Make the most of your first futurity experience with help from a few upperclassmen.

In the futurity world, school is always in session. The next generation of winners is continually being molded for future barrel racing greatness. With the coming of each successive generation, it seems as if the horses are genetically better suited to barrel racing, the prize money and opportunities are more lucrative as the multitude of incentive programs continues to expand. If you’re not already involved in the futurity business, the magnitude and intensity of the options can appear intimidating. Nonetheless, with the help of some A+ tutors, Barrel Horse News has compiled Barrel Futurity 101, a short course to walk you through your first year as a student of the futurity game.

Finding success in the futurity ranks requires dedication and many hours of hard work and planning. Photo by Kathy Donegan
Finding success in the futurity ranks requires dedication and many hours of hard work and planning. Photo by Kathy Donegan

The Prerequisites

Selecting a mount to complement your riding and training style is the foundation of any successful barrel racing endeavor, and this principle couldn’t be any truer than in the futurity business. If you’re an aspiring futurity jockey with limited experience as a trainer, preparing a young horse for a yearlong campaign in the ultra-tough ranks can seem daunting. Instead, 2006 Barrel Futurities of America World Champion Jordon Briggs suggests purchasing a horse that is ready to compete.

“The biggest thing is picking the right horse for your experience and training level,” Briggs advised. “The futurity world is like shopping on Rodeo Drive. If you’re going to buy a prospect with the top bloodlines, you’re going to spend $10,000 to $15,000 on a yearling or 2-year-old but you won’t truly know what you have.”

Briggs advises first-time futurity riders to opt for something a little further along.

“The best thing you can do is spend a little more on a 3-year-old that is already trained, and make sure that horse fits your style,” Briggs said. “The hardest part is keeping your confidence up when they’re making just as many mistakes as you are, but if you buy a horse that’s already doing well, it eliminates some of that.”

Once you’ve teamed up with your futurity prospect, Cheryl Cody, 2010 PacWest Futurity Average Champion (Ardmore, Okla.) and 2010 Bold Heart Breeder’s Futurity Reserve Champion, strongly encourages futurity freshmen to study hard in order to know and understand the rules governing events they wish to enter. Trusting the advice of an experienced mentor can also take some of the guesswork out of your first-time futurity experience.

Futurities are not as standardized as open jackpots and rodeos, which can make them appear confusing at first glance. It’s important to thoroughly understand the ins and outs of each futurity, as they will undoubtedly vary from one venue to the next.

Cheryl Cody and Bet This Is A Shiner found success on the futurity circuit by sticking to the training routine that worked for them. Photo by Prosports Pix
Cheryl Cody and Bet This Is A Shiner found success on the futurity circuit by sticking to the training routine that worked for them. Photo by Prosports Pix

Pick Your Class

A horse’s 4-year-old year is traditionally its futurity year, however, some futurities offer the flexibility of holding your horse back until it reaches 5 years of age, a particularly attractive option for late-bloomers or those living in areas where winter months put a halt to steady training schedules. The 5-year-old option allows additional time for a horse to mature both mentally and physically while potentially carrying a training load of lesser intensity. But regardless of age, a futurity horse cannot have competed until November 15 of the previous year.

For those who feel their prospect is mature enough mentally and physically to face the challenge, there are options for the advanced-placement of 3-year-olds. For instance, the BFA World Championships allows a horse to run in the Juvenile division in November of its 3-year-old year, getting a head start on the 4-year-old futurity year.

Once the futurity age has been defined by the owner and/or rider, the next step is determining eligibility requirements in various venues. Open futurities are just that—open to any horse that is 4- or 5 years of age (age dependent on the event). Breeders futurities like the Cornhusker, 5-States or Barrel of Gold Futurity are limited to horses by stallions that have been nominated to specific futurity programs. The futurity business is heavy on the promotion of genetics and barrel racing bloodlines, and breeders futurities furnish the opportunity to showcase the progeny of nominated stallions. Furthermore, some futurities will offer both an open and a breeders’ component, where you can either run in both (per eligibility) or roll your time from one class to the other.

*Editor’s note: Since this article was first written in 2013, many new breeders futurities and stallion incentive programs have become popular options, such as the Pink and Ruby Buckles, Breeders Challenge, Royal Crown, Blue Collar Breeders, Colorado Classic and more.

The payout format varies from the traditional schedule that pays only the fastest horses, to the more contemporary speed divisions that reward horses at different levels. Many contestants appreciate the 2D format that producers have adopted in recent years, generally adhering to a full-second split as opposed to the half-second split typically seen at open jackpots. Lana Ireland, producer of the 5-State Breeder’s Futurity, recommends starting in a 2D futurity where your horse doesn’t have to be the fastest of the field to win money. You can also take advantage of amateur or novice rider side-pots offered at many large futurities if you aren’t a professional rider. But for the horses at the head of their class, there are the more customary futurities that pay deeper into the upper echelon, similar to rodeos.

The formula used to determine the champion can differ from one event to the next as well. Some, like the BRN4D Greg Olson Memorial and the Classic Equine Futurities, average the times from two long rounds to determine the winner. This allows competitors to showcase their horse’s consistency, a trait not easily attained on a young horse. Others, like the Old Fort Days Futurity, the BFA World Championships and Better Barrel Races OKC Futurity, have qualifying rounds followed by a clean-slate short round or an average of the fastest qualifying time and short-round time. With the time trial format at Fort Smith, there’s a lot on the line to earn a spot in the finals, where each horse and rider combination has the same chance as the next one. Additionally, some futurities are part of a larger series where points can be accumulated toward year-end titles and bonus money.

The consolation brackets, such as those offered at events like the LGI Barrel Racing Championships (formerly LG Pro Classic), Old Fort Days and the Colorado Classic Futurity, are becoming more prevalent. Consolation rounds provide a chance at salvation for entries that had an error that eliminated them from contention in the championship bracket. Or, for those willing to roll the dice on their mount becoming the class valedictorian, there are futurity slot races, such as the Greg Olson Memorial, where a higher entry fee buys one of a limited number of slots for the chance to run at more added money and a larger payout.

Other futurities that host horse sales offer sale futurities specifically for prospects that have passed through their sale. As you can see, the possibilities are as unique as they are endless for prospective futurity enthusiasts.

Marne Loosenort took advantage of the 2012 LG Pro Classic Consolation Slot Race, turning the misfortunate of a knocked down barrel in the first qualifying round into a $10,000 payday. Photo by Springer
Marne Loosenort took advantage of the 2012 LG Pro Classic Consolation Slot Race, turning the misfortunate of a knocked down barrel in the first qualifying round into a $10,000 payday. Photo by Kenneth Springer

A Little Incentive

The continued spinning of the incentive fund web has rounded out the futurity industry to the effect that it offers a little something for everyone. Futurity incentive funds are a lucrative subset of the futurity system that offer alternative sources for monetary earnings. Some programs are geared toward the rider, while others have been designed for the horse’s owner, breeder and stallion owner.

“It’s a great thing for the industry,” Cody advocated. “Participate in every one that you can. Some of them you’re automatically [entered] in, and some you have to enroll in. But if you’re going to be there anyway, do whatever it takes, because it might make the difference in whether or not you bring money home.”

Ireland agrees that it’s a great idea to explore incentive fund opportunities when selecting events to enter.

“When you’re just starting out, the entry fees look pretty big and sometimes you don’t get anything back,” Ireland said. “That’s why the 2D format and the incentive programs were brought into the futurity world. Almost all futurities have an amateur side-pot or division where you’re only competing against people that are just starting out, just like you.”

*Editor’s note: Since this article was first written in 2013, many new breeders futurities and stallion incentive programs have become popular options, such as the Pink and Ruby Buckles, Breeders Challenge, Royal Crown, Blue Collar Breeders, Colorado Classic and more.

“It gives you hope and keeps you wanting more,” said Briggs of the various incentive programs. “You can earn some money back to enter more, giving you more time for your horse to finish out a little and get more competitive.”

But, like the futurity itself, there are incentive funds that must be enrolled in well in advance. In some cases, there is only a small window of entry eligibility, with payments and late fees progressively increasing as the horse ages. For example, a foal can be nominated in the limited stallion incentive program, Future Fortunes, at any point up until December of its 3-year-old year, but it costs significantly more to enroll the same horse as a 3-year-old than it would have cost as a weanling.

“You have to be prepared early and always be looking ahead for what’s coming; it’s not something you can catch up on later,” Ireland cautioned.

However, once a horse is enrolled, the owner, breeder and stallion nominator are eligible for bonus money earnings without an additional entry fee for the duration of the horse’s competitive career.

The bottom line remains that each futurity has its own set of rules that you must study to determine whether or not your horse is eligible. Every producer has their own format and side-pots, catering to prospective contestants in unique ways. With a little research, you can match the futurities to your horse, selecting races that are conducive to your horse’s ability, bloodline (in the case of breeders futurities and incentives) and comfort zone, without compromising your chances to bring home a check.

The Lesson Plan

According to Cody, the calendar is a tool that should be used for planning, not training. At the beginning of the year, she recommends making note of all payment due dates and budgeting with those deadlines in mind.

“Get everything down so you are on top of when everything needs to be sent in, so you don’t miss a deadline or get behind. Being organized, expecting those payments and budgeting around them is important. They’re big entry fees, and a lot of them fall right around the same time,” Cody said.

The graduated payment schedule employed by many futurities makes managing the higher fees more practical, but requires some additional planning to avoid the late fees that can add up quickly if overlooked. Even reserving exhibitions well in advance in some cases will save you from the anxiety that will ensue if you arrive on the grounds only to find they are sold out.

Although you’ve committed to an event that only happens once in that horse’s futurity career, Cody strongly cautions against training by a timetable.

“The entry fees are on the high end for barrel racers and what we do,” Cody acknowledged. 

With the financial factor weighing on the mind, it’s very tempting to give in to the pressure of the looming deadline and judge your progress by the dates on a calendar.

“Be true to your horse,” Cody said. “If he’s only in 11th grade, don’t try to make him a senior in college when you get to the futurity. Let him do the best he can. That really bodes well for the long-term, too. We like to see them get better and better as they go along, and if you stay with them, they will.”

Cody advises people to stay with the program they have developed over the course of the horse’s training. Sticking with the routine will provide some stability in an otherwise unfamiliar and potentially nerve-wracking environment. This will build confidence and sidestep the pitfall of trying something new at a big event. In the warm-up pen with the upperclassmen you’ve always looked up to, it’s easy to second-guess yourself and attempt to replicate their techniques, but straying from the routine your horse is comfortable with will only cause undue stress and anxiety.

“When I was running Bet This Is A Shiner, I knew my horse very well. I started going to the futurities, and I was used to exhibitioning. But when we got to Nebraska, there was a small group of people sharing the arena for a set amount of time. I was walking my horse around outside with a halter, and she was nibbling grass. I felt a little intimidated, but that wasn’t our program. We stayed with our program because that’s what worked for us, although part of me wanted to go in there and do what everybody else was doing,” Cody admitted. “You’re the one who knows your horse best. I watch these people who have been winning, and I respect them, but remember to stay true to what works for your horse. That relaxation time helped my horse a whole lot more than extra hammering would have.”

A Learning Curve

Mastering the mental game is a critical component of graduating from the futurity season with top honors. To build confidence prior to a futurity, Briggs recommends entering some smaller jackpots where the competition isn’t as stiff as it is at the major events.

“Run where you’re competitive and get some confidence. Your colt is just as insecure as you are, so fake it if you have to. Your horse is going to feel the confidence you have in yourself to go out and do it,” Briggs said.

Briggs also strongly encourages riders to compare the times of their futurity horse with those that their solid, open horse is posting and asking the young horse to step it up occasionally.

“You’ve got to ask your horse for as much as you know he can give,” Briggs said. “You can push your finished horse as far as you want, but you have to find the line on a futurity horse. Every once in a while, push your horse harder at the little jackpots than you have before and see what happens. Don’t stay in that slow work mode all the time, picking on your horse to make everything perfect. Sometimes you just have to let it happen.”

As young horses go through the training and seasoning processes simultaneously, their progress is under constant evaluation. Briggs says that a certain margin of error is to be expected. She doesn’t shy away from late entry fees if she feels her horse is not ready to commit to a deadline when the first payment is due, nor does she force the issue on a horse that isn’t ready for a futurity it’s entered in.

“If your horse isn’t doing well and deep down you know that if you go it’s going to make him worse because you’re going to be hammering on him every day just to make one or two decent runs, don’t go. Staying home when in doubt will make your horse better for the next futurity. The worst mistake people make is trying to fix stuff at the futurity; they make one bad run so they’re trying to cram all this stuff down their horse’s throat all week and the horse hates its job by the end of the futurity,” Briggs said.

Putting It To the Test

When it comes down to the final moments before you enter the arena, your nerves may be influenced by the atmosphere and level of competition, which may challenge your ability to focus on the task at hand.

“Tell yourself to do your best and ride your horse the best and quit worrying about the outcome,” Cody said. “You’ve got a job to do, so go do your job and the outcome will take care of itself. If all you’re worried about is the outcome, you’re going to beat yourself.”

Ireland has encountered a great deal of camaraderie and made lasting friendships in futurity circles.

“After a while, you’ll realize how quickly people become your friend,” Ireland said. “Everybody is out to get money but not out to beat their friend. They just want their own horse to get better. People are there to support you, it’s not, ‘I’m going to outrun you;’ it’s, ‘I’m going to make me and my horse better.’ It’s a challenge between you and your horse. We all like to watch good horses. It might be your first futurity horse, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a good one underneath you.”

A futurity jockey needs to be able to maintain consistency and provide reassurance in spite of fluctuations in the horse’s performances. The futurity year can be a roller coaster, even for seasoned professionals.

“Sometimes, you go through a period where every barrel race you get to, it seems you’re riding a different horse. So all of a sudden, every barrel race is a challenge, and what worked last time doesn’t work now. It’s a challenge to deal with all of the things a young horse goes through. You’re asking them for a lot, and some of their reactions are going to be hard to deal with. The rider needs to be able to maintain consistency when the horse seems to be all over the place,” Cody said.

Ireland says having an open mind and rolling with the ups and downs is critical to an enjoyable futurity year.

“Just as the good riders can win and win, they can also have a bad day,” Ireland said. “The people who are just starting out can experience a big highlight that can take them to the top. Your day is coming and you have to be dedicated and willing to work at it, because it’s not easy. Everybody that’s at the top was once at the bottom.”

Further Education

As intense as a horse’s futurity year may be, it’s only 12 months of his entire career. So when you’ve made that last run, you might breath a sigh of relief—but what’s next?

Derbies and maturities are gaining popularity as an avenue for young horses to continue their careers.

“We’re into making horses that will last and be around,” Ireland said.

In most cases, a horse’s derby career lasts until their 6- or 7-year-old year, depending on whether they were futuritied as a 4- or 5-year-old. Some newer programs such as the Breeders Challenge have opened the derby up to 8-year-olds as well.

Traditionally, a maturity is open to horses that are past the futurity and derby age, but in most cases, a horse must have been a futurity horse before it would be eligible to run as a derby horse, and a maturity horse must have previously competed at those levels as well. Again, each program has its own set of rules that warrant research to gain a thorough understanding of the prerequisites.

“It’s a great way to sell horses too,” Ireland said. “Even if you go the whole year and don’t win much, you might have an extremely nice product at the end that’s worth a lot. And these horses have been hauled and stalled, so if there’s a buyer who doesn’t want to do that, it becomes a way of buying a horse that’s already been through it. There’s a lot of opportunity to get back what you’ve already put in.”

Futurities may involve a whirlwind of planning, entry fees and at times, talented colts that seem to have multiple personalities, but with the breeders, producers and trainers who have dedicated themselves to the development of talented young horses, futurities are a great way to jump start a horse’s career.

“Even though they are so competitive, I strongly encourage people to become a part of it,” Ireland said. “It’s a great goal and a constant challenge. It’s exciting to see those horses get out and be competitive and get better as the season goes on. There are so many good horses running, and you can tell that everybody out there has put a lot of time into what they’ve got. They’re proud of them, and they should be. It takes a long time to get there and a lot of dedication.”


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