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.
“Nico” isn’t bred to run barrels; how did you get him to this point? He is a colt my husband, Adrian [Mortimer], and I raised. Nico started out as a cutting horse, but at the end of his 2-year-old year, Adrian decided he was getting too big to be a cutter, and Nico just wasn’t in love with cutting. Time went on and I had fallen in love with riding him. He was one of those pleasure horses you like to saddle and go for a ride. I started playing with the idea—I’d always wanted to have a futurity colt. Adrian challenged me to pick a futurity and enter him.
Which futurity did you choose? We talked about doing the [Barrel Futurities of America Juvenile Championship] in Oklahoma City, and I chickened out. I had never been to the BFA, and I had in my mind how tough it was and thought I wasn’t ready to do that, so I picked the Diamonds and Dirt [Barrel Horse Classic] in the spring [of 2016]. The first time I entered him was a month before Diamonds and Dirt. I took him to a few jackpots and literally two weeks before Diamonds and Dirt, he was still in the 3D. My husband was like, “Schelli, you’re entered in two weeks, you really need to go faster.” I entered him in a jackpot without exhibitioning him the week before the futurity, and he was in the 1D. At Diamonds and Dirt, he ran the fourth-fastest time of the whole first go and pretty much the whole weekend. It would be easy to ask this colt for more, but he doesn’t have to give it to clock. He’s got that move around the barrel that cuts the clock off.
Why did you decide to go for the Glen Rose qualifier? I entered him because I was going anyway so might as well take that shot, and the other thing is every run I’d made in the last six weeks was preparation for the  BFA. I was putting pressure on myself to ride him better. He’s a nice horse, but I need to get my game face. I’d gotten in our way of winning some pretty cool checks. That’s why I entered Glen Rose, because no better pressure to put on myself than to try to qualify.
What made your qualifying run so special? My dad was sick, and they just told us he had x amount of days left—just a couple days before I ran that night. It was a mental step up for me that night. The run that horse stepped up and made; I just can’t even watch the video without crying. Every drop of that run felt effortless on his part. There was not a wrong step, and I blocked everything else out and rode him like I needed to. It was one of those sweet-spot kinds of nights, where you just go and do your job and it works out. I can’t say I take credit for it, because it’s like that colt knew I needed to do that. When they called out my time, it didn’t feel fast. I remember thinking at the third barrel, ‘it doesn’t feel like he’s running.’ I looked up at the clock and started crying running out of the alley. The American qualification was the biggest blessing—this is the prettiest buckle I’ve ever won.
What sets Nico apart from other horses? This horse just has presence. I would say I’m his favorite person, because over the past year I’ve never put him in a situation where he couldn’t trust me. He tries hard because he loves me. Adrian says all the time, “It’s ridiculous how much that horse looks forward to seeing you.” I don’t take for granted what he is—I’ve never ridden anything like him. I know how special he is, and I’m grateful to God for allowing him to do things that really his bloodlines don’t say he can. There’s not a lot of speed in his bloodlines, but there’s a ton of ability and a ton of try.
Why is the American going to be such a different experience for you? It’s the challenge of getting to that level with one we raised and trained; the challenge of meeting each run with faith and stretching your faith enough to say ‘we deserve to be here.’ Everybody who qualified deserves. I also want to say a big thank-you to everyone with the American for continuing on with this groundbreaking money. Those of us like me—I’m not a professional; we’re a two-man show at my house—who know what it takes to raise a horse, and even those who buy horses, the opportunity to compete for money like this is huge, so just hats off to the American producers. The American has kept the horse market valued and gives you another segment to market to. My dad [Terry Walls] was a rodeo producer for over 45 years, and it’s hard work to produce anything. For those guys who’ve stayed the course, I would like to say a heart-felt thank you for doing that.
Blanche Schaefer is associate editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected].