Leslie Kinsel’s ceaseless quest for knowledge and striving for excellence in all facets of life have made an impact far greater than just gold buckles.
By Blanche Schaefer
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in the barrel racing industry who doesn’t know the story by now—Cotulla, Texas, mother-daughter pair Leslie and Hailey Kinsel buy well-bred 2-year-old from the Texas Best Futurity Sale, spend several years patiently training her together, Hailey takes the reins and skyrockets to stardom with victories at nearly every major pro rodeo, setting arena records across the country and winning back-to-back Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world championships.
But Hailey’s success is no coincidence or random stroke of luck. Spend only a few minutes speaking with Leslie, and it becomes evident why her tenacious daughter has not only achieved such success but also remained gracious and humble every step of the way. Just like Hailey’s irreplaceable horse DM Sissy Hayday, her foundation from the beginning was rock solid—largely influenced by her mother’s lifetime of dedication to both learning and helping.
How to Train a Barrel Horse
Decades before “Sister” was bred, decades before her sire PC Frenchmans Hayday earned notoriety as a performer and producer, and decades before Hailey’s birth, 8-year-old Leslie Walker and her mother took a well-worn copy of Western Horseman magazine out to their pasture in Poteet, Texas, and learned how to train a barrel horse.
“We started out in the 4-H when I was a little girl. I was all of 8 years old on my little horse,” Leslie recalled. “Then we got a little better horse, but we didn’t know anything. My mother read an article in the Western Horseman magazine, and it was ‘How to Train a Barrel Horse.’ We took my mare out there and put tractor tires around the barrels like the lady said to in the article, and that was how we trained our first champion barrel horse. My mother wasn’t a barrel racer, but she knew a little more than I did, and her willingness to learn is something I tried to do as a parent too—never quit learning on my part so that I could bring along my children.”
That article kick-started Leslie’s interest in competing. Though her parents both owned horses, they never rode competitively. Her father grew up on a working ranch that utilized horses and mules for everyday labor. Leslie’s mother’s upbringing featured horses as a joy, a hobby, a leisurely pleasure awaiting the end of a long day’s work.
“From an early age, we were always horseback in some way, typically more on trail rides—[my father] wasn’t a rodeo hand at all, but he did live and work in it in his early years, and it became his hobby and his love as he moved into the business world,” Leslie recounted. “Horses were totally the opposite for [my mother]— strictly for fun. If you could, you’d sneak away and hop on your horse, your friend’s horse, and race along the beach through the surf.”
In hindsight, Leslie considers the lack of emphasis on competition paramount to her development as a young horsewoman.
“The competition world was new with me and my siblings, and it was because we had the benefit of growing up in a small town with a 4-H club and learned through that,” Leslie said. “What [my parents] did right is taught us horsemanship from the beginning, and it was instruction on all aspects of horses, including safety. We learned every event, from the halter class to the speed events. It was a very well rounded educational approach. It wasn’t just, ‘Oh we love rodeo, let’s buy a rodeo horse and go.’ It was always the horse and horsemanship from the beginning.”
An open mind and an interminable yearning for knowledge continued to guide Leslie from her early years to this day. The character she built through her parents and her involvement in 4-H extended far beyond the scope of the saddle and bridle.
“That did characterize me not only as a horsewoman, but as a person—having perspective always, not being tunnel-visioned about the world you live in,” Leslie said. “We each are just a small part of a great, enormous world. What’s our part in it? Keep that perspective. It helps both in my everyday life, business life, parent life, as well as horse life.”
She Wasn’t Worth Nothin’
Like many young riders who discover the magnetism of adrenaline through competition, by the time Leslie reached high school, she was yearning to barrel race, to win, so much she could taste it.
“When I was 16 or 17 I was craving this, and my parents could not afford great horses, but I was willing to do anything,” Leslie said.
Leslie’s uncle Ben Walker, who made the first Loomis gag bit for Joyce Loomis, was a bit maker for Stanley and Wanda Bush at the time. One phone call later, Ben landed Leslie a job at the Bushes’ place for the summer.
“I’m the same age as [their daughter] Shanna, so I was essentially going to be her roommate—I think I slept on their couch,” Leslie recalled with a laugh.
She headed out for a seven-week stay at the Bushes’ Central Texas ranch and took nothing—not even her horse—but a hunger for the sport and a desire to grow. Leslie didn’t care what kind of grunt work awaited her at the end of the drive.
“I didn’t know if I was going to get paid or not,” Leslie said. “I knew I was probably going to be cleaning stalls, and I did end up getting to ride some horses—got chewed out many times for the way I did it— but I learned tremendously.”
Leslie says she still can’t put into words the magnitude of what she absorbed from who some consider one of the greatest horseman and –woman teams the industry has seen. However, Wanda felt a bit differently at the end of that summer. She shattered Leslie’s rose-colored glasses with a blunt remark that might deeply bruise an ordinary impressionable teenager.
But Leslie was no typical teenager.
“I remember Stanley and Wanda discussing how much to pay me—it was my day to go home,” Leslie said. “Stanley was sticking up for me, saying ‘Well we’ve got to give her something,’ and Wanda was saying, ‘Well, she wasn’t worth nothin’.’ They ended up giving me 20 bucks, which bought my gas to go home. But it didn’t matter to me—I mean I was crushed a little bit right then, of course when you’re 16 or 17, everyone thinks they’re something. But it was probably the greatest lesson in humility. I earned far more in that lesson than the $20. It was an invaluable experience for me; I would do it again. I learned things I still apply and share with others to this day.”
Leslie headed off to College Station, Texas, a couple years later to attend Texas A&M University. She kept one foot in the horse industry, trying her hand in the pageants and earning the Miss Rodeo Texas crown in 1980. The pageantry resulted in a one-year layoff from college, after which Leslie moved in with her grandparents and finished school at then-Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.
Her connection with the Bushes rolled back around after college and led to her second opportunity with another industry great—multiple National Cutting Horse Association world and futurity champion and Hall of Famer Buster Welch.
“When I graduated college, Stanley put in a good word for me and I got a job with Buster Welch, which turned into another wonderful summer,” Leslie said. “On the day I took my last final exam, I had my horse in the trailer in the parking lot and took off for West Texas and worked for him a little over six months.”
Leslie’s summer working for Buster taught her many lessons about training, horse care, and most importantly, the harsh reality of life as a horse trainer.
“That’s back when you had a six-month window on college loans, and I realized toward the end of my six months that my riding horses paycheck was not going to cover my loan payments, so I got a real job with that real degree I worked for,” Leslie said.
Because of Miss Rodeo Texas, Leslie was deeply networked among the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association sponsor companies. She got hired on with Wrangler in the advertising department, traveling to PRCA rodeos to set up and coordinate various marketing efforts. As with any facet of rodeo, there was never a dull moment.
“That was during the days of the Wrangler bull fights, so one of my jobs was to shepherd a bunch of crazy bullfighters around to different Western stores and get them to sign autographs and show up on time,” Leslie recalled with a laugh, adding that her former boss at Wrangler is still a close friend and now serves as an adviser to Hailey for her sponsorships. “It was a great experience, but I lived on the East Coast, where Wrangler’s corporate headquarters are. I left that job to go back to Texas and get back in the horse world—I just missed it greatly.”
Once back in Texas, Leslie began working at a show barn managing show horses, breeding mares and stallions, and hauling stallions to American Quarter Horse Association shows. Though it wasn’t corporate pay, she gathered even more snippets of knowledge she still carries today— and she could continue barrel racing.
“I got a lot of experience in the horse show world and learned how to haul stallions,” Leslie said. “I fall back on a lot of that, and the perk for the job was if I hauled all their show horses, I got to keep my barrel horse in the stable. I would haul her and run her, and got AQHA points to qualify for the World [Championship Show].”
The economic struggle reared its head once again. Leslie decided to return to school and pursue a law degree at The University of Texas. Her barrel horse Rockety Rockette covered tuition.
“I sold her to Liz Pinkston, and she was Liz’s first pro horse. That’s what paid for my law school and gave Liz her introduction to the pro rodeo world, and then after her she then found the horse that took her to the National Finals Rodeo,” Leslie said. “That was a very good little mare, taught me a lot. I had taken her to the Fort Smith futurity and done well at the futurity. She was my one and only futurity horse at that time in my life, but [those were] lots of experiences that later helped me help Hailey.”
Raising a Champion
Leslie has viewed every aspect of her life through the lens of always learning more. That played a major role in the raising of her and husband Dan Kinsel’s two children, Matt and Hailey Kinsel. Sometimes Leslie picked up tidbits of knowledge from those older or more experienced, and sometimes from her own children.
“When Hailey was about 6, we were going to the same little playday series month after month, and she was in the 6-and-under age group,” Leslie fondly recalled. “There was one little girl who’d win every time, and Hailey would be second every time. The competitor in me said, ‘Hailey, this is a speed event, you need to go a little faster.’ And she looked over at me and said, ‘I’m doing it right, aren’t I?’ It just floored me. I never pushed her again.”
Clearly, Leslie didn’t need to push Hailey into the sport at all as she progressed in her horsemanship and developed the same drive that gripped Leslie in her teenage years. Leslie often reflects back on that moment at the playday and the depth of her young daughter’s remark.
“My own teaching came right back at me, so that continued to be the emphasis—do it quietly and well, strive for consistency, and speed will come.”Leslie Kinsel
“She got me, and I never forgot it. I was sitting in the alley up on the fence next to her, and she was on a very solid, good horse. She looked over at me from her position as she was studying those barrels, getting real quiet, and her horse was standing like a statue. It was a moment in time. It keeps me grounded.”
Watching Hailey ride now, it’s apparent even to those not familiar with barrel racing that she learned the correct way. Leslie also taught a more fluid perspective on horsemanship that has allowed Hailey to adjust her riding to different styles of horses—Sister being one of them.
“Early on, I emphasized correct pattern and placement, hands, feet, and seat, and never speed. There’s not always a single correct way—there are many ways to be right. That’s why there are so many different successful trainers and styles, but always strive to do the best you can with what you’ve been given and to pursue excellence,” Leslie said. “What is right and good and perfect with this horse may be a little different for a different person with the same horse, or you have to adapt to the next horse. What worked for that one is not the same thing you’re going to do with every horse, every day, every year. There’s adaptability, but always pursuing excellence of it.”
Leslie and Dan stressed the importance of life beyond horses and ensured Matt and Hailey received a college education.
“College was something we made clear was a very high priority. We were supportive of rodeo, but my husband and I are very practical that you’re not entitled to this at all,” Leslie said. “As your parents, we want to help you develop and be the best person you can be and develop your character and learn how to work hard for something, but college is your step to your future. The horses and the rodeo were such a natural fit for Hailey, because she was so talented and willing to work hard, that we agreed we would help her keep the horses and do college rodeo, as long as she put school first—school was her job.”
Working for trainers in the past gave Leslie the perspective that many young, starry-eyed aspiring trainers lack. She made sure Hailey knew the reality of horses as a profession versus horses as a hobby.
“Since I had been there and worked for different trainers, I knew you don’t make money at that—you may be doing what you love, but you may or may not get to compete yourself or ride the kind of horses you want to ride or deal with the kind of clients who are easy,” Leslie said. “[College was necessary] to give her the business background to be in the horse business on her terms, and manage it best, because we all know the horse business can be a dry hole.”
The family businesses played a paramount role in the Kinsels’ decisions. Dan has worked for about 35 years as a real estate broker for large ranches and leases land for hunting and his family’s third-generation cattle operation. Leslie does the legal work, insurance and bookkeeping for all the family’s operations in addition to serving on the Texas Feed Council and as a director for the Texas Southwest Cattle Raisers.
With so much at stake, it was essential to Dan and Leslie that their children have the education and preparation to help out or take over.
“We wanted her to have that background and take care of herself as well. Hopefully both her and our son can help us with our businesses as we get older,” Leslie said. “It’s very easy to think that [rodeo] is life, and it’s not. Horses will always be there, and I am proof of that. I am a senior citizen and still riding and just competed at a major derby (Diamonds and Dirt) and had a blast. There are people who I even look up to—Dona Kay Rule didn’t get her card until her 50s. It’s a lifetime pursuit. It’s a wonderful hobby, and maybe it’ll work to be your business if that’s your talent, but if not, if it’s your passion, it can be there for you.”
As one of the lucky few, horses have become a successful business and source of income for Hailey. But the intelligence and resolve with which Hailey has pursued those goals began decades ago when Leslie set out on her own quest for knowledge and ended up learning a whole lot more than just how to train a barrel horse.
“Her career turned out to be a success thanks to one beautiful yellow mare,” Leslie said. “I hope it gives hope to others, that you can take your home-trained horse from Podunk Texas and have success. Anyone can do it if we can.”
This article was originally published in the September 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News.