We all have that one piece of tack we just can’t go without. Six champion barrel racers weigh in with their must-haves.
By Savanna Escobar
Like an old pair of boots that fit just right, certain pieces of equipment can just feel like home. With high speeds, tight turns and substantial prize money on the line, you don’t want to trust your success to just any old piece of tack. Find out which items six top trainers and competitors reach for first.
JANE MELBY — G Bar G Barrel Saddle
Clinician, trainer and three-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier Jane Melby says her saddle is the most important piece of equipment in her arsenal. Melby rides and endorses the G Bar G barrel saddle made by Dennis George of Riverton, Wyoming. Melby first met George in 2012 at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Rock Springs, Wyoming, when George asked if she would explain to him what she liked in a barrel saddle. Following that conversation, George built her one to try. Though she liked the feel of it, Melby found that it only fit her 2-year-olds and needed a wider tree. George obliged, and the rest is history. George eventually sold his bronc-saddle-making business to his son and started making barrel saddles himself. “To me, the best part about it is the ground seat — you sit directly in the middle of the saddle,” Melby said. “The second best part is that if you lose a stirrup, you seem to pick it right back up. The way he designed the fender just makes it easy to pick back up. On lots of saddles they hang flat, and the rider doesn’t have a prayer of getting it back.” Melby prefers to ride a roughout or inlay seat and tries to steer clear of any material that would be slick. For stirrups, her brand of choice is Nettles. “So many stirrups are so tight that it’s almost claustrophobic to me; I feel like I can’t get my foot out. That in itself — just the stirrups — can change your riding,” Melby said. The clinician understands many people can’t afford to buy a new saddle or new tree for every different horse, and she sought to help build a saddle that would work comfortably for a large variety of horses and riders alike.
SUE SMITH — Three Forks Saddlery Sue Smith Barrel Saddle
Two-time Women’s Professional Rodeo Association circuit champion and NFR qualifier Sue Smith considers her saddle to be her favorite piece of tack. “I know I have to be balanced, especially in a run. There are times you need to sit and times you need to get up over your horse. Your feet need to hang correctly, and you don’t need to fight for it because of your saddle,” Smith said. “If I come out of a run and I don’t think about my saddle, then I know it’s right.” These days, the Idaho native primarily rides a Three Forks Saddlery barrel saddle she helped design. It was a chance encounter that led to the partnership. Smith was visiting with Nancy Peterson of Three Forks Saddlery, and she asked Smith for her thoughts on their current barrel saddle. “I didn’t like it at all, and I told her so,” Smith shared. “I had a different sponsor at the time, but I switched over for fun. I thought it would be easy to dial that saddle in, but it took a long time. The fenders, seat, stirrup leathers, the balance in general just took a long time to get dialed in.” Aside from cosmetic options such as the color of leather, tooling and conchos, the only variance in the saddle is seat size and tree. There is a standard and a wider fit option for the tree. “The structure is good, and I keep coming back to them even when I try something new,” Smith said. “They’re my comfort zone. When I’ve got to lay a run down, I know I can count on that (saddle).”
CHEYENNE WIMBERLEY — Cowboy Classic Saddlery Saddle
Like Melby and Smith, it’s all about the saddle for five-time NFR qualifier Cheyenne Wimberley. She co-owns Cowboy Classic Saddlery in Stephenville, Texas. The business was started 28 years ago by Cheyenne and her parents, ML and Christi. Though ML has since passed away, Christi and Cheyenne are still at the helm. The venture began when the family felt there was a lack of available saddles that truly fit the horse. Because of variances in gullet width and flare, Cheyenne has several different saddles she rides, depending on the horse. There are a few things that remain the same for all of them — each Cowboy Classic saddle has a wood rawhide tree. Though a fiberglass tree is lighter, Cheyenne feels it is a non-forgiving structure. “Fiberglass doesn’t move at all — once it’s set, it’s set,” Cheyenne said. “I like a tree to expand as needed with weather and use.” The tree also has flare in the bars so the horse has complete shoulder relief. As for seat, Cheyenne prefers hard leather. “I like a real low profile, like a calf roping saddle,” Cheyenne said. “The thing that’s changed over the years is everybody wants that deep seat. The deeper the seat, the taller the cantle and swells have to be. The higher swells get your center of gravity further away from the withers of the horse. I think anything that keeps you closer to the horse is a good thing.” For stirrups, Cheyenne likes to have a bit of a wider base for her foot and opts to use the Cowboy Classic typical 2.5-inch bell stirrup, covered in leather to match the saddle.
MARY BURGER — Professional’s Choice Schutz Ultimate Training Fork and L&W Snaffle Bit
Mary Burger of Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, is a living legend and a two-time WPRA World Champion Barrel Racer. She is also only the third barrel racer of all time to wear the coveted No. 1 back number at the NFR. In all her years of training and competing, she can’t go without a leather training fork and L&W snaffle. “The one piece of equipment that is my favorite is actually two pieces together, and I’ve used it on probably every horse I’ve ever rode at one time or another,” Burger said. “It’s a snaffle bit with a bungee fork. Once you get them broke a little, you can go to this and they will give their head good and bend through their body gently without having a lot of pull or stress on their mouth. It encourages them to give their head and bend more in the middle of their body.” Burger’s go-to combination is a Professional’s Choice Schutz Ultimate Training Fork paired with a custom L&W snaffle bit. For the mouthpiece, she will frequently use a broken twisted snaffle, but acknowledges that it depends on how light the horse is in its mouth. Occasionally, she will use an English driving bit with a smooth break. A headstall with a browband keeps the bit balanced in the mouth while riding two-handed. She doesn’t let the bit hang too low but wants it to sit at the corners of the mouth. Typically, she will use a paracord or loose leather curb strap as a hobble to keep the bit from sliding through the mouth. For reins, Burger prefers a simple leather roping rein. “With the fork, I don’t want them out so far that there isn’t enough tension to pull them, but not so far down that it’s pulling on them constantly,” Burger said. “Just enough to keep their head where it’s not way up and not way down, just sits in the middle. Even horses that are coming along pretty good and I’ve stepped them up, I will still come back to this to refresh them.” She uses this setup for training at home and may exhibition in it but typically does not use it to make a competition run.
JOSIANNE ST-CYR — Neil Merrill Short-Shank Gag Bit with Three-Piece Twisted Wire Mouthpiece
De Leon, Texas-based trainer Josianne StCyr cites the Neil Merrill short-shank gag bit in a three-piece twisted wire mouthpiece as her favorite tack item. “I transition all my colts from an O-ring to this,” St-Cyr said. “I rarely move on to barrel work in an O-ring, so this will be the bit I upgrade to. It’s just enough, has a little bit of shank and leverage but it’s not a scary transition for the colt.” St-Cyr will set this bit up on a single-ear headstall with a leather curb strap and split reins. She adjusts the headstall differently for each horse but will typically have a wrinkle or two in the corners of their mouth. “If I pull on the reins and there’s daylight between their head and the leather on their cheeks, then I need to tighten it. The curb strap is not tight at all — it stabilizes the bit but is not there for much else,” St-Cyr said. The trainer favors this Merrill bit over the junior cow horse she used as her transition bit in the past. “This has less play and less gag, and for a baby it’s less confusing,” St-Cyr said. “It’s simple and easy for them to understand and very versatile for both horse and rider.” St-Cyr starts using this bit on her colts at the beginning of their 3-year-old year before she starts them on the pattern. “This makes it easier than an O-ring to keep their shoulders picked up, and you can get what you need without scaring them,” St-Cyr said. “With young horses, you don’t really know what they’re going to be like as far as stiff or bendy or heavy, so from here I’ll decide if it’s good enough for a while or not. I use it on almost all of them for their 3-year-old year if they have been started right and understand the bit. You can always go up, but if you’ve scared a horse, it’s hard to come back down. With this setup, you’re not going to scare one, so it feels like a very safe choice for that reason.”
CERI WARD — Professional’s Choice Pozzi Lifter Series 114 with Three-Piece Twisted Wire Mouthpiece
Ceri Ward is a Woodward, Oklahoma-based trainer with career earnings in futurity, derby, 1D and WPRA competition to the tune of $590,203, according to EquiStat. Ward’s go-to piece of equipment is the Brittany Pozzi 114 Lifter Bit in a three-piece twisted wire mouthpiece that is part of the Professional’s Choice Pozzi Lifter Series. It’s helped lead Ward to bigtime earnings, specifically with Hiccup, an EquiStat earner of $134,204. “It’s one of the first bridles I started riding that has equal purchase and equal shank, and I found out that really fit my hands,” Ward said. “I’ll run in it and train in it. The first horse I competed on with it and won a lot with was Hiccup, so that probably influenced how much I like it. I put it on a horse to keep their shoulders square and picked up, start getting their nose, stay stood up in the turn and have some control.” Ward has several of these bits — two have the standard chain curb that comes with it, and one has a leather curb strap instead. She outfits it on a single-ear headstall and tightens it to get a good wrinkle in the horse’s mouth. Until her colts get to the point they are high loping the pattern, Ward uses split reins. “I like to ride a No-Hit bit too, and it’s a shorter bit overall. I’ll go straight to that with my 2-year-olds when I get them back from the colt starter, and if they need more I’ll go to the 114,” Ward said.