By Dena Kirkpatrick Photo by Dudley BarkerPhoto by Dudley Barker

“It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the hearts of men. Men respond to leadership in a most remarkable way and once you have won his heart, he will follow you anywhere.” – Vince Lombardi.

I believe this statement to be especially true of our horses. Barrel racing is a battle with the clock, and it is a battle that is definitely won in the hearts of our horses. This fact is obvious because of the many different sizes, shapes, and bloodlines we see winning. It is especially apparent when we see horses that have overcome serious injuries and come back winning again, like Hot Shot and Rare Dillion. It is also evident in duos like Stingray (MP Meter My Hay) and Sherry Cervi or Louie (An Oakie With Cash) and Lisa Lockhart. The bonds shared between these horses and their riders is heartwarming to watch and I believe it is a big part of their success.

Although not so well known, I have a similar bond with my black mare Kate (Kates Always First). I realized how deeply our bond went at a WPRA divisional race in Midland a couple years ago. Her power makes her a little tough for me to stay in the middle of, and at this race I just came off right in front of her going into the second barrel.

The ground was quite soft but I feared for my life knowing she might step on me. She was flying but came to a sudden halt when I fell, her feet stopping right beside me, and she didn’t move a muscle! The connection I had developed with Kate during her training gave her the desire to win for me as well as take care of me during a mishap. Her big heart helped her recover from a completely severed deep digital flexor tendon and mostly severed superficial flexor tendon, become competitive again and continue to work hard for me at the rodeos. I believe horses may respond to leadership even better than people, and when a trainer can win the heart of their mount great things can happen.

I heard the quote that is at the beginning of this article while watching an HBO documentary on Coach Vince Lombardi. I was so inspired by the whole program, but I have just chosen a few of his ideals to write about. His name has been a household name in this country for years, but I just recently gained a true appreciation for his unique coaching style. He was arguably one of the best football coaches in American history and considered one of the best coaches in any sport. He was NFL Coach of the Year in 1959, his rookie season of coaching professional football, and won five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls, in nine years as coach of the Green Bay packers. The Super Bowl Trophy was renamed The Vince Lombardi Super Bowl Trophy in 1970. His accomplishments were many, however, he is most talked about because of his amazing ability to inspire his players. His ideals have been used in the coaching of sports other than football, as well as in the running of corporations. I find that his ideals are a valuable addition to my horse training program.

Some would say Lombardi’s most memorable quote was, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. In our business there is no second place, you’re either first or your last.” However, in his later years he modified his philosophy with regard to the meaning of winning. He went so far as to say, ” I wish the hell I had never said that,” to Jerry Izenberg, a reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. He added, “What I believe is, if you go out on a football field and it’s Sunday or any other endeavor in life and you leave every fiber of what you have on that field when the game finally ends then you’ve won. And to me that tells me a lot more than the final score…and I never made that clear.”

People seem to want to focus solely on the win and the glory of winning. Winning is the goal of any competition, but no person and no horse should expect to go unbeaten in their entire careers. Not American Pharoah, Secretariat or even the Green Bay Packers have perfect records. I think Coach Lombardi wished he had emphasized this aspect of competition more because at the end of the day the real victory in life comes when you leave every ounce of your preparation, heart, and talent on the field of competition.

Another of his quotes, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence,” is the perfect ideal to keep in mind while training and competing on my horses. With this thought, I can keep perspective and not let the competition losses or bad days in the practice pen get me down. I have always been most interested in the level of effort my horses give. I’m happy with them when I know they did their best on that day, even if that just means they figured out a lead change for the first time. My responsibility is to be passionate about my job as their trainer. I feel that, like Lombardi, I must give a 100 percent effort if I expect to get a 100 percent effort back from my horses. If I don’t, we as a team would get no further than my round pen.

I have learned from my friend and Australian horseman Ian Francis, whom I quote often in my writing and at clinics, that a horse will always repeat a rewarded effort. Coach Lombardi knew this about people. He was tough, but always rewarded his players for their efforts, letting them know that he believed in them. I try to do the same for my horses with a timely placed pat and kind word or simply the release of pressure. So many just focus on the hardness and repetition of perfection and forget that rewarding an effort is what actually inspires the athlete, both horse and man, to repeat.

Hard work and reward are not the only components of success. There is the fostering of trust between player and coach or between horse and trainer—the trust that both are giving all they can in an effort to be competitive. There is nothing more heartening or encouraging to an athlete than knowing that their coach or trainer believes in them. Horses are no different! We are our horses coaches and teachers. I think it’s good to take some lessons from one of the greatest coaches and motivators of all time and apply his principles to our horse training.

Dena Kirkpatrick is a professional barrel horse trainer and clinician based out of Texas. For more information on Dena and her clinics and videos, visit Email comments on this article to [email protected].


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