By Lynn Kohr

In competition, especially upper levels of competition, top athletes require a highly developed ability to focus. These athletes are mentally strong and able to filter out distractions. Elite barrel racers can condition themselves to competition stress just like other top athletes. Whether they are Women’s Professional Rodeo Association cowgirls, futurity trainers or youth riders, all successful barrel racers have developed their own way to stay focused, their own place to mentally go as they head down the alley and toward the first barrel. There is virtually nothing that can interrupt their focus. Watching any high-level barrel racer, there is a moment, just a split second, before their competition run when their mind goes to a very specific place. The trained part of their body takes over and automatic responses kick in. What is that slice of time like for some of the top WPRA, futurity and National High School Rodeo Association barrel racers?greeleyA barrel racer focuses before a run at the Greeley Stampede in Greeley, Colorado. Photo credit Suni Olkj.

“A million things may run through my mind before a competition,” three-time WPRA world champion Sherry Cervi said. “But, once I face my horse down that alley and let her run to the first barrel, I let silence settle in my mind. I can no longer hear the crowd or the music, and I no longer choose my thoughts. My instincts kick in. After running barrels for so many years, I know I have to welcome the silence and trust myself and my horse.”

Five-time NFR qualifier Lisa Lockhart advises making a game plan and sticking with it.

“Figure out what works for you personally, depending on your competition circumstances, and create your own game plan, get your own game face and do it,” Lockhart said. “Whether your game plan is a smooth run on a young colt or winning a round at the [National Finals Rodeo], achieving your goal is success. As I head toward the first barrel, my game face for me is being aggressive. When I set my jaw, I am on my game plan.”

Nikki Steffes of Vale, South Dakota, is a multiple NHSRA and National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association champion who is now a frequent contender in the WPRA world standings.

“Before I run down the alley, I like to close my eyes and visualize my perfect run one final time,” Steffes said. “I visualize the things I need to do throughout the run to be successful. However, I try not to have a specific game plan, because so many different things can happen. I like to ride by feel, trust my horse and trust myself to make the right decisions throughout the run. As I am walking down the alley, I clear my mind of any thoughts, take deep breaths and remind myself to trust my horse and ride by feel.”

For NFR qualifier and futurity champion Danyelle Campbell, automatic responses kick in.

“Okay, so for me, it all depends on what horse I’m on,” Campbell said. “But every time I head for the first barrel, I get an adrenaline rush and think about riding to win. And that’s what I tell myself, ‘Ride to win.’ I keep my focus toward that horse’s individual needs—some need more help than others—but I’m still trying to win. Other than that, I’m open-minded and I’ve prepared myself to react to my horse’s actions. I don’t envision the perfect run—it just doesn’t work for me, but I do think positive thoughts about my run.”

Sam Flannery, WPRA barrel racer and standout futurity trainer, stifles any self-doubt before a run by reminding herself of how hard she’s worked to reach that point.

“When the person ahead of me heads to their third barrel is when I make contact with my horse. This is also when I get ready,” Flannery said. “If any self-doubt enters my mind, which I think happens to all of us because it’s just human nature to doubt your abilities, I remind myself of all the hard work, training, long hours, the basics, and so on, that I put into my horse. When I go into the arena, it’s in my horse’s hands, and if I did my homework correctly, it should work. I’m just along for the ride and to guide him to make the right decisions.”

Futurity champion Hallie Melvin has simple advice taken directly from the playbook of legendary cowgirl Wanda Bush.

“Trust your training,” Melvin stated.

For veteran futurity trainer Cody Hyde, a clear head is a must. Hyde also places a great deal of trust in his training by ensuring his horse’s basics and positioning are solid at home.

“My head is pretty quiet and still right before a competitive run,” Hyde said. “Every night when I’m riding and training my colts, I am very conscious of my horse’s body position, especially as I approach the gate and all the way to the first barrel. Once that’s established at home, then when I go to a race, I have to become a jockey rather than a trainer and just let it happen the way I trained them [and hope they know how]. I want my head in an optimistic and confident place before I compete. I have hope and confidence in my horse as I head towards the gate.”

Hayden Segelke, 18, is an International Finals Youth Rodeo and NHSRA all-around champion with many futurity wins to her credit. Segelke advises staying focused on the event at hand.

“Let everything else go,” Segelke said. “You don’t have time to think, and all you can do is react.”

At age 11, Sage Kohr is practically a futurity and derby veteran. Kohr clears her mind of everything before a run and focuses on getting her horse soft and attentive.

“My head is really clear, and I don’t really think of anything,” Kohr said. “While the horse before me is going in for their run, I make sure my horse is soft—side-to-side and back and forth—then I focus on my point one at first barrel. When I first hear my name, I point my horse down the alley and let it rip. In my mind, it is really quiet and it just all happens.”

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