If you read our first installment of “Wanda’s Wisdom,” which ran in the October issue, then you know that four-time WPRA World Champion Barrel Racer Kristie Peterson and I had the pleasure of spending a day visiting with 32-time World Champion and multiple hall of famer, Wanda Bush, last fall. The stories were plentiful and interwoven like a rich tapestry sewn from the fabric of land and horses, two inseparable and definitive centerpieces in the Bush family life. Running sheep and goats on the same ranch in Mason County where she has lived for 81 years, meant that little separation existed between arena work and ranch work, a theme that prevails in this excerpt from a warm conversation between two great champions.
Kristie Peterson: When you talk about doing clinics and you talk about getting on everyone’s horses, I’m thinking it must be your belief that you can’t really tell somebody how to correct something unless you get on and feel it?
Bush: That is right. I mean I can tell them the main things, but the little bitty things that I can’t feel, I can’t tell ‘em. The thing about it is you can tell them but Kristie, if they can’t feel it that takes time. Once you get the right feel, you’ll never be fooled again on a horse.
Peterson: I don’t think I have near the feel you do, I just happened to get an awesome horse and I’m a student of horsemanship for the rest of my life, for all my life, but I know I don’t have the feel you have. I just wasn’t born with it.
Bush: Well, you didn’t grow up with it. I did. For as long as I can remember I’ve rode a horse.
Peterson: That’s right. My parents didn’t really know a lot about horses, so I just rode until I got into 4-H, and fortunately I had a great 4-H leader to teach me the basics.
Bush: It’s hard. I can see what’s wrong, I can see the big things that are wrong and can help people correct it if they’ll listen and have some feel. But you’re right about an awesome horse. I’ve had some mighty good horses in my life but there’s always that one that sticks out above the others. That’s just all there is to it, there’s just one in your heart that sticks out above the rest. But maybe it’s what that horse did for you, that ‘hey, I can do it.’
Peterson: That special horse in your heart, did you try to put that feel on other horses later?
Bush: It goes back to if he’s broke then you can teach him. And I think we all have a set way of teaching a horse. If I got on Bozo, I’d have rode him my way. I mean, I would have rode him my way and he’d have worked, and that’s just the way it is. So, you put the same feel on every horse that has the ability to give it to you. Through doing the same habit over and over and over, the same habit. Don’t go old Joe Blow’s way today or old Kristie’s way tomorrow, or Wanda’s the next day—stay with the one same pattern.
Kristie: But not all horses are going to fit that program, like you said.
Bush: No, they won’t. I’ve ridden some horses off the racetrack that, well, they had to be re-broke. They had to be re-broke and then sometimes they’d be hard-headed, but once they got it, they were tough horses. I came from the old school and I have to go back and put the horsemanship in it. You’ve got to be able to stand up for ‘em to run, you’ve got to be able to sit down for ‘em to turn, you’ve got to be able to use your hands light and easy, you’ve got to try to be ahead of ‘em…I said try.
Kristie: So I’ve got to think by listening to you talk that you were one of the first to believe that you can breed for barrel horses?
Bush: Well, that’s a hard call Kristie, because we’ve ridden all sorts of breeds that were nice horses, we just happened to get to breeding in the right circle of horses that worked and then we followed on through with it. I mean, we weren’t set and determined and headstrong that they had to be bred that way to be a good horse, it just happened to work for us—the crosses worked. I mean we’ve still got some old King blood in there.
For us, the cow with the run works the best. A barrel horse has got to be able to run. Just like my old Eagle horse that I roped on; I ran barrels on him for a while. It was fine and good when they were still running straight barrels because he was just as fast as the next horse and quick. That’s just a racehorse event suited to a horse can turn one barrel. But you know, when they put three barrels out there [in a cloverleaf pattern], he couldn’t last it. They’ve got to be able to run a distance, that’s all there is to it. But they’ve got to have some cow in them where they’ll look and pay attention and are athletic. I mean a lot of these racehorses are really athletic if you break ‘em, but you’ve got to break them. It takes longer, I remember back when we were riding just grade horses. Those horses caught on quick, but they were used to death. You know, that makes a difference. We took good care of them, we fed them good, but we used them because they were part of our living and that makes a difference. Just like old Eagle, I mean, he was a great horse. I mean, he had a great mind — he’d nearly out think you. We could have saved him a lot but when it came to something hard to do, I’ve rode him in snow and sleet and over the rocks and whatever needed done to pen the goats and pen the sheep. We used them.
Good from Great?
Peterson: What do you see as the qualities that just separates out the great horses above the good ones?
Bush: Every great horse put some of his own in it. I’ve trained every horse I’ve ever owned the same way, and those that come out of it great have just got more try and just put a little extra effort in it.
Peterson: Heart. You can’t train it.
Bush: No, they’ve got to put some of their own in it. That’s the way it is. Like Bozo, he loved it…he did. He was always ready. You know Pat was like that…damn him. When I got the call and they said they had to put him down…I was here by myself and I bawled and I squalled. He was like that, ‘just let me at it, just let me go, don’t keep me back here.’ Durn! He knew, he knew…that son-of-a-gun. You’d hold him and hold him as long as you could and you’d better release him, or he was gonna go anyway.
Peterson: What about the mental approach? You know, when I first started, I was like, how does Charmayne do it? How does she get up for every barrel race and get that killer instinct every single time. Sometimes I just didn’t want to, or it was cold or I was tired, but my horse had it every time. And Scamper must have too.
Bush: A run at a time. He carried you Kristie, and I don’t mean that how it sounds, but I do mean that because you didn’t have to get up—he did it. He loved it, he was ready.
Peterson: How do you train for them to keep loving it?
Bush: I think just don’t overdo ‘em. I think when you’re hauling hard you’ve got to keep going down that road and you’ve got to keep getting to that next one, you know, but keep them exercised right and take every chance you get go walk that sucker around the barrels. I think that’s what a lot of people don’t do enough of. I’ve stayed out many a time until after the rodeo. I didn’t need to work my horse, I needed to walk him.
Peterson: Is that to keep their mind?
Bush: That’s right. There’s a lot of truth in that. If you don’t let them do some relaxed things, it’s a general rule that they’ll go to pieces on you. Yeah, a lot of relaxed things.
Peterson: That’s what your ranch work here did. You taught kids and horses a work ethic.
Bush: You know, when we came home from the rodeo I might have had to unload and go pen sheep. You know, I don’t know how people keep a horse right that don’t have a place to go ride and do some work. You know, I don’t know how to keep ‘em right, I really don’t, without it.
Bonnie Wheatley is editor of Barrel Horse News. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected].