By Blanche Schaefer
Competing against the top cowboys and cowgirls in the nation for a slice of a $2 million pie has set the bar high for many rodeo contestants since RFD-TV’s inaugural The American Rodeo in 2014. Each year, hundreds of barrel racers enter various qualifiers across the United States, gunning for their shot at a run under the bright lights of famed AT&T Stadium. In the end, only four will remain. The path to Arlington, Texas, is crowded with the nation’s fastest horses and handiest riders, but the qualification process gives anyone a chance to outrun them. Barrel racers run at designated qualifier races throughout the fall and winter to advance to The American semi-finals in Fort Worth, Texas, from February 15–17, 2017, where they will compete against several “exemption” riders invited by The American. A slack round followed by a shootout round determine who advances to AT&T Stadium in Arlington for The American on February 19, 2017. Qualifiers compete in the long round against the top 10 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel racers in the country, who receive an automatic invitation to The American. Out of the long round, only four will advance to the final shootout match to battle for a hefty championship purse: $100,000 if the winner is a rider invited by The American or $1 million to a champion who qualified through the semi-finals. With qualifier season well under way, we spoke to several winners who’ve solidified a spot in The American semi-finals.
Tell us about KR Last Fling and your history as a team. Last year was her futurity year. “Laramie” is a great horse and won about $103,000 in her futurity year, and then she qualified for the American last year and ran there [in February 2016]. She’s been off at the breeding barn, and I’ve just had her back and only made about nine or ten runs on her since then. She’s been super consistent and always tries really hard. She’s owned by Joe and Carla Spitz in Lamar, Colorado, and I trained her and have been running her.
Did your run in Ardmore at the qualifier go as you planned? It went really great; she worked really good and was super fast. She was a little bit tricky to ride in her futurity year—I mean she won a bunch and was really nice—but she was kind of hard in that you had to really stay quiet on her. She’s gotten a lot easier to ride this year, so going into the American qualifier, I was really confident on her. She’s been working outstanding and been a lot easier this year. She was running really hard to the first barrel and just inhaled it and just went from there. She tried so hard, and it worked out for us.
Do you have a different game plan for the semi-finals this year after having this experience with Laramie last year? Laramie made it to [the finals at] AT&T Stadium last year, but we didn’t make it to the Final Four. This mare was a great futurity horse, but the adrenaline of rodeos is different for her. I didn’t feel like she handled the adrenaline at the American very well. I’m hoping going into it this year, if she does make it through to the American finals, that I’ll have her a little more seasoned and have a different strategy going up the alleyway. Last year, I don’t think I set her up for it as good as I should have, being a totally different atmosphere. I’ll have a different strategy this year if we make it that far.
Do you have any big races or rodeos on the calendar to help with the seasoning process before the American? I plan to run her at the [Elite Rodeo Athletes] Finals in November. I don’t rodeo a lot, so it’s a little hard for me to get her rodeo seasoned because I have 16 horses in training and kids. It’s difficult for me to get one seasoned, but I’m hoping to with the ERA Finals and taking her back to the [Barrel Futurities of America World Championships] in December. I’m hoping early in the year to get to a few rodeos to help get her more used to that atmosphere. I think a lot of it too is having another year of maturity and runs. Her run at the American last year was maybe her 40th run ever. She missed five months of her futurity season because I was pregnant, so she was very green at that time. I’m hoping another year under her belt will help us be more prepared this year.
Will you run at any other qualifiers? Yes, I have a futurity horse this year, Famed French Kiss, who is a full sister to the stallion Freckles Ta Fame that I ran at a lot of the ERA rodeos this spring. He’s a great horse, and she’s a lot like him. She’s also owned by Joe and Carla Spitz. She’s really consistent, and I plan to run her at the qualifier in Buckeye, Arizona, at the end of December. I hope to get one more qualified. I qualified her brother last year, and he made it through to the semi-finals round and was just short of making it to the American.
What does it mean to you to qualify for the second year in a row on Laramie? I feel so awesome about it. Every time I run her, she exceeds my expectations. I’ve never had a horse who tries as hard as she does every single time she goes down the alleyway. She just has so much heart and so much try, and every run I make on her is almost emotional for me because I know she’s a once-in-a-lifetime type of horse. I feel honored to have a horse like that under me and so grateful to Joe and Carla for letting me continue to ride her. I typically don’t keep horses after their futurity year, so for them to leave her in training with me is something I’m extremely blessed with. I just feel really grateful.
What are your keys to success when you head into a big race like this? This horse is a little different. You never have to ask the horse to run because she’s so fast. She can go 0–60 so fast. With her, I try to keep myself very relaxed and try not to get excited. The worst thing I can do with her is go into a race to win it. I have to go in to be smooth. If I go in to win it, my adrenaline gets going and she feels it, and it can get a little wild. I try to keep myself really calm, and I’m very confident in this horse and know she’s going to work. I try to stay confident in her abilities and stay quiet and collected.
What special people and sponsors have helped you achieve this kind of success? I want to thank Joe and Carla Spitz and all of my sponsors: Rock N’ Roll Cowgirl and Panhandle Slim, Forco Feed and Supplements, Silver Lining Herbs, MVP, XDiamondX Company, RES Boots, Flo Boots, Sweetrun.com, My Air Hitch, 5-Star Pads, Coats Saddlery and Southwest Equine. I also want to thank Dr. Dale Schneider, Shawna Turner with Supple Steeds and Dr. Bill Rhoads with Premier Equine for keeping Laramie healthy and feeling good. Also, many thanks to my husband and farrier, Seth Schafer, for keeping Laramie’s feet in shape. You can also check out Spitz Quarter Horses and Schafer Performance Horses on Facebook, too.
Blanche Schaefer is associate editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected]. For more information on American qualifiers, results and barrel race calendar, visit Better Barrel Races.