EquiStat all-time leading barrel racer Kassie Mowry explains her program for a colt’s first year on the barrels, from starting the barrel pattern to prepping for the juvenile futurities.
“It’s like watching paint dry,” isn’t a phrase that comes to mind when watching all-time leading barrel racer Kassie Mowry send any of her barrel horses down the alley. The winner of more than $4.3 million in EquiStat earnings on the cloverleaf is a sure shot to be at the top of the 1D anywhere she pulls up. But it’s the time spent moving at a turtle’s pace in the beginning on her 2- and 3-year-olds that lays the foundation for her colts to become consistent and confident at top speed.
“To me, it all starts with the beginning. Everything comes back to the beginning of when they’re started, just being as patient and slow as you can possibly be,” Mowry said. “At the very beginning is when I take the most time, and that’s what benefits those horses in the end. I go so incredibly slow—it’s like watching paint dry. That’s how they learn.”
As one of the top futurity trainers in the game as well as a two-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier, Mowry’s horses excel no matter what direction they go in barrel racing. She believes taking training slowly in young colts builds a horse that actually thinks about what it’s doing versus simply reacting, allowing them to retain that training throughout their careers—not just flash-in-the-pan futurity horses.
“I see a lot of people on their 2-year-olds on Facebook, like ‘Oh look, it’s already loping through,’ but they’re just pulling here, pulling there. Those horses are just reacting. I don’t want them reactive; I want them thinking,” she said. “In my experience through training all these horses, taking that time in the beginning will always save you later. They’ll be more confident, and they’ll do more on their own. That frees me up to help them, because I’m not holding them or constantly helping them. Then, when they do get in a bind, I can be there to help because they’re not leaning on me and I don’t have contact with them the whole time.”
—> Read more: Early Traits of a Winner—Kassie Mowry on Prospects
Mowry has developed a well-run program over the years and also works closely alongside her fiancé, Michael Boone, especially during the horses’ 2-year-old years. Mowry and Boone each own many of the horses she rides each year.
They start their own respective colts on the barrels and have a different schedule for patterning after getting 2-year-olds back from the colt breaker in the spring and summer.
“I start the barrels on the ones I own and my customers’ horses in fall to winter of their 2-year-old year,” explained Mowry, who lives in Dublin, Texas. “Mike starts his in the summer of their 2-year-old year, because he’s in Pennsylvania and the weather’s not great in the fall or winter. In the summertime, he can put a lot of time on his colts.”
The Boone-owned colts then go to Mowry for further training after he’s put the initial patterning on them as 2-year-olds. The couple has churned out several winners through that setup, such as Girls Dig Fame, Famous Ladies Man, and the most recent example, 2022 futurity standout Force The Goodbye (“Jarvis”).
“Mike is very patient with them. He had Jarvis as a 2-year-old and had him patterned, like all of his, very correct. The horses just know exactly where to put their feet,” Mowry said. “Mike starting his own helps us get more colts more time early on. When I’m starting these colts, it’s wintertime and cold for me. Since he takes his in the summer, it helps free me up a bit and gives my colts extra time when I don’t have as many on my plate.”
—> Read more: Leading Owner Michael Boone
Mowry has a strict list of prerequisites that horses must be doing, and doing well, before she’ll even set the barrels up in the arena.
“There’s a few key things they have to be doing really well before I will let them see a barrel—like, it’s not even an option to go around a barrel. I don’t just go out there and go around barrels and teach them to turn a barrel,” she said.
The first is self-carriage. The colt must be able to hold itself up, travel forward in a circle and on a straight line without constant contact or guidance from Mowry. This will carry through the horse’s entire career, she says.
“Everything is proper position and balance. I want them carrying themselves before I ever let them see a barrel. I don’t want to be holding them off with an inside rein, where when I let go, they feel like they’re going to drop at a lope in a circle,” she said. “When they’re running, I’m not strong, especially upper-body strength. I can’t make one do anything. I have to rely on that start and them doing a lot on their own as far as self-carriage and where they’re going for them to stay light for me to handle on the pattern how I want.”
She also makes sure her horses know how to rate, shorten their stride and back off her hands so that it’s not a struggle later when she’s showing them to rate down for a barrel. Mowry won’t let a horse start the turn, even without a barrel, if it ignores her cues to prepare.
“I really want them to come back to me going into a circle. I need those two or three strides right before a turn where I gather them and feel them shorten their stride and take those short, collected steps,” Mowry said. “I don’t want them to just go in long-strided. Later on, when you get to the backside of a barrel, that’s when they can’t pull it off. Head goes in the air, shoulders go out, and they peace out. A shortness of the stride will bring their back up and their hind end underneath them, but they’re still moving forward.”
Rating goes hand-in-hand with collection. She teaches both by using her body position and relying on her English riding background as a three-day eventer (jumping, cross-country and dressage).
“I’ll let them gallop out and then bring them back to a slower, more collected lope. Instead of pulling, I’ll just sit up with my upper body and ask them to come back to me. Then when I lean forward into what they call two-point position when I jumped, that means go ahead and stride out,” Mowry said. “I do that with them more than stopping. Stopping doesn’t teach collection. I want to shorten and lengthen the stride to get what I want—that’s what you want at a barrel, not just to stop.”
Small circles help Mowry’s horses develop the strength and footwork needed to hold that collection.
“I don’t do a lot of big circles starting out. I will if they’re having trouble keeping their leads or switching their leads,” she said. “To me, it’s either a balance thing—are they too bent and can’t hold it that bent? Or are they too big? I have a lot of bigger colts that struggle with that collection, and they’ll swap leads in the hind end. Or it’s that they’re not physically developed enough to do it.”
Loping tight circles is hard for young horses that lack strength and coordination. Mowry gives them plenty of leeway and only looks for a little bit of progress each time as they develop and get stronger.
“They really need to build that muscle, so those things I’ll be really lenient about. I’ll let them take those extra steps and make the circle a little bigger so they can do it. I’ll only do as big as I need to get them to take forward, efficient steps,” she said. “I don’t want to overwhelm them with something they can’t do, because that will only make them fret over it.”
Mowry finds a balance of doing enough small circles to build physicality and fitness in a colt without making them resent it or exhausting them. She’s always conscious about giving the horse a release for trying when things get difficult.
“I’ll stay in that circle multiple times. If I have to circle five or six times, I will. Sometimes I’ll spiral in and out, and when I bring them in, I can feel that it’s hard. But if they do it, I’ll let them out of it. I won’t just keep them in it or tire them out to where their legs feel like Jello,” Mowry said. “You’ll be able to feel them get stronger over a couple weeks or a month as they mature and build muscle where it needs to be. All that’s really hard. They’ve never been asked to do that before.”
Introducing the Barrel Pattern
Mowry is particular about the structure of how she starts her colts on the barrel pattern. She won’t just head out to the arena and tool around the barrels for fun.
“I’m funny about when I first start them on the pattern; I have to be in the right mindset. Literally, there’s certain days where I’m like, ‘OK, this is the day, you’re ready,’” she said with a laugh.
She begins by teaching the barrel pattern at a walk or trot and keeps everything painfully simple for her colts.
“I go so slow. It’s at a walk or a trot. That’s how they learn to place their feet and do it consistently, when they have that time and you’re patient and everything is that clear to them,” Mowry said. “It’s not so much of a question later when you add speed. They know exactly where their feet are going to go. Nothing’s rushed.”
Mowry will move up to a lope when her colts feel confident about where they’re going slowly. She takes her time with that phase, too, and won’t ask for more speed until they feel correct.
“Once they start doing things around a barrel at a lope how I want, I am quick to ask them to go on,” she said. “I don’t just lope through forever, it’s more the walk-trot and just-starting-out-lope phase that I take forever. After that, I do want them to know how to leave a barrel and leave it strong and go somewhere.”
As she adds speed, Mowry says this rock-solid foundation of learning how to go into and around a barrel slowly helps her colts find a comfort zone at the barrel rather than stress about the turns, especially as she starts hauling them to new places.
“I take a lot more time actually starting them on the pattern. Later on they sail through it, and I have less setbacks six months later when we’re loping, cruising through, and starting to exhibition,” Mowry said. “When I start exhibitioning these colts and they’re scared of things, looking around and everything’s different, the barrels are comfort.”
Jarvis is a good example of Mowry’s theory. He placed second in the Barrel Futurities of America SuperStakes Slot Race in his first competitive run in November 2021. He went on to do well that same week in the BFA Juvenile, and the following month the gelding won the OKC Better Barrel Races Rookie Futurity.
Mowry says she felt the colt rely on the foundation she and Boone put in place a year earlier when he became scared during his first month of competition.
“It was clear going into Oklahoma City that Jarvis was scared of the banners, and we only had one exhibition for 45 seconds. I’d been sick for two weeks, and he hadn’t seen a barrel. He ran in there so scared, but he just looked at the barrel and was like, ‘I know what to do here,’” Mowry said. “They all go back to that foundation is my theory.”
Contrary to many training styles, Mowry doesn’t stray from the cloverleaf or use drills. She believes in keeping barrel work the same as the job she’s training the horse to eventually do—run the barrel pattern.
“I don’t really do drills. I never take them off the pattern. I don’t do all rights and lefts. I really don‘t do anything like that,” Mowry said. “It’s always everything exactly how I want it to be when they run, no questions, no gray areas. I keep everything very much the same. How I ask them, what I expect.”
Overall, she tries to keep the pattern easy for her colts as they’re learning.
“My expectations shift to certain things as they progress, but first starting out, everything’s pretty simple and I try to keep it pleasant,” Mowry said.
On the Clock
Mowry starts exhibitioning colts the summer of their 3-year-old year to prepare for the November 15 eligibility date that starts the futurity year.
By spring and early summer, she wants them comfortably high-loping a set at home before starting to exhibition. Having an outdoor arena also helps in her preparation, since she has to haul out to ride when it’s muddy.
“I haul quite often, so they get to see the barrels at other places, which helps me as I go to exhibition,” Mowry said. “I want them at that pace by early summer, because a lot of times it gets so hot here that they’ll get a month off during the summer.”
Late summer is when Mowry starts paying attention to the clock. She says typically her colts will be about a second off the open horses, even if they may be running faster at home.
“They’ll be going faster at my house, so I can see that they feel comfortable going that speed before I ask them to do it somewhere else,” she said. “I know it’s going to be rough for a while when I start exhibitioning them. They’re afraid of popup barrels, or whatever it may be, but then some of them do better when I exhibition them than they do at the house. I always love that, when you take them to town and they shine.”
With entries for the juvenile futurities (classes in November and December for 3-year-olds beginning their 4-year-old futurity year) normally due in October, Mowry hopes to see some speed on the clock in September to give her a benchmark.
However, the veteran trainer knows it’s not always so cut-and-dry.
“September-ish, those colts are clocking. The month before the slot race, Jarvis was running times in exhibitions that would place in the barrel race,” Mowry said. “I’ve had some clock up like that and then go downhill for a while and come back. But it’s nice to know that they can clock.”
A horse falling off the clock or regressing is bound to happen throughout the process and isn’t cause for alarm. Mowry says when things aren’t going well is when she learns the most.
“When they don’t stay there, you start figuring out OK, how do I get that horse here, and how do I keep him there? This is what it took to get there, and now it’s coming undone, so how much slow work do I need to do to get that horse back and keep him there?” she said. “That’s when I learn a lot with these horses in the late summer and early fall.”
Figuring out the puzzle of how to keep each individual at its best is one of Mowry’s favorite parts of training.
“Some of them, like Jarvis, don’t need to see the barrels very often. If I just ride them around and keep them soft and how they need to feel, it applies to the barrels when they do see the barrels,” Mowry said. “Some colts need more slow time. They might need to go trot the pattern a couple times every time I ride them so that when I run them, they stay together.”
Approaching the Juvenile
Toward the latter part of a colt’s 3-year-old year as juvenile competition looms is when Mowry starts treating her colts more like a horse that’s already competing. She backs off the fast work at home and uses her once-weekly exhibitions to put the hammer down and her ride time at home to keep the horse fit, soft and correct.
“I don’t do a lot of fast runs at my house after the summer and in the fall. If I have my gear set up how I want it—my bit, my bonnet or headgear—and have made a decision that way, then riding at home is getting them more broke,” Mowry said. “Getting them to respond to cues quicker, sharper, things like that. But not many fast runs at home. I’m hauling them once a week for that.”
Mowry will use her exhibitions to gauge what kind of work the colt needs at home and continue honing in until their first competitive run.
Her program comes full circle at this point in the year. She does most of her tuning at a trot, because she feels the horse can absorb what she’s reinforcing better when their minds and feet are moving at a slower gear.
If a horse can’t do what she’s asking at a trot, it’s going to show up in speed, she says.
“Most of my tuning once they learn to run through the barrels is at a trot. I love to trot to the barrel and walk around the barrel,” Mowry said. “If they push through my hands going into a barrel at a walk or trot, I’m going to stop them not for rate, but to get them off my hands and onto their rear end.”
She says this can be a common problem once the run hits a young horse and they want to get aggressive about the turns. This is one instance on the pattern where Mowry will utilize a halt and back-up.
“When they start going faster, I need to work more on rating them and collecting before the turn, or they won’t be able to do it quickly. If I trot to the barrel and sit down, and they just go into my hands and push through the bit, that’s when I stop them,” Mowry said. “I asked for that collection, they don’t give it, then I’m going to stop and say, ‘Hey, get off my hands. You didn’t listen, this is what happens. We’re stopping, and you’re going to back off my bit.’ I do a lot of backing up, more than a lot of people. It helps build muscle and core muscle, and it helps get their shoulders up and off their front end.”
Adjusting her expectations on the pattern as horses change with training remains fluid throughout a horse’s career.
“My expectations change as they progress. I’ll be a stickler on certain things over others, because that might be key in getting that horse to progress,” Mowry said.
One example of something Mowry won’t let a horse get away with, no matter what stage of training, is pushing through her hands or diving into a turn without rating.
“Some things I’ll let slide early on, some things I won’t. When I start adding speed and they don’t really know what’s going on, and I’m asking them to go faster, sometimes they’ll go into the turn and never shorten, get on their front end or stay long,” Mowry said. “Well, I’m going to stop right there and be like, ‘No, you need to come back to me. I won’t let you start this turn if you dive into it incorrectly.’”
She won’t get after a horse for an honest mistake, especially as they’re learning and figuring out their feet at different speeds.
“With Jarvis, his 3-year-old year in the summer he would go a stride or half a stride by every single barrel. I just didn’t make a big deal about it and felt with time he’d lock onto it on his own. That’s part of being a laidback gelding; he wasn’t aggressive about things. I knew he’d get tired of taking that extra step—it just means a longer pattern,” Mowry said with a laugh. “I felt like those mistakes were because he was trying, and his timing just didn’t work out.”
These simple guiding principles have worked for Mowry throughout her career—starting slowly, keeping it simple, rewarding try and correcting by doing the opposite.
“Whatever they do wrong, I do the opposite,” Mowry said. “I always give them the chance to do the right thing first. They don’t really get in trouble over doing anything. It’s more like, ‘OK, that didn’t work. How about try this?’ I just wear them out with doing it over and over until it becomes second nature. I can’t tell them what I want, but that’s the only way I can show them.”