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.
How long have you been riding Lady La French? I’ve had “Lady” for two years; she’s owned by Joe and Carla Spitz and was futuritied with Hallie Hansen, and she won about $25,000 I think in the futurities. I’ve had her the past two years. I had a baby in May, so while I was on maternity leave, Ashley Schafer had her and ran her at some jackpots. Other than that, I’ve won about $28,000 on her the past two years. She’s really cool.
What about her style makes her clock so fast? She’s really fast and got a lot of speed. She has a bit of a different style—she’s not super bendy, she’s more straight. When she goes in, she’s in and out. She’s pretty sensitive, so you just have to leave her alone. Sometimes that can be hard because you feel like you need to help, but with her, you just can’t help her. You have to let her do her job and trust her.
Was there a learning curve when you first started riding her? There was a little bit, because she’s a little sensitive. You have to pay attention, like if you’re at a rodeo, depending on what the ground is like. She seems to like all ground; it hasn’t ever seemed to bother her. You have to be aware of your surroundings and the alley and every situation, but she’s handled everything really good. You have to remind yourself that you are on her, so you can’t help her much.
What was your run like at the qualifier in Loveland, Colorado? She won the slot race the night before, so she’d already been in the pen and worked really good. The setup is nice and big, it’s a standard pattern and the ground is really good. When she starts, she gets a bit antsy, so she was raring to go. I sent her in there pretty hard and she turned the first barrel really nice, so I went ahead and pushed her. Our second and third just couldn’t be better. She worked really good and came back around them hard. I could tell she was firing really hard, but I didn’t know she was going to be two-tenths faster than the night before. She was a 17.144 in the slot race, and the night of the American qualifier she was a 16.947. She fired that much harder; it was so exciting. I was first out and knew it was good, but I wasn’t for sure. I knew it would for sure get me in the top 10, but you just never know what’s going to happen in the Americans, they’re all pretty tough and lots of good competition. I’ve always qualified a couple horses every year, but I’ve never won a qualifier, so it was really cool.
Do you have a plan moving forward to the semi-finals? She seems to really like the pen at Fort Worth, so I’m going to continue on with her. I’m going to the WPRA World Finals, and she helped me qualify for the Mountain States Circuit Finals at the end of October. I plan on continuing to run her and keep her in really good shape to have her ready.
What insights have you gained from qualifying Lady once before two years ago? You just have to have yourself ready and your horse ready and be prepared. It’s good to just get them in the arena and ride them and work them.
What are your keys to success for preparing for a big event? I try to keep riding, keep my horses in good shape and keep myself in pretty good shape, although that’s kind of hard—I just had a baby in May, so my little boy is 5 years old and my little girl is 5 months old. I’m busy with my kids and keeping the horses in shape and riding, but I do have really good help. My mom and dad go with me to all the barrel races and rodeos in the summer, so it was amazing to have their help. There’s no way I could have done it without them. My husband comes sometimes too when he’s not busy. My mom always comes with to help me out, which makes a huge difference. I keep my horses legged up, and I ride out in the pasture a lot. That helps them be sound-minded to where I’m not just exercising them in the arena every day. I also like to keep them running. If I’m not going anywhere for a couple weeks, I’ll go to smaller jackpots to keep them firing and keep them sharp—that’s really important.
What is your goal this year heading into the semi-finals? I would love to go make it to AT&T Stadium. That’s one goal I really would like to accomplish this year; it would be amazing. I believe Lady is for sure capable of doing it.
What does it mean to you to qualify again for an event like the American? The qualifiers are amazingly tough; they have so many tough competitors. It’s definitely an honor to qualify and compete at the semi-finals and have an opportunity to move on for such a great amount of money.
Any special thanks to those who have helped you reach this level? I want to thank my family and Joe and Carla Spitz for trusting me with their awesome horses. Many thanks to my sponsors: Cinch, Justin Boots, Larry the Cable Guy, Cactus Saddlery, 522 Health and Quincy Tack.
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.