Jake is closing in on $2 Million Rider status in the NRCHA.
Meeting of the Minds
After Jessie transferred to Boise State University in Boise, Idaho, she continued to rodeo. At one such event in 2003, with a bunch of mutual friends, she met Jake. Their relationship blossomed quickly for a completely practical reason—Jake had an indoor arena at his place in Caldwell, Idaho, a few miles down the road from the house Jessie shared with her longtime best friend, Jackie Jackson.
“It was October [when we met], and it’s kind of a joke in our family that I started dating him because he had that indoor arena,” Jessie said with a laugh. “Jackie and I were like ‘I’m going to make this work through the winter.’”
Jake and Jessie became inseparable, joined by a mutual passion for horses and the equine industry.
“It was one of those things where it was meant to be,” Jake said. “From the day I met her, that first week, she would come to ride or we would go out—we were pretty much together non-stop.”
They married in 2005, and they still live at the same place with the famous indoor arena—now replaced with an upgraded indoor arena.
Jessie and Jake’s daughter Shawny was born in 2005, and Sierra the next year. Meanwhile, Jake’s career was taking off. Over the last 12 years, he’s won a NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity championship and reserve championship, as well as multiple world and national champion titles, and he’s earned more than $1.8 million in cow horse competition.
During the early years, Jessie and the girls traveled with Jake to many of his shows.
With two little ones so close in age and Jake building their cow horse operation, Jessie shifted her focus to their family’s needs, easing away from her own competition for a season.
“Before I had kids, my goals and focus were on competing in barrel racing,” Jessie said. “I had a lot of futurity horses and was traveling all over. But after I had my babies, I stayed really close to home [for competition]. I always had a horse or two that I was starting on the barrels, and I would take some to local jackpots, but the seriousness of competition wasn’t there.”
Back in the Saddle
As their girls got older and a bit more independent, Jessie felt her competitive drive reawaken.
“I started wanting to get back into competing in something I loved, which was barrel racing,” Jessie said. “I really enjoy the cow horse shows, but it’s not the same drive, passion or love that I have for rodeo and barrel racing.”
Jessie had been putting patterns on cow horses that didn’t work for Jake’s program. But at the beginning of 2013, Jessie had homebred Famous Cool Whip, a 2011 sorrel gelding by Dash Ta Fame and out of Had A Kanita by Docs Rocky Top. She also had 2010 sorrel gelding Playguns Fame (Playgun x Zigzagenzani x Dash Ta Fame).
“They were just of a different caliber,” Jessie said. “2015 is the year I told Jake I really wanted to take these two to the big futurities—I think they’re at that caliber.”
Jake knew she had something special, and encouraged her to take the leap.
“‘Cool Whip’ is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of horse; she needed to go for it,” Jake said. “And she did. I don’t always feel like I can support her as well as I should, as busy as I am trying to keep my business going. But I encouraged her to go as much as she could, and take the opportunity, and it worked out well.”
In 2015, Jessie and Cool Whip racked up more than $29,000 in earnings at barrel races and futurities, and Playguns Fame won more than $35,000. In 2016, Jessie sold Playguns Fame and kept Cool Whip. That year, she started competing at a handful of circuit rodeos, qualifying for the Wilderness Circuit Finals and earning $33,099 overall.
In the spring of 2018, Connie McCorrmick asked Jessie to ride her 2010 sorrel mare Shu Fire (Dash Of Royal Gold x Fire Water Flyer x Fire Water Flit). Jessie went to a few more rodeos, qualifying for winter rodeos like San Antonio and the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo, earning $22,192. And in 2018, she hit the road to qualify for the NFR.
“I just kept building into the process of the level at which I was competing,” Jessie said. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to take this horse to every rodeo out there and win. It’s just been one run at a time, and based off the amount of success you’re having determines how much more you get invested into this industry.”
Jessie won a round and ultimately placed third in the average at the NFR in 2018, and according to Equi-Stat, her total earnings that year were $196,752. But that’s not the only competition accomplishment Jessie is proud of.
“Making the NFR is probably my greatest barrel racing achievement in the arena,” Jessie said. “But there have been some other really fun wins. Like Clovis [California] this year. I stayed with college friends Bert and Megan McGill. It was a super fun win, and to have friends there while having a good time and also having success, that was really fun.”
Earning a position to compete at the famed Calgary Stampede rodeo in 2019 was another career highlight. She says just qualifying for the rodeo was a thrill.
“Calgary was amazing,” Jessie said. “The most fun, amazing rodeo to ever get to go to. And it’s harder to get qualified to run at Calgary than a lot of other rodeos. Making the short round there was a blast. I feel super fortunate.”
The Balancing Act
Now, Shawny is 14 and Sierra is 13. Both are avid horsewomen, which brings Jake and Jessie much joy. They compete in junior high and high school rodeo, as well as reined cow horse competition. Jake and Jessie are constantly working to keep them on good horses, and the couple makes sure they can participate in their chosen school sports while also riding as much as they want.
“The kids ride after school, but they both play sports—volleyball and basketball,” Jessie said. “There are definitely some days they don’t get to ride, like if they have games and don’t get home until 8 or 9 p.m. I’ll ride their horses on those days.”
Jake and Jessie will bring the calves in and saddle the teens’ horses on days when time is short so they can squeeze in riding time after practice.
“We try to have everything lined up for them so it’s a little easier for them to get practiced [with their horses] and still play high school sports,” Jessie said.
On a typical day in the Telford household, Jake is at the barn by 7 a.m. and Jessie takes the girls to school. In addition to training horses, Jessie works in real estate. She aims to flip at least one house per year, and they have five rental properties she’s managing. After school drop-off, Jessie takes care of office work for the horse operation and real estate before heading to the barn by noon—she usually rides her horses the second half of the day. Often, Jake is finished working his cow horses by around 5:30 p.m. so he’ll help the girls with their horses and roping in the evenings.
“It’s a constant learning curve,” Jessie said of their balancing act. “There’s always bumps along the way. I’m not going to say I have it mastered by any means. We mess up scheduling; it’s not always smooth sailing. There are definitely times when we’re way overbooked.”
The lifestyle they lead full of horses and family was a conscious decision, says Jessie. “We love working with our kids, and they absolutely love it,” Jessie said. “It’s nice to have our jobs also be our hobby, and it’s nice that our kids currently have the same passion. But you know, if that changes—it’s whatever makes them most happy. I want their career to also end up being whatever they love to do as much as my career is something that I love.”
Shawny and Sierra are just as passionate about horses as their parents. Jessie says there’s not a day where they have to encourage the girls to come out to the barn to practice.
“They really love it and crave it,” Jessie said of the teens’ commitment to horses. “When your kids have so much passion toward something, it makes it so much easier to want to go out and get those calves for them, or help them make their day go better, when you see how much try and effort they’re putting into something.”
Living in Caldwell makes getting to many of the rodeos she wants to attend a lot easier, Jessie says.
“The kids go with me whenever they can, and I’m super fortunate where I live,” Jessie said. “I get to come home just about every week. California is nine hours away. Wyoming, Colorado, many of those rodeos and the whole Northwest are within a half-day to a 10-hour drive.”
Jessie makes a longer trip to the winter rodeos in Texas, but she’ll keep her horses with friends down there and fly home in between for those few weeks. After March, Jessie sticks to weekend shows.
“I don’t feel like I have to be gone nearly as much as people who might be located in a different area,” Jessie said.
Jake loves seeing Jessie pursue her passion.
“It’s what she loves to do, and I really enjoy seeing her do well,” Jake said. “I wish I could go watch her and support her more than I do now. But I go to as many rodeos as I can and stay home with the kids when she needs to go. We pass each other a lot. But you do the best you can to support each other as much as you possibly can.”
Jessie’s rodeo campaign didn’t go as planned in 2019—soundness issues hounded both her competition horses, knocking her out of the running for the NFR, yet she still finished the year 20th in the WPRA world standings with more than $64,000 in earnings on the season.
Undeterred, Jessie’s restructuring her goals for 2020.
“My approach this year is just one run at a time,” Jessie said. “I’m going to go to the bigger winter rodeos and re-evaluate my year as it goes on, rather than having this one end goal. Obviously it would be phenomenal to go back to the NFR, but that’s not my only goal. I’m lucky that both of my girls are extremely competent and easy to be around adults. They’re an absolute joy to take places and travel with—that part is really fun. They make me laugh every day.”
“Neither Jessie nor I have forced this interest on the girls or made them ride,” Jake said. “This is something they love to do and want to do. I would support them no matter what they want to do. But I’m very fortunate that they do like the horses.”
Jake is proud of Jessie’s grit and determination, and loves seeing her set and achieve goals.
“She’s 10 times more talented than I am,” Jake said. “She can do anything she wants—roping, cow horse, running barrels. She’s a pretty talented person. She’s one of those people that she can do anything she sets her mind to, and it’s pretty cool. I am really proud of her.”
This article was originally published in the January 2020 issue of Barrel Horse News. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.