By Julie Mankin
On my way to Kassie Mowry’s place west of Stephenville, Texas, one blustery day in early March, I got a phone call. It was Mowry, confirming the time and making sure I knew that “we all do the same things, pretty much, all of us trainers.” That’s classic Mowry—pointing out that she doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Trouble is, the numbers are proving her wrong.
The 27-year-old California native can make a winner out of virtually any horse and has for nearly a decade now. She’s racking up annual six-figure futurity earnings on a tiny string of colts, but go to her Texas home, and instead of fancy feed supplements, indoor barns and breeding programs, her secret weapon is simply a worked-up patch of native ground and three rusted 50-gallon drums—one of which is caved in from a tractor mishap.
Ask her point-blank why she wins so much, and she’ll tell you it’s because some bad cats show up at her house. That’s true, more than likely, but in talking with Mowry and watching her ride, a few other things come up.
Key No. 1: Knowing a horse inside and out.
Unlike the futurity trainers who start the season picking through 15 to 20 prospects, Mowry begins each spring with just six 3-year-olds. She takes only six because that’s the maximum number she can ride each day and still intimately know each horse.
Out of all the horses she’s been sent or bought or raised to train, Mowry has only culled two. Yes, they’re bred to do the job, but they also succeed because she’s aware of how they’re feeling at any given moment, and she applies or takes away pressure accordingly.
Mowry’s sole qualification to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo came in 2005 on two 4-year-olds and a 5-year-old. Because she believed it would hamper the colts’ long-term mental soundness to run them there, she opted instead to compete on two older horses, on whom she earned about $10,000.
In the same way Mowry won’t push a colt to do something out of its range, neither will she punish one for an honest mistake. This gives her colts confidence. She actually respects a colt, and even with a resume like hers, she prefers to let a horse teach her instead of the other way around.
“A horse is always telling you what you’re doing, so the key is to really watch that,” Mowry said. “As a kid, when I thought my horse was doing something wrong, my trainer would put me on a Grand Prix horse to find out who was really making the mistakes. That horse tattled on me because he was so well-trained and so cued in on subtle instructions.”
This awareness can carry over into day-to-day interactions with a horse. For example, Mowry asks her colts to carry themselves correctly even while riding in the pasture.
“They don’t know when it’s time to learn and when it’s not time to learn,” Mowry said. “Every time you ride, you’re either training or untraining your horse.”
Mowry is so aware of her horses’ body parts that you can put her on each horse blindfolded, and she can tell you which it is. She rides quietly and can sense when a horse is confused, frustrated or scared. She follows a “three strikes” philosophy. The first and second time a horse makes an error, she blows it off as part of his learning process. The third time, she disciplines him for it.
One of the biggest issues in training colts is knowing how much pressure they can take, and to that end, Mowry sends a colt through the barrels fast from time to time and observes the outcome.
“If it takes a day for a colt to get back on track after pushing him, that’s good,” Mowry said. “If it takes a week or two, then he might be late maturing.”
This method means Mowry maintains a solid knowledge of exactly how her colts will work at the futurity—especially on the second day of the futurity.
Of all the horses she’s known, Mowry had special bonds with two that were arguably the most successful—and the most challenging. Cashyerchexatthebar was a high-strung, foundation-bred horse with a bad set of brakes, and Dashing Dillon used to buck so hard she’d be all but lawn-darted before he’d decide not to hurt her. Both are extremely intelligent and have won hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mowry recalls a phrase she once heard someone say that aptly describes the two powerhouses—“There’s a fine line between genius and madness.”
Key No. 2: Collection, collection, collection.
Mowry spends the largest majority of her time actually breaking her colts.
“I want them to think, not react,” Mowry said. “And by broke, I don’t mean reining-horse spin and slide, I mean they do what I ask with no hesitation. I want to be able to place each body part independently.”
Mowry finds it especially important to get her colts soft in the face, because that makes them soft throughout their body, including their back and hind end, which makes turning easier for them.
“If you start pulling on their head and they’re stiff, their butt is what gives,” Mowry said. “If you have to push and pull, you can count on the rest of their body being out of position, too.”
Applying some of her dressage cues, Mowry is able to get a horse flexing through the jaw at the same time as it engages its hindquarters. The unique result is a four-wheel-drive turn she begins teaching as soon as she starts riding each colt. They excel at this maneuver because Mowry’s colts have a singular advantage over others—they’re extremely collected.
“Colts are still learning how to carry themselves,” Mowry said. “When they’re 3 and 4, they’ll collect, but they won’t stay collected. Some don’t even have the muscles or strength to stay collected. If you use your seat and feet to drive their hind end underneath them, they’ll develop those muscles until it’s second nature for them to carry themselves like that, even on a loose rein.”
Mowry doesn’t even show a horse the barrels until she gets perfect circles both ways and a very correct body frame. That might take her a long time, but once it’s there, she can be loping a nice pattern in a week or two. She teaches her 3-year-olds to run in control—and to pull up—by hauling them to a local racetrack for breezing. But much of her training is done away from the pattern, and almost all her barrel work is done slowly—no faster than a lope. In a turn, she prefers to hold flex in a horse with her legs.
“If a horse looks away, I can feel it in his ribs,” Mowry said, who prefers just enough lateral flexion to see an eyeball, but not so much that it takes a horse’s balance away.
Mowry’s consistent body language also gives confidence to her colts, starting with her hands, which are always in the same place in relation to her body. Keeping them relatively low, she either pulls back to her hip in a turn or straight out, depending on the horse.
“So much of it is feel,” Mowry said. “If you come back to the hip, you’re asking one to come back over its inside hind leg. If you pull out, it will keep a ratey horse moving around.”
One thing you will never see her do is lift or cross over the neck with her rein, because horses lean into pressure. She sits down with her horse between her hands, but her upper body is forward, which her Martin saddle allows her to do. Her feet are always forward, and her heels down.
“People do outrun me who ride the front end of a horse,” Mowry said. “But with what I grew up doing, we were taught that there’s still a lot of horse behind you, so I try to ride the hind end on the colts that are green. If they get in a bind, and they’re rocked back on their hind end, it usually helps.”
Key No. 3: Making them listen.
The nature of the beast is that a colt will get scared occasionally during a run. If he gets in a bind, and you pull on him when he’s not used to it, he could shake his head or fight you. A horse needs to know it’s okay for you to help him, and that’s part of Mowry’s program.
“I want a horse to rely on me,” Mowry said. “Having a colt wait on me to tell him what to do is the fastest way. Today, we’re running triple-A racehorses, and they’re running harder up in the hole. That means more chance for slippage or coming out a little wide, so I may need to guide. I train my horses to follow their nose when I ask for it, instead of panic.”
Not only that, but if, for instance, everyone’s hitting barrels in the short round, and Mowry needs a clean run, she knows she can get one because her horse will travel a step further if she asks. How does she get her colts paying this much attention? She keeps them guessing.
“I don’t use the train track theory,” Mowry said of her approach to patterning. “If I want to do a figure eight between first and second, I will.”
When a friend’s horse was fading into first, Mowry got on and put him into circles in the middle of the pattern, which got his ears back on her and got him back to doing what he was asked.
“When they’re over-thinking, you have to throw one for a loop to where they get a little lost and have to rely on you,” Mowry said.
For instance, if a colt won’t travel freely all the way up into the barrel, she’ll trot past the barrel and do a few circles on the backside to get it listening.
“To me, if a colt goes a half-stride or a stride by, its okay,” Mowry said. “Just don’t cut me out. I hate it when a horse anticipates. I want him to wait for my cue, so I change it up a lot to keep his attention on me.”
To avert a colt’s natural anticipation of the turn, she might lope some circles in the pasture and do some counter arcs. If she has a colt so cowy that he’s dying to turn, she might do little circles around the path of the barrel, requesting forward motion and a bent ribcage to prevent him from getting stuck on his front end. Alternatively, if a colt doesn’t want to rate the first barrel, she works on collection.
“On a free colt, I won’t stop before the barrel, but I might turn it multiple times and keep him really collected,” Mowry said. “If you jam them in the ground, it scares them, and they wait on you to do it next time, and if you don’t, they keep going. I’ve never had that work. I do smaller, tighter, very collected circles to teach them to shorten their stride, not necessarily drag their butt.”
Not a fan of the rollback turn, Mowry believes a break in the ribcage is the single most important attribute to a great turn. She wants the inside shoulder picked up with the nose to be the first thing to come around the barrel, followed by the body. If the shoulder is the first body part to enter the turn, she says, the horse isn’t driving up in there—he’s likely on his front end with his hip to the outside.
If a horse begins to drop a shoulder approaching the turn, rather than lifting, Mowry stops him and gets him back on his hind end.
“I just stop and say, ‘Hey, get off my hands,’ and redirect him with my foot and hand,” Mowry said. “I always keep him between my hands.”
Key No. 4: Craving it.
Want to talk dedication? A matter of months after she first saw the cloverleaf drawn on a scrap of paper, Mowry took a neighbor’s then-unseasoned horse to the National High School Rodeo Association barrel racing championship. A year later, lacking anything else to ride, she took her father’s young ranch horse to the College National Finals Rodeo championship. She wanted to ride barrel horses so badly later that when her horses were hurt, she drove 45 miles a day to ride for someone else while they recuperated. When she couldn’t afford good prospects, she bought a couple of mares and created some herself.
It’s little wonder, then, that Mowry’s a fan of any colt that gives everything he has—one that runs as hard as he can and never “just didn’t fire.”
While she’s equally adept at riding a Jet Of Honor as a Dash Ta Fame as a Firewater Flit, her only real pedigree soft spot is for colts by Confederate Leader.
“They’re very intelligent and eager to please,” Mowry said. “Their ears are back on me, and they’re sensitive. I hardly need spurs because they have a lot of feeling. They’re sound, they’re quick on their feet, and they feel like a rocket.”
True, there’s no shortage of amazing athletes at Mowry’s place, and fans would be well-advised to watch the 2012 futurities for her colt Epic Leader, who is out of Firewater Fiesta and by Confederate Leader. In the meantime, there’ll be plenty of talent in each annual six-head roster, courtesy of some of barrel racing’s brightest owners.
About Kassie Mowry
She was a teenager by the time she moved with her family from Orange County, California, to Utah and learned to run barrels, but as a former Olympic hopeful in eventing, Kassie Mowry had already picked up the timing, horsemanship skills and steely mental focus she uses today on the barrel pattern.
In fewer than 10 years, she’d nabbed world championships in the American Quarter Horse Association and the Barrel Futurities of America as well as an NFR qualification. In 2001, on her gelding Cashyerchexatthebar (“Bailey”), Mowry won the national collegiate championship for Western Texas College and the 2001 BFA sweepstakes. She began training for Jud Little a few years later.
In 2005, she qualified for the NFR on three fillies she trained for Little—Fire Waters Cash (“Cee Cee”), Shebe Firen For Cash (“Shebe”) and Flitin Firin Cash (“Gin”), on whom she won first and second at the AQHA World Show in Junior Barrel Racing.
In 2006, Mowry, went into business for herself training barrel horses and relocated to a 40-acre spread across from a dairy farm near Stephenville, Texas.
Julie Mankin is an avid roper and barrel racer, as well as frequent contributor to Barrel Horse News. E-mail comments on this article to [email protected].