There are certain traits that I think all great horses have in common. First of all, they’ve got to have that look in their eye. There’s just something about it. If I don’t see that sparkle in their eye, I go on to the next one. It’s a very special look — a kindness, a bright eye. If they’ve got a mean look, that’s something you don’t even want to have around because it’s going to be a fight. Horses like that have probably already had some things happen to them that have not been pleasurable.
To be great, a horse has got to have stamina and grit, and they’ve got to want to do their job. Sometimes you get on a horse that has the feeling that you have to make them do it. They don’t really want to do it, and you’re making them go through the motions. To me, that’s not a successful horse. It’s not going to work in the long run. If they don’t want to do it or don’t enjoy it, it can be a struggle from when the day starts.
You want to be able to enjoy your horse and what you’re doing. I look for an attitude from a horse that says, “I love doing this! This is fun!” A horse that is a really great horse has that to them. I’ve ridden some that you think, “Do I have to get on them again?” It’s not fun to get on one and have to tune on him a bunch before you run him. You want to be able to get on and know that horse is ready to go, ready to compete, ready to go in there and do his thing. Then you can get off him, pet on him, love on him, take care of him, and put him up.
I like horses that have the athletic look to them. They’ve got to look like they can handle the part, because we’re turning three barrels as fast as we can. Hopefully, he’s sound. Not all barrel horses are absolutely sound, but most are maintainable. I like to know they have the ability to do what I’m asking them to do.
To bring greatness out of a horse, go to the basics. The basic things are what people forget – feet, teeth, and feed. These horses are athletes and have to perform to the best of their ability. To get them to that level, those are the three basic things that have to be right. I truly, truly believe in that.
Great care takes doing the same thing every day. Exercise them. Make sure that they’ve got good feed and the supplements that they need to perform at their best. I use Platinum. We do regular check ups with my vet to make sure that we’re not missing anything. Keeping their teeth in great condition is one of the most important things because you’ve got a bit in their mouth. Make sure that their feet are balanced and in the best condition they can be in because they’ve got to run on those feet.
Learn how to maintain them in order to keep them at a level where they feel good and want to do their job. That way, when you start them on the road, they’re sound and not dreading any part of it. Some horses will develop bad habits as a result of not feeling their best. You can try to fix some of that, but bad habits can be hard to cure. They’ll have ulcers in their mouth, or their feet are not properly balanced to their body, or they’ve been on a round bale in the pasture. And they’re supposed to run and do the best they can? These are athletes; they can go to the pasture on a round bale when they retire.
If I had had Latte when he was younger and rushed him into it, I don’t think he would be the horse that he is now. He was a late bloomer, and I’m thankful they didn’t try him in the futurities and derbies. He was kind of gangly and lanky as a colt; I’ve got some pictures that you would not even imagine it’s the same horse. I don’t think he was mature enough to be pressured into what it takes to go on the road. He would’ve been great, but I don’t think he’d be at the level he is right now. As a 7-year-old, I was just going to season him. I didn’t think he had quite enough maturity in him to handle a lot, like what I put on him last year as an 8-year-old. When I asked him to go to 98 rodeos, he was the only horse I rode, the only horse I owned, and he handled it really well.
Myself, I’ve learned a lot over my 53 years. I remember being 23 years old rodeoing with Byron. We’d just gotten married and I had a real nice horse, but I didn’t know then what the road does to one, and it does a lot. At that time, I didn’t realize what it took to take care of that horse. He lasted me a year, but the next year he wasn’t the same horse. I took great care of him, but I’ve learned so much over the years. I know when enough is enough, when I can slack off a little bit, and when I get tired, Latte’s probably tired. So we’ll rest for a few days and then we’re good to go again.
If I had been younger and had Latte in his prime, I don’t think I would have been aware of some of the things I know now. I’m pretty laid back. If Latte does something, it doesn’t bother me, where at a younger age I might have scolded him. Now I just let him do it, kind of like a grandparent. I don’t want to bust his bubble. He has to mind, he has to have manners but every little thing that he does, I don’t scold him and I probably would have if I had been 20-25 years old.
Knowing his personality, and knowing him, we just have a very special bond. He knows me and I know him. We just have that special thing. No amount money could ever get him from me. He’s won me a world championship at age 53. He helped me get through my time in a wheelchair, helped me cope with life after Reagon. He’s going to be here for the rest of his life. I’m going to take care of him forever.
Danika Kent is managing editor for Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected]