These experienced barrel racers know the value of taking care of their minds and bodies. Here’s how they stay strong and healthy in the saddle.
We all know the importance of keeping our horses fit, healthy and happy—especially when we’re asking them to compete at a high level for any length of time. But it’s equally important to care for your own mind and body. When you’re looking to ride barrel horses for the long haul, developing a healthy lifestyle is the key to doing your best by your horse. Barrel Horse News spoke with three barrel racers with years of life experience on how they keep their bodies operating at their best, and they shared what works for them.
Mary Burger has made history for her accomplishments in the barrel pen. She’s won multiple American Quarter Horse Association world championships in barrels and poles and two Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Championships over the past five decades, including setting the record as the oldest barrel racer to win a world title when she was 58 in 2006. She was the oldest WPRA and Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association National Finals Rodeo qualifier in 2016 when she was 68 and broke her own record of oldest world champion by winning the world title again. That year, she entered the NFR with the most money won of all qualifiers during the regular season.
Now 72, she’s still competing, and although her main mount Sadiefamouslastwords (“Mo”) is sidelined recovering from an injury, Burger’s health and fitness are very much part of her routine.
“I believe in exercise and keeping moving—I am not a couch potato,” Burger said. “I also eat the types of foods I need to eat to keep going.”
Anita Randle has been in the saddle for decades, but the 56-year-old has been training barrel horses specifically for seven years. She shows Eyesa Topaz, who went on to win back-to-back National Barrel Horse Association Senior 1D world championships, and together they have qualified for RFD-TV’s The American. Randle says healthy living is extremely important to her, but as a lifetime athlete, she goes through seasons where she focuses more on different elements of healthful routines—always keeping a sense of health consciousness.
An avid learner, Randle has spent a lot of time reading to learn about what health measures work for her situation.
“I have always embraced good health, so I enjoy reading and being current on health articles,” Randle said.
Over the years, Randle’s health routines have stayed basically the same, other than updating her diet as she learned new information.
“In a nutshell, it is a lifestyle choice to eat healthy, to live healthy, to move healthy, to be healthy,” Randle said.
Shelley Holman has been riding since the age of 7, and with a short break to raise her children, she has been training for more than 25 years. The 58-year-old Brentwood, California, resident has been successful with several horses, but she’s really been on fire with her horses Wood B Fun and Red Hot N Burnin, placing at major rodeos and qualifying for RFD-TV’s The American Semifinals.
Holman believes living a healthy lifestyle is key to being a competitive athlete. “Your horses are athletes, and we need to treat ourselves as athletes, taking care of ourselves physically,” Holman said. “I teach my students that it’s not just a lifestyle when you’re eating food. It’s also that your thought processes are right—it’s a whole circle, your mental, your physical and your diet.”
Holman developed her views on health by educating herself. She says a vegetarian cooking course helped her learn more about how the body works and how raw produce can be beneficial.
“What I remember most is that fruit cleanses and vegetables heal,” Holman said. “Living out in California, we’ve got lots of fruit in our area.”
Every day after breakfast, Burger uses her Bowflex machine to strengthen her body—especially her upper body, since barn chores keep her lower body strong.
After working out, Burger is constantly on the move working around the ranch and riding her horses.
“Things around the ranch keep me pretty busy and in shape,” Burger said.
Although she gets up and does her chores every day on the same routine, Burger also arranges her schedule to be inside during the extreme heat and cold of the Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, seasons.
Like many horse folks, Randle’s everyday tasks include working around the barn. She leans into the physical exertion required to run an equine operation.
“I’m not the type of person to let grass grow under my feet or shy away from any type of work—the physicality of the job fits what I enjoy in my life,” Randle said.
Randle has recently joined a new gym, where she works out with her husband Dwayne after his workday.
Her favorite way to exercise is Pilates, but living in Temple, Georgia, she says it’s hard to find a good class in her area.
“In an ideal world, I would be at the gym two to three times a week,” Randle said. “I have a muscular build, so I don’t do a lot of weight training. Mostly I just want to be trim and lean, so movement is the most important thing, as well as focusing on around my waist and my lower body.”
Randle also incorporates a few stretches throughout her day.
Holman used to swim two to three times a week as her exercise of choice before she began having shoulder issues the past few years. She will eventually have surgery to address the problem.
“It’s frustrating, because it’s not only good physically, but swimming was great mentally, too,” Holman said. “So now I pretty much stay in weight and shape by working and riding anywhere from six to 10 horses every day.”
She’s also constantly working around the ranch, gardening and caring for the horses.
At the top of Burger’s list, a good diet is very important.
“I try to eat right—lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds—the fiber and the benefits are great,” Burger said. “I try not to over-eat. I avoid overconsuming salt and sugar.”
Burger cooks at home a lot, and she and her husband Kerry rarely eat out. She avoids food with excessive salt and eats moderate portions.
Healthful eating is a big priority for Randle and her husband.
“I’m very blessed in that my husband lets me feed him vegetarian 60 percent of the time,” Randle said. “We like our meat—we’re not vegetarians—but he’s also diabetic, so diet helps.”
In addition to eating a mainly plant-based diet, Randle chooses foods that are less processed.
“If I can’t pronounce the ingredients on the label, I generally am not going to eat them,” Randle said. “I try to stay with natural foods, fresh foods, fresh vegetables, limit the meats, limit junk and snacks.”
Randle admits that part of her motivation for eating healthy is competitive, knowing she’ll be racing against younger, sometimes lighter-weight, competition.
“We’re fighting for every chance we can get,” Randle said. “My philosophy is that we’re athletes. If you’re going to be an athlete, then embrace being an athlete.”
At home and on the road, Holman is dedicated to mostly raw local produce and fruit and avoids processed foods. She enjoys making a daily green tea frappuccino with green tea matcha and blue agave syrup.
“I really try to eat good food, and when I’m on the road, I always stock the fridge in my trailer with healthy food,” Holman said. “I don’t stop to eat fast food or junk food at rodeos. I think that really helps, not only with energy, but with avoiding weight gain and staying healthy.”
In addition to a healthy diet, Burger takes a couple of vitamins and supplements, including turmeric for inflammation, CBD oil from Deanna Harrison and Summit Oil for inflammation. Burger has found supplements that work for her by talking to representatives at health food stores but says trial and error has helped her find which routines, foods and products work for her.
“Now that I’m older, I try to eat more nutritional foods that give you an advantage,” Burger said.
Burger works with Heather Riley of Simply Equine, who along with horse hair, analyzes her hair for health concerns.
“She is spot-on with health issues,” Burger said. “She does my horses, too.”
After a broken leg, Burger has a knee that gets sore, but she says she’s otherwise injury-free. She goes to the chiropractor whenever she feels the need.
“If I’ve got a problem and it persists for a few days, I’ll go [to the chiropractor] and just get tuned up from top to bottom,” Burger said.
A job working around horses does take a toll on the body—Randle has had several hand surgeries addressing metacarpal syndrome and trigger thumb in both hands. She visits a chiropractor as needed.
Randle doesn’t take many medications or supplements, other than vitamins and allergy meds. She also takes supplements to address menopause issues and Meloxicam for inflammation.
“Pretty much all of my joints hurt—my ankles, my hands, my back,” Randle said. “I’ve been pretty hard on myself.”
Other than Holman’s shoulder pain, she feels fortunate to be mostly pain-free. She will go to the chiropractor as needed and also enjoys getting a massage.
“Sometimes my kids will get me a massage for Mother’s Day or my birthday, and I sure take advantage of that, because it’s always a treat to get a good massage,” Holman said.
Supplement-wise, Holman sticks to foods with omega oils and flaxseed oils, focusing mostly on eating a varied diet.
Randle feels strongly that diet is the most important part of overall healthy habits.
“Know what you’re putting in your mouth,” Randle said. “What you put in your body is absolutely going to affect what you get out of your body and the longevity of your body.”
She stresses that going to the gym will not cancel poor eating habits.
“All the working out in the world isn’t going to change the fuel that you’re putting in your body,” Randle said.
Burger’s advice for riders in her age bracket is simple—listen to your body.
“Watch your weight, keep your activity going, know what your body is telling you, keep a schedule and a program, and stick to it,” Burger said.
Although each person’s body is different, Holman said keeping an eye on your weight is important for a barrel racer.
“The majority of barrel racers out there that are winning are fit, and they’re not overweight,” Holman said. “I think keeping your weight down and keeping fit, keeping your muscles strong, plus a proper diet to give you energy and feel good is important. If you’re eating junk food and too much processed food, you wake up feeling bad. It’s not going to make your day very good, and it’s not going to make your mind work very well.”
Don’t Forget Your Mental Wellbeing
Beyond her physical body, Holman says the most important thing she does for overall wellness is reading her Bible and prioritizing her faith.
“I try to read scripture every day and let the scriptures take hold in my mind and my heart,” Holman said. “The mental part is very important, and reading the Word gives me strength and hope. It gives me peace and instructs me. My relationship with God is my foundation and my rock.”
As she’s gotten older, Holman has realized the importance of enjoying life.
“I take more time now that I’m older to rest and enjoy life a bit more, slow down a little,” Holman said. “I’ve got a little granddaughter who is nine months old. That’s changed my life; it’s given me a different focus. The horses are important, but she’s really, really important.”
Holman recalled a speech given by a 98-year-old woman who has attended every Sherry Cervi youth race in Ceres, California. When asked for wise words about her life experiences, the woman’s response was simple but profound.
“She says, ‘Enjoy life, whether it’s through the good and the bad, just enjoy life,’” Holman said. “That really impacted me. We get so busy, and a lot of times when things are so hectic, you don’t enjoy what you’re doing because you’re in such a hurry trying to get so much done. But now, I feel that horses are a gift. Being able to train and run barrel horses is my passion, and it is a blessing to make a living doing what I love.”
This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue of Barrel Horse News.