“What we are hearing with our ears creates what we are thinking. What we are thinking is what we are speaking. What we are speaking creates a habit. Habit creates character and character creates destiny.” – Paul Tierney, PRCA World All-Around Champion

Our fate, or destiny, is the outcome of our actions. The evolution of our barrel racing knowledge is endless, but one of the most important aspects of success in the arena is the ability to perform to our full potential. Performing at your peak, or getting in “the zone” as athletes commonly describe it, may come naturally to some but elude others. Perfection can never be reached in any sport, but we can all strive to achieve our best and fulfill our ambitions.

Obviously, barrel racers are human beings, not machines. Just as no two barrel horses are the same, no two competitors function exactly alike. Mental toughness and physical ability must come together with preparation in order for dreams to become reality. Studying the qualities of proven rodeo champions and picking tactics to apply that have aided their success can help you find your zone. We caught up with a few champions from various rodeo events to see how it all comes together for them.


Three-time WPRA World Champion barrel racer Sherry Cervi

Multiple Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World champion barrel racer Sherry Cervi, Marana, Ariz., reminds herself that regardless of what venue she is competing in she must do what she needs to do to get around three barrels as fast as possible. Cervi added that it’s easy to over analyze barrel racing and she is careful not to let that impulse take control. If it takes picturing yourself lying on a relaxing, sunny beach in order to remain calm, then do it.

“Part of being a competitor is having the ability to control your adrenaline, using it for something positive,” says Cervi.

On several occasions Cervi says she knows she was in “the zone” that other athletes talk about. While difficult to describe it, Cervi says we should learn how to mentally prepare for it in all situations. Whether $100,000 is on the line, or $25, aim for consistency every time time.

“In every circumstance, stay on course. Stick to the plan,” says Cervi.

Since it’s common for Cervi to switch from riding colts to rodeoing on her finished horses, this cowgirl knows how important it is to consider the level of training for each horse she’s riding at any given time. When running finished horses at the rodeos, Cervi rides them like they know their job, as they do. The confidence of the team, horse and rider, trusting each other allows success to follow. When the money is down and Cervi is on greener barrel horses, she acknowledges their weaknesses, but at the same time gives them trust in the training they have. Even if things don’t go perfectly at the barrel race, Cervi does the fixing happens at home.

Using her downtime between rodeos effectively is a positive for Cervi. Whether she’s thinking about different horses and what she can do to make them better, or studying other people and how they work their horses, Cervi stays open to absorbing more knowledge.

Surrounding herself with positive, supportive people both on the road and at home is a must for Cervi. She admires people that are great at something and can handle themselves in and out arena appropriately and act like true champions.

“Certain competitors who desire the same things as you do can make you strive harder in a good way,” says Cervi, who considers herself fortunate to have experience competing against great horses and competitors alike in her rodeo career.


Five-time World Champion Saddle Bronc Rider Billy Etbauer

Humility, talent and great timing characterize legendary saddle bronc rider Billy Etbauer of Edmond, Okla.

“For no reason understood the right people are just put in your path to offer help or words of encouragement,” says Etbauer. That’s how this go-for broke, five-time world champion looks at it even during those times when things aren’t working out exactly as planned. Always stay pointed down the pathway leading towards your goals.

For Etbauer, staying the course means riding fundamentally correct, which builds consistency and in turn trains muscle memory. This philosophy helped Etbauer maintain consistency during his career, even when facing professional rodeo’s most formidable broncs year after year. “Staying calm in the more intense situations where there is a heightened level of action and reminding yourself to take care of business is ultimately what you’re searching for in competition,” says Etbauer.

Maintaining physical health was also a top priority for Etbauer during his career. In his younger years Etbauer says would get on anything that bucked, however, as time went by and the fundamentals were solidly in place, he chose to limit the risk of getting injured. Staying sound, confident and healthy were some of Etbauer’s tricks of the trade. Whether sitting on a horse, walking, or talking, Etbauer says he constantly rehearsed the mental vision of riding a bronc in his mind.

Leading by example, and making each rodeo count, these days Etbauer helps his wife, Hollie, and their children, Kord, Jacie and Treg, train and compete on their own barrel horses. The Etbauers give their children the tools but allow them to find their own way in the rodeo arena.

NFR Bull Rider Bobby Welsh

Bobby Welsh grew up with his six siblings on a dairy farm near Gillette, Wyo. He never had TV and didn’t even watch rodeo but Welsh knew he wanted to be a bull rider. Faith coupled with desire gave him the tools to win. Welsh idolized athletes like Jo Montana and Michael Jordon, which he says helped his rodeo game because they were the best competitors he had seen to pattern himself after.

By the age of 15, Welsh hadn’t yet reached the height of five feet so his dad wouldn’t let him high school rodeo during the fall of his freshman year. The next spring, however, Welsh got the green light and showed up to the rodeos 80 points behind his competition in the standings. Unwilling to take no for an answer, Welsh tackled the challenge with focus and determination. He also made a conscious decision never to let alcohol, drugs, or trouble get in the way of his goals and dreams. Demonstrating his determination, Welsh won the state championship bull riding year-end saddle by 80 points that year and for three consecutive years thereafter. He also earned the National High School Rodeo Association bull riding title.

Welsh is nothing less than wholehearted when offering insight on the importance of the mental game.

“In the short eight seconds of a bull ride, our body cannot react to thinking,” explains Welsh. “Our mind and body need to be computerized to do our event. When we feel a bull or a lead change, we have to have ourselves trained to react.”

Welsh mentally prepares by rehearsing the perfect ride in his mind while he’s doing everyday tasks such as driving, or even sitting on the couch. When he goes to the practice pen, Welsh says he’s practicing for the NFR, a venue to which he has made seven past qualifications.

“I’m mentally preparing for an unridden bull, 80,000 fans and everything that could happen. What you do in the practice pen forms your muscle memory,” says Welsh. Welsh is choosy about what type of bulls he gets on in the practice pen because he wants practice sessions to promote the exact fundamentals needed to ride a spinning bull.

Welsh does not let his draw affect his mental game. He believes that a bull is a bull and you have to perform with consistency in order to win. He focuses on one or two fundamentals every time he rides. As far as cross-training goes for this cowboy, he relates his effort in the arena to every aspect of his life. How he is as a father, husband, or even when performing chores around the house, reflects how he wants to be as a bull rider and cowboy. Welsh trains himself to be a champion every day.

He finds it beneficial to focus on perfecting three or four elements of his game at one time. For example, in bull riding Welsh might focus his mind on lift, seat, chest, feet and front end during a ride in order to keep it simple. Once the basics are mastered, Welsh builds from there.

“God said to my people, ‘perish for lack of vision,’ meaning, they are doing things but have no idea where they are going or how they are going to get where they want to be,” says Welsh. “So, in all this barrel horse and rodeo stuff, we need to have a vision for ourselves receiving the buckle or the saddle or whatever it is that is at the end of where we want to be. It’s very important to have a dream and goals and know how to get them. That will keep you focused on the end prize. Have a vision! Have a plan!”

Welsh and his wife, Sunny, have four children: Madison, Colt, Hayden, and Aftyn, all of whom are interested in rodeo.


Two-time PRCA World Champion Walt Woodard

A true fundamentalist, Woodard’s belief in mechanics and horsemanship gives him the confidence to never doubt his ability to win. He would take a challenge that his heart rate stays consistent from the practice pen to the bright lights of the NFR.

“It’s like waiting for the glow plug in a pickup, to allow it to start. You know it will fire, once the light goes off. If you perform the mechanics correctly, you can expect it to happen in the rodeo,” says the veteran.

For Woodard, Stephenville, Texas, one key to mental preparation is the consistent pursuit of horsemanship perfection. He believes the more broke your horse is, the better they obviously perform, which in turns helps the rider reach their rodeo goals.

“In any event your horse needs to be getting off your leg, soft in the face, etc. When a person is rodeoing, they can’t always stop to practice,” he maintains.

Woodard believes in preparing horses in advance to overcome weaknesses that might be revealed during the heat of battle. If a horse is ducking in, for instance, he would exaggerate getting them off of your leg in the warm-up prior to competition.

Getting through a slump or missing a steer goes back to Woodard’s belief in mechanics and solid preparation. Are you making sure that your horse isn’t sore anywhere? Are you riding your horse enough? Is he overweight or under?  These are just a few of the questions one must ask when analyzing what is costing them in competition.

Woodard also believes in surrounding himself with happy, positive people in business and in life.

“Winners have a lot of things in common; they are motivated, driven, like to laugh and do not have any undue drama around them,” he says. Woodard admires people like fellow team roper Travis Graves for his ability to stay hungry and driven, not sour or bitter. Also Trevor Brazile, who demonstrates a winner’s personality due to his focus, work ethic and positive energy.

Woodard says that in his case he always tried to make positive use of downtime on the rodeo road by making sure every angle was covered as far as his horses’ health and wellbeing.             Woodard followed the lead of another team-roping legend, Leo Camarillo, who would say that we spend all this time getting a broke horse, then once they are broke, we quit riding them. According to Woodard, Camarillo believed in riding his horses every day, even once they became “finished” rope horses. At the NFR, Woodard says he would follow the barrel racers because they were the best at finding great places for their horses to stay where they could relax and ride.

He was especially in awe of the team of Charmayne James and Scamper.

“Scamper knew what was expected of him; his legs, feet and overall health were perfect. It was such an incredible and amazing thing that he would never get sour or duck and the team would give 100 percent to each other,” says Woodard.

To succeed in any rodeo event, it takes a team effort, emotionally as well as physically. Woodard says that his wife, Darlene, and son, Travis, have been in his corner every step of the way and that he always knew it.


PRCA Hall of Famer Paul Tierney

On the way to qualifying for the NFR nine times in calf roping and five times in steer wrestling while earning countless titles in a career spanning three decades, Paul Tierney switched from heading, heeling and steer roping, in addition to calf roping and steer wrestling. He had to develop a strong mental game. “I do a visualization of each swing and how it works before each particular event. It has become more automatic to switch between the events versus 20 or 30 years ago because of the consistency of mental practice,” says Tierney.

Tierney’s no excuses approach means doing whatever it takes to remain relaxed, while avoiding anticipation and nervousness during competition. He suggests doing something different like getting off your horse and jumping or stretching to calm nerves and get in “the zone.”

Staying calm is especially important since horses are extremely “feely” animals, remarked Tierney. “Horses do not read situations like a rider can and one needs to be sending the right message to their horse.”

Tierney doesn’t believe in slumps; he uses analytic strategies to investigate what is going on and fix it. A lot of the time, a competitor is trying to win more than the situation will allow. By putting your game back together from the foundation up, Tierney says you can evaluate whether it’s your horses or you at the root of the problem. Focus on the basics and get back to the pay window. “There is always something we can do, we can analyze the situation,” says Tierney.

Due to the lengthy span of his career, the fact that he has a family active in rodeo and teaches eight to 10 roping clinics each year, Tierney keeps his arsenal of mental toughness wisdom well stocked to help others.

“In general, as we start out with our children on the mental side of competition, we use a lot of repetition and self talk,” Tierney says. “When we get to the professional level, the phrases turn into to three, two or even one word that we need to focus on such as ‘stay forward,’ as in going through the score.”

Tierney encourages rodeo athletes to avoid putting things in their body that aren’t good for their system because that only interferes with the game. He constantly strives to be better and maintain a positive sphere of influences.

“We have to have faith in what we can be, know we can step it up and understand, yet not dwell on our weaknesses and know there is another level of greatness,” says the all-around champion.


Four-time World Champion Bareback Rider Bobby Mote 

“There is a common denominator with any competitor or successful person,” says Bobby Mote. “Everybody starts at the same place; we all have different scenarios, but the successful people make the most of it under any circumstance or any situation. There is a similar focus a competitor has to have to compete in any discipline.”

The Culver, Ore., cowboy has gained added perspective having tackled the challenge of team roping professionally as well. Hands down, bareback riding offers a different level of excitement for Mote than team roping. Mote discovered a happy medium for his nerves by switching hitting from the aggressive event of bareback riding to the timed event end of the arena. Mote clears his mind of any distractions in order to focus on each individual event. Concentrating on one or two fundamentals to execute helps Mote transition between the two events.

“Our horses can sense any amount of energy we are feeding him. We need to be relaxed enough for our horse to perform, but excited enough to give 100 percent,” says Mote.

At first, Motes says it was a little tricky for him to master this skill, however the time and effort he placed on building consistency, the easier it became. Mote has found that riding older, solid heading horses also helps.

Mote believes in doing his mental preparation before he enters the arena. As long as he doesn’t over think the situation presented and sticks to the reactions learned in the practice pen, success is bound to follow. Mote uses lessons learned in the bareback riding to improve his team roping. There were no shortcuts, according to this cowboy, but he used his head by learning from other people’s mistakes. Tackling a new event was easier for Mote due to previous lessons learned that he says apply to anything he does in life.

For Mote, cross training in the gym is important to his physical health as a rodeo athlete and gives him time to think about what he needs to do in the arena. Mote knows that while he is pumping iron, his mind is aware of the job he has in the arena. His attitude is that “iron sharpens iron.”

Mote surrounds himself with the best competitors and most positive people he can, which enables him to perform his best and provides a measuring stick so he knows what he needs to work on. Mote believes that competitors who master the task of eliminating distractions in competition are serious forces to be reckoned with.

Mote has a true appreciation and admiration for a horse that knows it job; the ones that are willing to do whatever it takes and rise to the occasion. Bareback riders, like Mote, find a connection with these horses and feed off of each other’s energy. It’s this “something special,” in the connection between animal and human that makes rodeo an extra amazing sport. When the chips are down, Mote is convinced that rodeo horses have the ability to give their all and fight for the win, just as their rider must.

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