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.

AmandaHarris qualifierbox
What is your background with Frenchman Fire Fly? He was bred and raised by my dad, Bob Welsh. My dad started him on the pattern as a 4-year-old and just eased him along last year to some barrel races. He’s 6 this year, and I picked him up about a year ago. It’s been a AmandaHarris eventbox whirlwind with him; he’s really been a blessing. I took him to his first rodeo in February at the Black Hills Stock Show, and he pulled a check out there. He consistently got better and better, and he qualified us for the Badlands Circuit Finals this year, so I decided to take the chance at the qualifier in Silesia because it was closest to us, we’ve ran there before and he really likes that pen, so I thought why not.

What was your run like? He won by almost a full two-tenths. I ran him the day before, because he’s the type of horse who gets stronger with each run. When I got on him, he was ready to go. He knew there was a lot at stake—he could feel my excitement. He took off pretty far back in the alley, and I knew if I pulled him up it would mess him up. I gave him the reins, and he just really took care of me. Most horses you have to season, but he’s one where it doesn’t matter where he’s at, he’s going to go do his job. He loves it; I never have to worry if he’s going to work or not, he gives me 110 percent every run. My dad did a phenomenal job with him. He’s easy to ride behind, and he definitely made a AmandaHarris Silesia102316 Olie web“He knew there was a lot at stake—he could feel my excitement.” -Amanda Harris and Frenchman Fire Fly won the Silesia, Montana, qualifier for The American Rodeo by almost two-tenths Oct. 23, 2016. Photo by Olie’s Images.great horse.

Did you have a strategy at the Silesia qualifier? I set a goal to be in the top 10. I’m a pretty competitive person, so I would have liked to win it, but I wanted to be in the top 10 to get on to the semifinals. I told myself I had nothing to lose, to let it all hang out and go after it. I rode him aggressive, and he fired phenomenally, so he was ready to go as much as I was.

How will you prepare for the semifinals? Until then, I’ll keep him running and keep him firing. I’ll enter some winter rodeos, but I don’t want to change anything that I’ve done. It all came together pretty well, so if it’s working, don’t change it.

What does qualifying a homebred horse mean to you and your family? My dad has put a lot of thought process and time into his breeding program, so to compete with that caliber of horses means a lot. Fire Fly is so special to us, and we are pretty fortunate to have a horse like him in our family. He proved to us he can run with the best, and we’re so excited to see where he goes from here. I couldn’t do it without the support of my husband, in-laws, parents, and two sponsors who stick by us and believe in my team of young horses—Simply Eden and Famous Equine.

Blanche Schaefer is associate editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected].


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