Scamper and Charmayne James. Photo by Kenneth Springer.

With the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo here, it’s the perfect time to talk about mental toughness in competition.

The mental aspect of running barrels can be a challenge, especially at the NFR. From the hype leading up to the NFR to the comments from the announcers and others who have things to say about the qualifiers and their horses, they just can’t be swayed by those outside factors. As a competitor, the challenge is not letting what anyone else is doing or saying get in your head and distract you from doing your job.

Have a Filter

Ten days at the NFR is mentally and physically grueling. It’s demanding of horses and requires a lot of stamina and focus. The top 15 have run tough all year to be there, so it’s about sticking to what got them there and taking care of business. Caring for your horse(s) and getting around three barrels the best you can every night through those 10 performances is how to make the most of your NFR. Filtering out distractions, staying positive, and paying attention to the job at hand helps slow it all down mentally.

It’s important to take care of yourself while you’re there because things get very busy. Eating right and getting enough sleep are both important because you have to avoid fatigue to stay focused. You can have the perfect game plan going in, but things come up, so be prepared to react. That’s just part of being a smart competitor. Being able to readjust from one run to the next without getting rattled takes mental toughness. If you don’t start off winning or placing in the early rounds, you have to look at why, readjust and persist. Say you hit a barrel or have a little problem in a run, you can’t feel defeated; you have to keep your emotions in check because the next run is a new opportunity to turn it around.

Provide the Best Care

Evaluating and adjusting also come into play with how the horses deal with their surroundings at the NFR. Recognizing if they’re a little distracted or sore and doing something to resolve it is part of being a strong competitor. The top 15 have had to do that all year through many ups and downs, so they know how to keep their horses happy and working.

As might happen at any rodeo, horses can have unforeseen things come up that require getting advice from someone new. You hope it doesn’t happen, but in those situations, you have to rely on your personal judgment to make the right call for the welfare of the horse.

When you’re forced to make changes based on how your horse is feeling or how he’s handling the ground, having experience to draw from is invaluable. If you know something’s not quite right with the way your horse is feeling, trust your instincts. The horses are so valuable and irreplaceable, those riders know it’s not worth risking their longevity for a few runs if something arises that’s simply not manageable.

Stay Confident

Going in there each night with energy, confidence and that feeling that you’re there to win is so important. By energy, I mean heading in there knowing you’re prepared and believing you’ll make a great run.

You can’t let your outlook be changed by all the ‘what ifs,’ especially at the NFR. There are lots of variables in rodeo from ground to luck of the draw, horse changes, and more, so knowing and believing in what got you there will help overcome any doubts that creep into your mind. If you’re forced to make a horse change or other major adjustment, don’t doubt yourself; roll with it and go for it.

The most pressure I felt during the NFR was probably the year I was running Scamper for a 10th world title. That was tough because there was a lot of speculation, people thinking he was past his prime or even done winning. As the week went on, we weren’t really winning a lot in the go rounds. It all came down to the 10th round, and for me, that meant never ever giving up. There were people already consoling me like the race was over and done before the end of the week, like you know, ‘good for you, you’ve had a great run, you tried hard, etc.,’ but deep down I never gave up on myself or my horse. Sometimes, like in a situation where you’re up against the wall, you have to give yourself a pep talk. There are certain situations when you are the only one to rely on to find that confidence. Your family and friends can support you and say positive things to encourage you, but you’re the one who is out there competing; you’re the one going in there trying to make it happen so you have to have great mental fortitude.

The Set Up

It’s important to take advantage of the riding time allowed in Thomas & Mack Arena in order to get the correct position, especially to the first barrel since it’s blind from the alley. Getting your position before the rounds start is much better than missing the barrel and having the emotion of a mistake weighing on you for the next few runs until you get it figured out. The NFR goes fast, you have to be on your game every night. The main thing at the NFR is not running scared thinking about what might go wrong.

The holding area going into the alley can cause some horses to get anxious if they have to sit in there too long. There’s commotion and other horses in your space, so for some riders position in the draw comes into play because of how long they’ll have to wait to make their run. The other horses around you and the disposition of your horse factor in, too. For the most part, those running at the NFR know which horses have a tendency to get unruly or nervous. You just have to make a plan to try your best and keep your distance without letting it affect you.

When I ran Scamper at the NFR, I had to have some adrenaline going and make sure he was woke up and ready to make a run. Cruiser was the opposite. I had to stay very relaxed and laid back like it was all no big deal to keep him calm. Knowing their horses and sticking to what got them there in the first place will help those top 15 qualifiers each have a successful Finals, much like it did me and my horses even though the horses I ran there were opposite in many ways.

Every single night it takes incredible focus on the part of the competitors and their horses, and with a tough field of runners this NFR is going to be an exciting one to watch.

This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Barrel Horse News.