Influenced by her family’s ties to ranching and horse racing, Molly Powell uses her own brand of barrel racing horsemanship and training techniques designed to develop a horse’s trust and longevity.

Influenced by her family, Molly Powell uses horsemanship and training techniques designed to develop a horse's trust and longevity.
Molly Powell’s sensible training techniques, passed down from her grandfather and mother, have enabled her to relate to her horses and achieve success in professional barrel racing. Photo by Jennifer Denison

Professional barrel racer and clinician Molly Powell of Stephenville, Texas, has become a household name in Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel racing since winning the reserve world championship in 2004. The 30-year-old Stephenville, Texas, barrel racer has qualified for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo nine times and won the $50,000 bonus-round check at the 2005 Calgary Stampede. She also represented her native Canada at the 2002 Olympic Command Performance Rodeo, which she won. On a deeper level, however, Molly is best known as an excellent horsewoman, whose sensible training techniques have enabled her to establish trusting partnerships with almost any horse she rides.

Molly moved from Canada to Montana at age 5, but spent a lot of time on her family’s southern Alberta ranch, surrounded by generations of talented horsemen and -women, including her grandfather, Judge McLaughlin, mother Julie Swanson, father Chuck Swanson and her aunt, Geraldine Metcalf. Molly also was exposed to traditional cow-horse training methods which she and her mother still incorporate into their barrel horse training program. Riding with her grandfather, Molly became partial to hot-blooded Thoroughbred racehorses at a young age.

“My grandpa, Judge McLaughlin, and his brother, Hugh, ranched together and loved horses,” Molly recalls. “They preferred Thoroughbreds, because the horses could cover country and had a little extra energy for the long days spent in the saddle. My grandpa also was a jockey. He rode 40 to 50 miles to the racetrack in Alberta.”

McLaughlin passed along much of his knowledge to his daughter, Julie. Growing up, Molly always wanted to ride her mother’s horses, because they were quiet and responsive like her grandfather’s. When she was a teenager, Molly noticed that the reason her mother and grandfather’s horses worked so well was because they rode with light hands and handled the horses quietly and gently.

“If a horse was nervous, rather than pull it around, my grandfather would long trot the horse in circles,” Molly recalls. “That’s where I learned to get along with a horse and put it to work to relax it mind, rather than make it do something when its frustrated.”

Molly continues to learn her grandfather’s train ing techniques through her mother, who also was a jockey and barrel racer. Today, Julie helps raise and train her daughter’s rodeo horses.

“We want to train the fastest, most athletic horses we can that will go out and work the pattern on their own,” Molly says. “We like to raise and train our own horses; that way, we know where they come from and how they’ve been handled from the start.

“We try to relate to the horses, make sense to them and be honest with them. That helps make training fun. We think of our horses more as heroes than workers.”

A Herd With Heart

Keeping with tradition, the Swansons breed horses with Thoroughbred and foundation stock-horse bloodlines, such as Three Bars and Easy Jet. Such crosses produce tough, athletic horses with the stamina to withstand the perils of rodeo competition.

“Once the Thoroughbred blood starts pumping, you can’t push the horses,” Molly says. “However, I’ve learned that you have to make sense to these horses and not push them past their boiling points.”

While the Swansons consider pedigree important, it’s not the basis for their barrel horse selection.

“My husband, Turtle Powell, is a team roper, and he likes to look at each horse as an individual,” Molly explains. “We try not to get too hung up on bloodlines, because many successful barrel horses aren’t royally bred or, if they are bred well, the same cross doesn’t necessarily produce the same horse.”

The foundation of the Swanson’s breeding program has been its broodmares, which have included Molly’s grade childhood horse, Brownie, on whom she won her first barrel racing paycheck for $5 when she was 5. Small in stature, but big in heart, Brownie allegedly came off the Pagan Indian reservation in Alberta and is believed to be the result of a cross between a Welsh pony and a King Leo Bar-bred mare named Kilo Bar. Other broodmares include Native Woman (“Blackie”), one of Molly’s former barrel horses and the dam of her current campaigners Ima Native Shadow (“Shadow”) and Raisin Reward (“Raisin”), and Molly’s great NFR horse Pecan, who’s out of Brownie and by the family’s retired racehorse stallion, Bumpy, by In Reality, by Intentionally.

Influenced by her family, Molly Powell uses horsemanship and training techniques designed to develop a horse's trust and longevity.
Julie Swanson, Molly’s mother, and a former jockey and Canadian finals rodeo champion, starts Molly’s horses on the barrel pattern, instilling good habits from the start. Here she demonstrates correct barrel posture that will encourage her horse to use his hind end in the turn and keep his body balanced to avoid falling down. She’s sitting squarely in the saddle with her reins just in front of her cantle at saddle-horn height. Her horse is relaxed through his neck and ribcage, enabling him to bend around the barrel and round his frame, driving his inside hind leg beneath his body to maneuver through the turn. Photo by Jennifer Denison

More important than pedigree to the Swansons and Powells is heart. A good judge of horseflesh, Molly is confident in her judgment and training abilities, and isn’t afraid to take a chance on a horse if she believes it has potential.

“I respect a horse with a lot of heart,” Molly says. “If a horse has a lot of heart and wants to work with me, I can usually get it to run the pattern, even if it lacks some ability. I can overcome several flaws if a horse wants to be a barrel horse and tries to find a way to do the job.”

However, Molly admits that she’s stuck with some horses way too long, rather than purchasing better mounts, because she’s simply accustomed to raising and training her own horses.

“The caliber of talent in barrel racing today keeps me competitive and trying to better myself and my horses,” she says. “What makes me different than many professional barrel racers, however, is that I can make a horse work that might have a little less talent than the top horses and who’s not bred to the hilt. We don’t spend $100,000 or more on a horse; instead, we try to be competitive on our home-raised horses.”

Starting ‘em Right

Both Molly and Julie have diverse riding backgrounds, which influence their barrel horse training program. Julie started breaking horses with her father when she was 6 years old, and spent time training racehorses, jumping and barrel racing on the Canadian rodeo circuit. (Just like their daughter, Julie and Chuck are Calgary Stampede champions. Julie won the barrel racing in 1965, and Chuck won the saddle bronc in 1966.) In addition to barrel racing, Molly also rode jumping horses, observed world-class charro Jerry Diaz, rode with other horsemen, and roped in college and high school rodeo.

“My mom taught me the more time you spend on a horse, no matter what type of riding you’re doing, the better the rider you’ll be,” Molly says. “All my experiences, as well as having been mounted on good horses from the start, have contributed to my confidence and ability to get on different horses and get a feel for them and what do to with them.”

Influenced by her family, Molly Powell uses horsemanship and training techniques designed to develop a horse's trust and longevity.
Julie bends her horse’s entire body, not just his neck, which will help him bend around the barrels, while keeping his body balanced in the turn. Photo by Jennifer Denison

Molly trained Pecan and the mare’s brother, Bullet, as well as started Pecan’s filly last spring. However, Julie still does most of the foundation work, while Molly patterns the horses and adds the finishing touches.

After the first 30 days of riding, Julie gets on the horses and works them lightly as 2- and 3-year-olds. When the horses are 3, she introduces them to elements of the barrel pattern—circles, stops, straight lines, etc.—slowly working up to riding the complete pattern. She also refines the horses’ neck-rein responses and focuses on footwork, teaching the horses to cross over in front and keep their inside hind legs under them while moving on circles. She also walks the horses around barrels, using her outside rein and leg to steady the horses’ bodies so they don’t drift away from the barrel.

“Our goal is to instill in the horses minds that what we’re asking them to do is easy, and that they can do it,” Molly says.

Molly uses the same gradual approach to sharpen the horses on the pattern as 5- and 6-year-olds. She first trots the pattern, advancing to a slow lope and eventually a gallop as the horses responds to light cues and moves with confidence. The moment the horse starts to get nervous, excited or frustrated, she backs off until the horse tells her its ready to progress.

“I like to try to judge a horse and formulate a game plan,” she says. “Just like my mom and grandfather, I’ve learned to read a horse’s personality, and know when to move on and when to slow down.”

Influenced by her family, Molly Powell uses horsemanship and training techniques designed to develop a horse's trust and longevity.
Julie uses her outside leg to keep her horse’s hindquarters in toward the barrel. This gives him strength to drive out of the turn. Photo by Jennifer Denison

Molly occasionally takes a young horse on a “rodeo tour” to accustom it to the sights and sounds of different arenas, and the perils of life on the road. However, she won’t haul a horse fulltime until it’s well-broke and mature, usually around 7 or 8 years old.

“By the time a horse is ready to run the pattern, I want it to be well-broke and mentally ready for the pressure,” she says. “I also want the horse’s body to be strong and stable enough to take the pressure of long-distance hauling and making consecutive runs on different ground. I hate riding a horse that gets sore. I don’t like doing a lot of maintenance on a horse, such as injecting its hocks.”

If you’re a futurity rider, whose goal is to have a horse running by age 3, the Swansons’ training program might not be feasible. But if you’re looking to develop a rodeo horse, whose destiny is dependant upon longevity and stamina, their method of getting a horse broke for barrels is a sure step toward success.

This article was originally published in the December 2006 issue of Barrel Horse News.

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