Dena Kirkpatrick & Willy Nick Bar

Dena Kirkpatrick & Willy Nick Bar. Photo by Kenneth Springer.

If you have been around barrel racing very long, you know Sugar Moon Express, aka “Martha.” Have you also heard of Fols Classy Snazzy, Willy Nick Bar, Leaving Lucille, or Chicago Moon Express? Many of us have, and there is one common denominator that links all of these successful horses. Dena Kirkpatrick. Barrel Horse News was fortunate enough to catch up with Dena for a few minutes during a break at her clinic held in Fort Collins, Colo.

Q: If you had to pick one, what would be your single most rewarding experience training barrel horses?
The year that I won all three go rounds on Willy Nick Bar at the Barrel Futurities of America World Championship Futurity in Oklahoma City. He won all three rounds by at least two tenths. Then, of course, watching Lindsay make the finals on Martha continues to be rewarding.

From both sides of the fence, I have something I am very proud of. I mean, as a trainer I want to win, but I take a tremendous amount of pleasure in seeing other people win on my horses. I am really proud of the fact that I’ve trained a lot of horses that other people have gone on and won money riding. That is my goal as a trainer.

Q: What was Martha like to train? Can you describe for readers her unique style and why you think she took to rodeo so well? Did you know right away that she was special?
She was really aggressive about running barrels, but she was a pretty uncoordinated 3-year-old. I started her on the barrels when she was 2 just lightly, but I could tell early that she was going to be a little slower coming around.

It has always been easy for Martha to stick that hind leg up under her, and she has always been really flexible. I also knew that she had a big motor inside, and when I can feel that, I take a lot of extra time with them. I just kept her really under control. I took her places and rode her just to keep her calm. Then, as a 4-year-old, I took her to a juvenile futurity, and she won the 2D. I was really happy with that because she was staying level headed and not running as fast as the other horses, but still doing well. Then, I got burned out on the futurities and decided to stay home for a while. I kept her with me and started taking her to the 4D barrel races and some rodeos. 

Up until Martha, I thought that if a horse didn’t make a futurity horse that it was just the end of their career. When she was a 5-year-old, I ran her in the Sweepstakes at the Oklahoma City futurity, and she just smoked. I think she won second in the first round and third in the second round. That was the fall when she really came to it. That’s when I realized how fun it was to let a horse come on their own time and not have to push them to become a futurity horse. I know that the circumstance of Martha not being a futurity horse happened by accident, but I’m so thrilled it happened because it changed my outlook on horses.

As for her style, Martha’s style is the style I train for. Of course some horses are better at it than others and conformation has everything to do with it. She keeps her shoulder lifted, she is very flexible, and her hind end stays up under her. She can stick that hind leg under her and slide by the barrel and then come back in one sweeping motion.

She took to rodeo because I let her progress mentally and physically without pushing her too fast or too soon. I never pushed her past her confidence level until she was ready. When it was time for Martha to go on, I just knew Lindsay was the right person to get her. Something that really needs to be said about Martha is the fact that she got the world’s best home. Lindsay is a very smart rider and takes super care of Martha. That has made Martha successful. I just couldn’t be more thrilled about it.

By the time Martha could lope the pattern, I knew she was special. She had all the right moves, like I said before. I knew she could hold that hind leg up under her, be flexible and turn the barrel in one fluid motion. I always want to reiterate how important it is that a horse is properly broke before patterning them, and Martha could flex. She could break at the poll, and she was happy.  

Q: Because of Martha taking a little longer and you realizing it, have you changed your training theories?
Yes, I have. I realized that there is life after futurities. I think I am more apt to wait on a horse to come around than I used to be. I’ve never been a person to push a horse, but I have always put a lot of pressure on myself if they didn’t come around as quickly as I would have liked them to. I love futurities and feel that they are a necessity in the barrel racing industry, but because of divisional competition, a late blooming horse can easily be seasoned and proven. I love young horses, but I also love it that I don’t feel that it’s the end of their career if they don’t make a futurity horse.

Q: In addition to Martha, over the years you’ve trained and ridden horses like BFA and AQHA champion Willy Nick Bar, Leaving Lucille, Fols Classy Snazzy, Chicago Moon Express, Ima Nonstop Princess, Lady Perks and others; tell us about some of your biggest challenges and proudest moments with these great horses.
Willy Nick Bar was, and still is, a very special horse. It’s hard for me to pick out a challenge on him, but I would say it would have to be not knocking a barrel over. He just wanted to turn so much that sometimes he would start to turn too soon. He was so quick and could run so hard that it took a lot of guts to ride him far enough before letting him turn. For that reason, Oklahoma City was my proudest moment with him. Being able to win all three rounds and make beautiful runs on him was really a stand out moment in my career.

Leaving Lucille, I just loved her. She was uncoordinated, but very flexible. I would say getting her gathered, so that she could be quick in a turn was my challenge with her. She won a lot as a futurity horse, but I think my proudest moment was when she came back as a derby horse and Ryan Lovendahl and her ran the fastest time at Fort Smith on her.  

Fols Classy Snazzy was so fast. His challenge was that he was a little funny about his face. He was so fast, though, that he could make a mistake and still do well. I am proud of him because multiple people have gone on to win on him.

Chicago Moon Express was an awesome horse. He really wasn’t much of a challenge, although sometimes he would fall because the ground wouldn’t hold him. He really got on his rear end, and because he was really big (17 hands), the ground would just give out from under him. He was so honest and awesome. My proudest moment on him was when I won reserve at Oklahoma City in the futurity. He slipped badly at the third barrel and still won reserve. He just really tried hard even when the ground gave out on him.

Lady Perks was a very fractious mare in the beginning. She was a natural athlete and very fast, but on her, my challenge was keeping her focused. She placed at her very first futurity in Memphis and then went on to win second at the BFA World Championships in Oklahoma City with Rayel Robinson.

Ima Nonstop Princess’ natural turning style is stiffer than I like, so training her my way and still allowing her to find the quickest way around a barrel for her body type was a challenge. I’m proud of her because she is so tough. She did really well at the futurities; she even fell in the short round at Oklahoma City and still placed. Now she has gone on to become a great horse in professional rodeo with Jackie Dube-Jatzlau.

Q: Are there certain bloodlines you’ve grown partial to in your career?
Yes, typically I prefer bloodlines that yield flexible body types, such as Bugs Alive, Dr Nick Bar, Dash Ta Fame and Martha Six Moon. These have proven to be successful lines for me in the past, although I ride a wide variety of horses, and there are many other good bloodlines.

Q: When you select a prospect what conformation traits are most important?
In order of importance:  eye, shoulder, hock and hip. In the eye, I look for intelligence and lack of stress. I want the shoulder to be really big and still have a good angle. Hocks need to be clean. I go by the “yardstick rule.” You can put a yardstick up against a horse, and it should touch his hip by his tail, and then the hock touches it until the fetlock goes away from it. As for the hips, I like them to have a big hip, but it can still have some flatness to it.

Q: How are your futurity horses shaping up and which events are you entering?
I think good. I’ll be going to the Oklahoma City Juvenile Futurity. I also see that the futurity world has changed. There are fewer of them in West and more in the East, so I’m going to start re-thinking where to go. I’m going to plan on going to Fort Smith, Jud Little’s and the JB Quarter Horse futurities and some of the Eastern futurities if things are going well.

Q: Can you describe your barrel horse training philosophy?
To make the process as pleasant and comfortable for the horse as I can. Horses need to be very well broke before I begin to work them on the pattern. I like to eliminate stress from the process as much as possible, and I like to let horses come along on their own rather than forcing them. I also try to use as little headgear as I can get by with. My goal is to strive for smoothness throughout the pattern. I train for a one-motion turn. It’s important for a horse to turn the barrels as efficiently as possible for their body type.

Q: If you could change one thing about the barrel racing industry as a whole, what would it be?
I wish we could all get on the same page. We all need to help each other as opposed to working against each other. I wish that we could figure out how to work together to make barrel racing bigger. For example, instead of having three barrel races within a 100 mile radius in one weekend, we should try to work together to make bigger events.

Q: Celie Whitcomb Ray was your close friend and mentor. What was her biggest influence on you? Do you have other horse training mentors?
Celie’s ability to communicate with a horse mentally and to always do what was best for the horse. She had a talent of competing just like she was at home. She had “ice water” running through her veins. Nerves never got to her and the horses loved it.

My dad, Dal Alexander, has also been my mentor. He is more old school, but he is one of the best people I know to pick a horse. He helps me with that a lot even now. He tells me exactly what he thinks, and he’s not afraid to tell it like it is.

Q: You really like your horses well broke. What kinds of exercises do you do off the pattern to reinforce that and to keep them that way?
I lope all sizes of perfect circles. I also like to keep them broke at the poll, especially while doing these exercises. I like to maneuver them into stops, flex both ways, side pass and be able to bridle them up at any point in time. All this must be done while being very smooth and level. I think it’s important to keep their body under control and together at all levels of speed. They must stay between my hands and between my legs.

Q: During your clinic you said that, “a fat horse is a happy horse.” Tell readers a little bit about your theory there.
Well, I learned it the hard way. Barrel racing is a stressful event for the horse. In the past, I tried to ride the nervousness out of them because in the old days, you were taught that the more tired they were, the better a horse should work. This may be true to some extent, but in recent years, I’ve had better luck keeping horses fat and happy. I recall reading that fat can absorb some amount of stress and pain. While there may not be science behind it, I know it works. Happy horses gain weight, and fatter horses are happier. To compare it to a jogger, if you are really lean, you produce more adrenaline—the more you jog, the more you want to jog, and the more continually anxious you become to jog. I don’t want that in a horse. I want them to be calm. Of course, I keep their muscles in shape and make sure they are paying attention to me, but I also keep hay in front of them at all times.

Q: You’ve also talked a lot about anxiety in horses. Tell me why you think keeping that out of a horse is so important.
Anxiety takes a horse’s mind off their business. Stress makes them unable to focus and kills their desire to perform for you. To me, if horses are experiencing anxiety, you have a problem, and it can stop you from reaching your goals. I try to find the problem and fix it before continuing.

About Dena Kirkpatrick

Post, Texas, horse trainer Dena Kirkpatrick believes in a no-nonsense approach to barrel horse training. She strives for a simple, basic approach to getting each horse’s individual talents to rise to the top. She believes that if horses are comfortable with their approach and execution of the turn, then they will naturally accelerate out of the barrels. She teaches solid fundamentals and loves the process and rewards of training.

Kirkpatrick was ranked among Equi-Stat’s top 10 trainers list of 10 consecutive years and earned many prestigious futurity honors in the process, such as the 1997 BFA World Championship, West Texas Futurity Championship and Elite Fall Futurity title, among others. Kirkpatrick has $426,647 in lifetime Equi-Stat earnings to date. She married Cliff Kirkpatrick in 1983, and they have two daughters, Sarah, 19, and Hannah, 14.

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