2012 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Champion Barrel Racer and $1 million cowgirl Mary Walker offers time-tested advice to build a successful foundation in the next generation of champions.
By Mary Walker with Danika Kent
Recently, at an open barrel race in Stonyford, California, there was a little girl on a half Arabian-half Quarter Horse. This horse made a beautiful run, and she won second. She came over to the trailer and her dad was with her. He knew nothing about horses. They bought a truck, a trailer, and a horse, because that’s what she wanted to do. They’re going to the Junior High School Rodeo Finals in California on horses she trained herself. When she started, she knew nothing, but she wanted to learn to ride. Not every kid can do that, but she did. Her horse wasn’t a big, high-powered, expensive horse, but he’s a nice horse and a very good horse. And she’s so happy and so proud of herself. You could tell the dad knew nothing, but he’s left that part up to her and he takes her, and that’s what they do with their kids.
To the Parents
I always thought that with barrel racing, roping, and any of the kids’ rodeo events, a good thing about it was that you knew where your kids were all the time. Every weekend, they were usually at a junior rodeo or a jackpot, and you were with them. It’s a family thing—until they’re old enough to drive, and then it’s “uh oh,” and you’ve got to teach them the responsibility of pulling a trailer and driving safe. But if your child wants to get a horse and run barrels, be supportive and get some help so they can learn the correct way.
First, you’ve got to find the proper horse to match the ability of the rider. Go to a professional or someone who knows a lot about horses who can help you find one that’s safe and sound. Don’t go above your child’s riding ability; that’s where I see most of the problems, and it can be very dangerous. You can move them up as they get older, learn how to ride better and how to take care of their horses.
With my son, Reagon, we knew he had outgrown a horse when his roping got better and he needed something a little faster. It’s the same thing with barrel racing. You don’t want to put a beginner on a really fast, turny horse. You want a child to feel comfortable and learn how to run barrels and how to be safe. As they get more confidence in themselves and their ability improves, you move them up to a faster horse.
I’ve heard a million times of people buying a 3-year-old for their child, thinking they can learn together or that that one horse will take them on through college. Not only can that be unsafe, it can be extremely frustrating. You don’t want your child to get discouraged. It’s easy for a kid to say, “OK, forget it,”—and you’ve already invested all the money into trucks, trailers, feed, shoeing, vet bills, and everything it takes to maintain a horse. Find a horse that will teach your child, not the other way around. A lot of good horses teach kids to be great riders.
As children progress, they will outgrow horses, so it’s important you don’t let them get too attached. That’s hard, because kids do get attached to their animals. But if they get attached to every one, you’ll end up with a barn full of horses.
Bad habits are really hard to break. There are so many barrel racing schools out there—take your kids to several so they can pick and choose what they like and what fits their riding style. I went to a lot of schools growing up. I went to Martha Josey’s several times. It’s like taking them to baseball or football practice; you need to let the professionals teach them and help gain a better understanding for yourself.
Some people can’t afford it, and I understand that. So you help them the best you can. Parents should not feel bad or ever go in debt to buy their kid a horse. Buying the horse is the cheapest part of the whole thing. Add in feed, hay, vet bills, shoeing, tack, and a trailer, and it’s a very, very expensive hobby. But I think kids who do it are very responsible and grow up learning a lot about life.
There is good, there is bad, and you don’t always win. Kids will learn to win as graciously as they learn to lose. When it comes to confidence, a lot of that is encouragement. Kids need encouragement. You have to be positive and constructive. Make sure they have what they need—good-quality saddles, good bridles, quality equipment that won’t break. As a parent, you have to make sure you do that, because it’s for the safety of your own child.
To the Kids
Have fun and enjoy it. You make lifetime friends at horse shows, jackpots, and rodeos. Seek out good, positive role models. Don’t ever hesitate to go up to someone whom you look up to and introduce yourself and ask for help if you need it. Just talk to them. Personally, I love kids. I love to talk to them and visit with them. Don’t be shy.
Work hard. This is something you have to do every day. One of the major things I always told Reagon was take care of your animals, because they can’t take care of themselves.
Believe in your own horse. Be happy and proud that you have what you have. When I was growing up, I had to train all my own horses. I didn’t have anybody to train them. But I worked really, really hard at it, and I had fun doing it. Not everyone is blessed with a lot of money to buy expensive horses. I think when you accomplish things on a horse that may not be a high-dollar animal, it makes you really feel good about yourself. You’ve just got to do the best you can with what you have.
Don’t get down when things aren’t going your way or you’re not winning, because it always turns around. It’s always a learning experience. Try to stay as positive as you can and be around positive people. When you’re around a negative person, all it does is bring you down. Life is too short to get upset and angry. Take it day by day. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Sell the horse if you have to and buy something else. There’s nothing that says you have to keep that horse that doesn’t fit you and you have to make it work.
When you do lose, learn from it. Figure out why you didn’t win. If you got outrun, you just got outrun. Put your horse up, pet him, and go to the next race. It can be hard for kids when they’re really young to understand the difference between winning and losing. But as you get older, you learn the difference. Winning can be the greatest feeling in the world, but losing builds the determination to do better and work harder.