The path to the National Finals Rodeo isn’t without bumps in the road for the best horses in the world.

By Tanya Randall

            The WPRA World Standings is a highlight reel of what went right during the rodeo season for the top 15. What it doesn’t show is the blood, sweat and tears it took to earn a National Finals Rodeo qualification.

            Here, Barrel Horse News visited with the top 15 about their NFR horse struggles. When did those great horses make them sweat, cry and in some cases bleed? What kept them trying? When did they know it was all going to be worth it?

            All their stories are different, yet the one constant was their inability, their unwillingness, to give up.

            “There were times when I was so ready to give up,” said three-time NFR qualifier Emily Miller Beisel. “I hope my struggles … inspire others to keep pushing and keep trying.”

Hailey Kinsel Round Nine 2020 NFR
Hailey Kinsel and DM Sissy Hayday win Round Nine of the Wrangler NFR with a 16.81. Photo by Kenneth Springer

1. “She’s too lazy to buck!”

            Famous last words. When Leslie Kinsel told her daughter Hailey that 4-year-old DM Sissy Hayday (“Sister”) bucked with her while working cattle in April of 2015, Hailey just laughed.

            “When she told me about it I was like, ‘No way! This is the laziest horse ever,’” chuckled the four-time WPRA World Champion from Cotulla, Texas. Two months later, her mom and Sis proved her wrong during a cruise through the pattern. “She was fresh and feeling good. I turned the first barrel and she slipped a little bit in the backend. She goes to leave it and then next jump she gets excited and breaks in two. I made six full jumps before I got absolutely flung!

            “It was hysterical. My mom was on another horse and she yelled, ‘I told you that thing bucked!’ I was in disbelief, sitting on my butt in the dirt, laughing. As soon as I hit the ground, (Sister) had stopped like, ‘Ha, I proved my point!’ Every once in a while she’ll still buck, that’s just in her, but that particular time I was unprepared.”

            Sis also wasn’t beyond spitting the bit when it suited her. At her debut at the Barrel Futurities of America World Championship Futurity, Sis turned the first and tried to run off back to the alley. Even at home, she was sometimes a terror, leaving Kinsel with an excuse to go eat ice cream.

            “That was something that my mom learned a long time ago,” she said. “When something isn’t going right, go inside and eat a bowl of ice cream and then go back out and try again.”

            It was the day following a necessary ice cream break that Sis showed Kinsel at a jackpot in Gonzales, Texas, that her antics might be worth putting up with.

            “We’re still only three or four runs into (her barrel racing career),” Kinsel recalled. “I told my mom that this could be really bad because she wasn’t focused yesterday at all. She won second in the open and won the futurity sidepot. That was the first time she clocked insane. She just shut the clock off like it was nothing. I took that as I should just ignore the attitude.

            “It wasn’t long after that at a barrel race at the Rose Palace (outside of San Antonio) that she was top 10 out of 500 horses. It was too easy for her. It was only a matter of if she could do it consistently.”

Futurity trainer and 2009 NFR qualifier Jordon Briggs enters this year’s NFR ranked No. 2 in the world, thanks almost solely to the efforts of super gelding Famous Lil Jet, who was recently crowned 2021 AQHA/WPRA Nutrena Barrel Horse of the Year. They’re pictured winning the Ellensburg Rodeo in Washington over Labor Day Weekend. Photo by Kent Soule

2. “I was mortified!”

Those aren’t words you expect to hear from multiple aged event champion and now two-time NFR qualifier Jordon Briggs, but Famous Lil Jet (“Rollo”) made her say them. The Nutrena WPRA/AQHA Horse of the Year didn’t always act worthy of his new title.

            “He was pretty tough as a 2-year-old,” said the horse trainer from Tolar, Texas. “You’d go to one-rein stop him and he’d take his nose away from you and run the other direction. I remember we were building an arena at the time he was a colt and we only had the pipe and top rail up, we didn’t have the fence up yet underneath it. He was kind of dangerous to ride in the arena because he’d try to go under the top rail!”

            Rollo had a standout career as a 5-year-old futurity horse. One of his biggest wins came at the Glen Wood Memorial Futurity, which was right after he no-timed in the second round at the Southwest Desert Classic the prior weekend.

            “He did really good at the first futurities,” Briggs said. “When I started to really push on him going to the first barrel, he started fighting me a little bit. I’d actually been running him in a tiedown for a couple of weeks prior to that, but I was mad at him for pushing on me, so I tightened it one more hole for the second round. He hit that tiedown at the first barrel and ran right back out the arena! I was mortified! I’ve never had that happen and never thought that would happen!”

Rollo got a little tuning during the week and went back to the roping arena with Briggs’ husband Justin.

 “I made a compromise with him and took the tiedown off because he had a hard week of tuning,” Briggs explained. “I was going to trust my tuning. He won the first round with the fastest time of the week and won the futurity by quite a bit.”

Even with the peaks and valleys of his futurity year, Briggs knew that Rollo was something special even if it took a little while for her to be able to count on him under pressure.

            “As a 3-year-old I knew he was going to be really solid and square,” she said. “He never wanted to anticipate. He never wanted to out think me. He was so honest. I think that was part of the problem when I added speed. Most want to anticipate a little bit and he never did. He only turns when you ask him.

“It was a very good thing that I got pregnant in his 3-year-old year for me to save him as a 5-year-old and give him that extra time to grow up and that extra year to be a rope horse.”

Shelley Morgan and HRfameskissandtell
Shelley Morgan and HR Fameskissandtell come into the Wrangler NFR in the No. 3 position. Photo by Kailey Sullins

3. “This is not worth dying over!”

Shelley Morgan’s HR Fameskissandtell (“Kiss”) has occasionally been a challenge to warm up at rodeos. Even this year in the process of winning the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo, Kiss was a little “beside” herself, but the worst it ever was at Phillipsburg, Kansas, in 2020.

“We were literally just trying to warm up and she was pitching such a fit,” recalled Morgan, a three-time NFR qualifier from Eustace, Texas. “I had gone up and walked in the arena and then had gone back to the parking lot to warm up. It was a big, safe grassy area, nowhere near the arena. She was being so ridiculously stupid. I was trying to hold her up from being stupid and all she would do is rare up, so I would get out of her face and all she wanted to do was take off!”

Morgan told her husband Rex that she wasn’t going to run Kiss.     

“She’s going to kill me before I get to my run!” she exclaimed. “He came out and helped me. We had to go get another horse to calm her down. I know barrel horses can be bad but I’ve never literally thought, ‘I’m going to die before my run!’ She did win the rodeo.”

            Morgan said that Kiss responds negatively to certain noises, but the obvious ones like fireworks don’t.

“If you roll a chuckwagon by her, she’s going to pitch a fit,” she said. “I’m a little concerned about the stagecoach that comes up the alley right before the barrels in Vegas. My husband said it’s not like she can see it with all the banners and stuff. It’s the noise. It might be better if she could see it!”

            In spite of her occasional outbursts, Kiss, who is headed to her second NFR at just 7, showed Morgan that she was NFR caliber as a 5-year-old.

            “In 2018, we went out and tested the waters a little bit, I still wasn’t sure I had a horse yet,” she said. “It was after the summer run of 2019 that Rex and I looked at each other and said, ‘We have another horse.’”

Dona Kay Rule and High Valor
Dona Kay Rule and High Valor come into the Wrangler NFR in the No. 4 position. Photo by Kailey Sullins

4. “What have I done?”

            High Valor has kept Dona Kay Rule near the top of the WPRA World Standings all season long. Yet toward the end of the season at Ellensburg, Washington, Valor made Rule question everything.

            “He goes into barrel one at Ellensburg like normal and tucks his chin to his shoulder and froze,” recalled the Minco, Oklahoma, barrel racer. “He’s never done that before. I honestly have no idea what happened. He was a full on goofball warming up at Ellensburg. He was going sideways and I couldn’t keep him contained. I had just gone to the vet and had him gone over, and there was nothing.”

            Something so out of character was emotionally draining.

            “You ride out of the arena thinking I’ve hurt my best friend. What have I done? You feel so guilty because he’s just doing what you’ve asked and now you’ve hurt him and it’s your fault,” she said. “I carried that for a bit.”

            Thankfully, Valor never did it again. After doing well at Walla Walla, Washington, that same weekend, Rule turned out of all her remaining Northwest rodeos and went home.

            “I went to the vet and we looked him over and couldn’t find anything,” she said. “I don’t know if there was something in the air or if it was anxiety or what. We’ve all seen Valor do things with bravery and confidence and that was out of left field. I thought my turn was over, honestly.”

            Rule’s turn for rodeo glory with Valor actually started back in 2017. After winning all three days at the D&D Barrel Race in Waco, Texas, Rule thought she might have something special in Valor. They spent the remainder of 2017 and 2018 getting their bearings on the rodeo road and qualified for their first NFR in 2019.

Jessica Routier and Fiery Miss West
Jessica Routier and Fiery Miss West come into the Wrangler NFR in the No. 5 position. Photo by Kailey Sullins

5. “She’s always just had it.” 

            Jessica Routier of Buffalo, South Dakota, got to miss out on the bad experiences with Fiery Miss West, owned by Gary Westergren.

“From day one, she’s always just had it,” she said. “I’ve never ridden a horse like that. The first time I clocked her in an exhibition she ran a 1D time. The very first futurity I took her to she won. She placed at the very first rodeo I took her to. I think every one of those moments was my ah-ha moment that she was going to be something special. There’s never been a time that I’ve been frustrated with her or worried. I don’t like talking about it because it’s not normal.”

Cheyenne Wimberley and Royal Blue Fame
Cheyenne Wimberley and Royal Blue Fame come into the Wrangler NFR in the sixth position. Photo by Jackie Jensen

6. “He’s like an untrained stud.”      

            Sheer determination. That’s what it took for Cheyenne Wimberly to take a horse that she could only walk around the pattern to train and turn him into a multiple pro rodeo winner that played a large roll in her fourth trip to the NFR.

            “Royal Blue Fame (“Chewy”) is complicated,” said the Stephenville, Texas, barrel racer. “He’s like an untrained stud. I trained that horse walking him because I could hardly ride him.”

            Chewy learned the ropes of the rodeo road during the COVID-shortened 2020 season and contributed with pro rodeo wins to Wimberley’s third NFR qualification. However, in November, the recalcitrant gelding stopped going in the arena.

            “I treated for ulcers and did all that, but I was still having some pretty good behavior issues,” she said. “At one point I didn’t know if I was ever getting him in the arena again. Other people tried to get it done and couldn’t, he was so horrible.”

            Wimberley reached out to clinician Chris Cox, who reluctantly agreed to help. They rode together three times. Afterward, Chewy balked in the alley at Levelland, Texas, but still won the rodeo.

            “We did a couple of more things and I made it all summer getting him in the arena,” she noted. “He’s probably the most time consuming horse ever. I guess I got so far into him that I was like ‘Nope, we’re going to stick with it until you make it.’”

            In spite of his idiosyncrasies, like being territorial about his trailer, Wimberley knew early on that he had the feel to be a winner.

            “When I started him, I was only walking him, but I could tell there was something there,” she said. “He’s getting better but he is so hard to handle and put up with. He would have to be that good for anyone to put up with him!”

Amanda Welsh and Frenchman Fire Fly
Amanda Welsh and Frenchman Fire Fly come into their first Wrangler NFR in the No. 7 position. Photo by Alaina Stangle

7. “I was ready to go home.”

            First time NFR qualifier Amanda Welsh of Gillette, Wyoming, got off to a great start to the 2020 season after her second consecutive Badland Circuit Championship and a strong run in the buildings. A disappointing Fourth of July run aboard her family raised and trained gelding Frenchman Fire Fly, Welsh, a mother of two, was ready to go home.

            “My sucker was in the dirt over the Fourth of July,” she said. “He’s never been one to dive or drop into a barrel, but he was shoulder dropping, leaning really hard. I was like ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not right!’ Our Fourth of July was terrible, we hit two barrels. He was just not clocking. It wasn’t very fun.”

            Welsh made a bit change from her DTE Hack to a short shank No Hit Bit.

            “I thought a bit change was going to fix it,” she said. “It helped a little bit because it did help me pick up his shoulder a little more than what I was able to do in the hack. My dad has always told me the only way through a bad streak is to keep going, so we kept going.”

            Although Fire Fly was never lame, he had a hoof abscess brewing. Thankfully, it came out at the hairline the day before she ran at Casper, Wyoming, and he was back to winning rodeos by the end of July.

            Now, Welsh is headed to Las Vegas with a horse lethal in small patterns. She and Fire Fly have won five of the last six rounds of the Badlands Circuit Finals on a sub-14 second hockey rink-sized arena.

            “My dad knew from the very beginning that he was going to be a good one,” she said of her father Bob, who raised and trained Fire Fly. “When he was 6, we entered the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo. That was his very first rodeo and he pulled a check. He made the circuit finals that same year. He just kept getting better and better. He’s just always had that feeling that he knows that he’s a good one. We just had to wait our turn.”

Nellie Miller and Rafter W Minnie Reba
Nellie Miller and Rafter W Minnie Reba come into the Wrangler NFR in the No. 8 position. Photo by Kailey Sullins

8. “It was like watching a train wreck.”

            2017 WPRA World Champion Nellie Miller of Cottonwood, California, said every year she’s experienced those hopeless barrel racers moments, even with her steadfast partner Rafter W Minnie Reba (“Sister”).

            “I don’t think you can rodeo as long as we have and not have those moments,” Miller said. “There’s at least one every year and you’ve just got to get through it.”

She even experienced one a week before winning the ProRodeo Tour Finale in Salinas and punching her ticket for the NFR.

“We were kind of panicked and had to get her back on track,” she said. “She came through with flying colors. You just have to do your best to keep moving forward in situations like that.”

Miller always knew that Sister was special. After all, she had already gone to the NFR on her half-brother Rebas Smokey Joe and her mother, Espuela Roan (“Reba”) was her beloved high school rodeo horse.

“I was living in Tennessee and had come out to visit,” Miller recalled. “My dad was like get on this mare and ride her around. The first ride on her I was loping her around and she felt exactly like her mom. I thought ‘Oh my gosh! It’s like getting back on Reba!’ It was so familiar and so comfortable. It was like I already knew how to ride her.”

Miller almost didn’t get to see what Sister was capable of accomplishing. The mare nearly flunked Survival 101 on her first trip to town.

            “We were at a roping,” Miller recalled. “She was pretty green and pulled back from the trailer. She ran across the road and got T-boned by a truck. It was not pretty and I was watching the whole thing unfold. It was like watching a train wreck happen. I could see the truck coming and knew she was running out in front of it. It was bad.”

            Thankfully, Sister wasn’t severely injured.

            “I had just found out I was pregnant with my second one when that happened so she got several months off,” she said. “She was never very lame. It broadsided her and hit her in the ribs and knocked her down.”

Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi and Babe On The Chase
Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi comes into her 15th Wrangler NFR with the help of Babe On The Chase in the No. 9 position. Photo by Kailey Sullins

9. “She was my war horse this year.”

            Two-time WPRA World Champion Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi started the 2020 with two champion horses Ima Famous Babe (“Katniss”) and Babe On The Chase (“Birdie”). While Katniss had won in all setups, Birdie was Pozzi Tonozzi’s building horse.

            Unfortunately, Pozzi Tonozzi headed into the summer run with it’s outdoor Standard Patterns with Birdie as her only rodeo seasoned mount.

“It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears that went into making the Finals this year,” Pozzi Tonozzi said. “Birdie was amazing. I put her in so many setups that weren’t her deal and she won for me. That’s when you see a horse be a true winner—on any type of ground, any type of setup. She just showed incredible heart this year.”

Bred by Pozzi Tonozzi, Birdie was a precocious winner. She won the $100,000 LG Pro Classic Slot Race as a 4-year-old. Two weeks later with less than 10 runs under her belt, Birdie was running at the San Antonio Rodeo, one that she would come back to help win in 2020.

Although she was a winner with an incredible resume, Birdie tended to get strong on the first barrel. Pozzi Tonozzi had put her up for sale a couple of times but had no takers—until Teton Ridge purchased her early this year. Eventually, a new job as a head horse for Pozzi Tonozzi’s husband Garrett and a new bit, an L&W Steel Nose Combo, turned Birdie into a war horse.

“Garrett headed on her for three months,” Pozzi Tonozzi said. “When I got back on her, I won the first jackpot I took her to and set an arena record. I’m like ‘I’m taking my horse back!’ I figured a few things out about her bridle and after that she was the war horse. She was my war horse this year.”

Emily Miller Beisel and Namgis D 33
Emily Miller Beisel and Namgis D 33 come into the Wrangler NFR in the No. 10 position. Photo by Kailey Sullins

10. “I don’t think I can ride this horse.”        

            “Horses are humbling animals,” said three-time NFR qualifier Emily Miller Beisel of Weatherford, Oklahoma. “If you think you have them figured out, they’ll correct you.”  

            While her timing with her great horse Namgis D 33 (“Chongo”) looks effortless, Beisel struggled with the gelding for nearly a year.

            “For the first year I had him, I was like, ‘I don’t think I can ride this horse,’” she admitted. “Truly, I struggled a lot with him.

            “When you swing your leg over a great horse they have a feel that nothing else has. They can do things that other horses can’t. I knew that was there with him. I felt that when I tried him. The biggest roadblock for us was whether or not I could be the jockey to get that out of him on a consistent basis. There were glimmers of hope at times, sure, but there wasn’t that consistency. In order to do what I’m doing now, trying to make the finals, you’ve got to have some consistency.”

            Beisel rode with his trainers at the Youree-Ward Ranch and she asked everyone she knew for help. Ironically, it was her dad who said something that made everything click into place at the San Antonio Rodeo in 2019.

            “He told me, I don’t care how you do it, but Emily you’ve got to start making bigger circles,” she said. “You cannot keep hitting barrels. You need bigger circles. I don’t know what about that simple statement that registered with me. I was trying so hard to be perfect, so fast that  I forgot I’ve got a really fast horse. He doesn’t have to be perfect. He can make a mistake and still clock. That’s not a luxury that we always get. As tough as it is now, you can’t hardly stub your toe and win any money.”

            Their breakthrough victory came a month later at Rodeo Austin.

            “I was bawling on my way back to the trailer,” she said. “Lisa Lockhart, someone I’ve idolized my whole life, tells me what a great job I did. In that moment, I realized that I could do this too. This horse and I together could do this. That rodeo was a really big confidence boost for us as a team.”

Stevi Hillman and Cuatro Fame
While Stevi Hillman won’t be bringing Cuatro Fame to the 2021 Wrangler NFR he led her to the No. 11 position in the regular season world standings and her 2021 NFR qualification. Photo by Kailey Sullins

11. “I’ve got scars on my leg to prove it.”

Cuatro Fame (“Truck”) has been the one constant in Stevi Hillman’s trailer for six straight NFR qualifications. It doesn’t seem possible that people once told her that he would never make it.

“I spent a whole year creaming the second barrel, and I’ve got the scars on my leg to prove it,” the Weatherford, Texas, barrel racer admitted. “He ducked barrels with me. It was really stressful, thinking he was the horse that I thought he was, but he was ducking and hitting barrels.”

By chance, Hillman was able to find a solution. Switching to the biologic medication IRAP, which stands for Interleukin-1 Receptor Antagonist Protein, from traditional corticosteroids for his maintenance injections on his stifles nullified Hillman’s barrel woes.

“Every horse needs something different,” she said. “It was just (regular) injections didn’t work on him like IRAP did. It took me a whole year to figure out exactly what he needed to win.”

With Famous Lemon Drop, the 5-year-old 2020 futurity standout owned by Dunn Ranch, Hillman had a different adjustment.

“She’s like driving a Ferrari,” said Hillman, who just had three jackpot runs on the mare before heading out for the summer. “She’s going to 9-0, but she still needs your help, but you have to stay out of her way. She’s a free runner which I love and glad to have on my team. I’ve always had the push-style and I feel like this is a game changer for me and what I’ve been needing for a long time.”

Lemon Drop placed at her first pro rodeo and first outdoor run in Durant, Oklahoma, in slack. By summer’s end she was a force to be reckoned with in the outdoor performance like at Ellensburg, Washington, where she was second in the three-run aggregate on a Standard Pattern.

Ivy Saebens and KN Fabs Gift Of Fame
Ivy Saebens and KN Fabs Gift Of Fame had a tough 2020 plagued with health issues, but “JLo” led Ivy to her 2021 Wrangler NFR in the No. 12 position. Photo by Kailey Sullins

12. “She’s the best she’s ever been!”

            After nearly losing her life last summer to fluid in her lungs due to a veterinary mistake, KN Fabs Gift Of Fame (“J Lo”) carried Ivy Saebens to her fifth straight NFR. It will be J Lo’s fourth trip.

            Saebens said there are always times during the season where she’s ready to throw in the towel and go home. Outside of the veterinary incident in Sidney, Iowa, last year, Saebens said her toughest time competing with J Lo came in 2018.

            “J Lo used to be really strong in the face and a little slow footed, which sounds funny to say about her, but those were her things,” Saebens’ explained. “She was a little funny about her face and didn’t have the best face, but she does now. She’s the best she’s ever been right now.”

            In 2018, J Lo had three months off for reproductive work before the summer run. When Saebens went back to running her, she wasn’t clocking at all. At Reno, her husband—then boyfriend—Billy Jack Saebens, a horse trainer and team roper, took matters into his own hands.

            “From 2018 until eight months ago, we worked super hard on getting J Lo really broke,” Saebens said. “She’s mastered everything we’ve asked of her. She’s 12, fixing to be 13. She’s the best she’s ever been. I’m going to quit nitpicking her, just warm her up and keep her happy and send her. That’s what I’ve been doing and she’s been rocking along.”

            J Lo came into Saebens life in 2017 when she needed a steadfast equine partner. She had already jump rode the mare to a 16.9 at a jackpot in Buckeye, Arizona, that winter, but she didn’t have her in the rodeo rig until mid-July. She had AQHA/WPRA Horse of the Year Cfour Tibbie Stinson and Fames To Blame in the trailer but chose to ride J Lo.

“I was on the bubble in 2017 and it came down to J Lo, Tibbie and Famey – who am I going to get on? Famey can be a little tight. Tibbie can be tight. J Lo is super free. I just got on her. She handles pressure. That’s an insane amount of pressure,” she said.

“When it hit me that she was definitely my unicorn was the 2017 NFR. We were just going through the motions. I wasn’t trying to go fast. I was trying to do anything. I was just making runs on her and she was amazing.”

Wenda Johnson and Macgyver Moonflash
Wenda Johnson and Macgyver Moonflash come into the Wrangler NFR in the No. 13 position. Photo by Kailey Sullins

13. “I look for the positive.”

            Two-time NFR qualifier Wenda Johnson of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, said she avoids the stress of troublesome situations by always looking for the positives.

“In every situation, I look for the positive and strive to keep all moments happy and moving forward,” said the nurse practitioner and mother of two. “Throughout my time with these incredible geldings, I treasure the time spent and memories made. I  purposely choose to see the greatness they possess and do everything in my power to help them develop into the incredible horses they are and can be. No matter what arises, I do my best and in turn I know they do their best.” 

            That philosophy allows her to make the most of her limited rodeo scheduled with Macgyver Moonflash and Steal Money (“Mo”), both of which are owned by Tres Mesa Horses.

            “Mac has always been a kind, sweet, and willing horse,” she said. “Each time I initially rode him his 5 year old year, he became more and more solid and consistent. It was so exciting to feel how he developed and grew into the horse he is today. Now I really believe he loves to run barrels and tries his best with each run.”

            While Mac has an NFR under his belt, Mo is just a 5-year-old. He started out the year winning the Elite Futurity with Kassie Mowry before catching everyone’s attention at the Calgary Stampede—a non-WPRA sanctioned rodeo in 2021. Johnson knew Mo was destined for great things after hauling him as a buddy horse when he was 4.

            “At that time, he was always ready to go and do something, ready for a job,” she said. “He had a certain focus and excitement as if he was trying to prove himself. Coming into his 5 year old futurity year, he was ready and wanting to go. Kassie Mowery was able to campaign him during the first part of the futurity year, and they made a great team.

“As he transitioned to rodeos, he took the challenge well, and seems to love every moment. Overall, for a 5 year old, he holds himself together very well, and has handled the various situations with ease.”

Lisa Lockhart and Rosas Cantina CC
Lisa Lockhart comes into her 15th Wrangler NFR with the help of Rosas Cantina CC in the No. 14 position. Photo by Kailey Sullins

14. “The highs are high and the lows are low.”

            How often did two-time WPRA Reserve World Champion and NFR Champion Lisa Lockhart stress about her horses during the 2021 season?

            “On a daily basis!” said the Oelrichs, South Dakota, barrel racer. “It’s constant for me with both of the horses that I’m currently riding. I was spoiled after Louie (An Oakie With Cash) being Mr. Consistency. It’s been a struggle with both of my horses, finding consistency with them.”

            She said its been a roller coaster season with Rosas Cantina CC, owned and bred by Alan Woodbury, and her own gelding Prime Diamond (“Cutter”).

            “The highs are high and the lows are low,” she said. “With Rosa, it’s hitting barrels. If we get around them it’s good; if we don’t…that’s always a constant battle. With Cutter, sometimes we struggle with our first barrel a little bit. He wants to be a little stiffer in his turns and we battle that. He’s got some issues to where his turns aren’t what I feel they used to be and should be.”

            The 15-time NFR qualifier said it boils down to timing issues, something that every barrel racer faces.

            “It’s very much a timing thing with both of them,” she said. “I think that’s with every barrel racer. Your timing has to be so impeccable in this day and age. There’s no room for error.”

            Lockhart said she’s had to adjust on the fly or in light tuning sessions at home because there’s little time for it while she’s on the road.

            “It’s hard to be fixing things when you’re on the road,” she said. “Sometimes you just work your way through it from run to run, just analyzing what you can do better and what you can do different, how you can approach a barrel different, just all of those things. When we’re busy and rolling in the summer, there’s not time to be doing anything like that, especially the way I did it this year, being so busy from the end of July to the end of September. You’re just trying to fix things on the fly. It’s hard.

            “They’re all such unique individuals. Just because they did one thing here doesn’t mean they’re going to do it at the next. There are some of those horses that are just solid in every situation. Sometimes you’re blessed with those horses, sometimes you’re not. I feel like that’s my biggest struggle with my horses right now. You just try to capitalize when you know you’re somewhere that fits them.”

Molly Otto and Teasin Dat Guy
Molly Otto qualifies for her first Wrangler NFR with the help of Teasin Dat Guy in the No. 15 position. Photo by Phillip Kitts / Avid Visual Imagery

15. “I know something is wrong.”

            First-time NFR qualifier Molly Otto of Grand Forks, North Dakota, always knew she had great horse in the making with Teasin Dat Guy (“Chewy”), owned and bred by Katie Lindahl. Otto had the mare in barrel training just three months, when she knew she’d make a 4-year-old futurity horse.

            Not only did the mare standout in the futurity arena, but her preciousness also extended to rodeo. With COVID sending the masses to the Dakotas rodeos, Chewy managed to place at few Fourth of July rodeos as a 4-year-old.

            “When she placed at those rodeos over the Fourth against 285 girls, I thought wow this horse really can do it,” said Otto. “When I went out to Florida early in the year, she showed me that she could just show up, make a run and clock without getting in the arena and feeling the ground. At that point, I was thinking that she really likes the rodeos. She won her first pro rodeo and set an arena record at Cortez, Colorado. I think that was the turning point for us, like now, we can actually win a pro rodeo.”

            Chewy carried Otto to 11 pro rodeo wins and set several arena records across the country. However, for all their success, their travels weren’t without pitfalls. Mid-spring, Otto opted to save herself a roundtrip to Minnesota to have Chewy reset by her regular farrier Ryan Melby and had her shod in Texas. Unfortunately, Chewy quit working immediately thereafter.

            She wasn’t clocking and turning the first barrel. Ryan Melby shoes my horses and normally I don’t let anyone else shoe my horses. I was in Texas and he was in Minnesota, and I thought ‘I’m not going to drive all the way to Minnesota and back to Texas in a week.’ I asked people around who to use, had her done and she quit working basically immediately after.

            “I ended up going home the first week of May because I couldn’t get her to turn the first barrel,” she said. “I took her to several vets and they kept telling me she was fine. I called my vet Fonda Melby and I told her I know something is wrong. This mare always wants to work, always wants to turn, and the only thing that I’ve changed is the shoeing.”

            Chewy’s angles were corrected and she had a month off before heading out for a very successful summer run. A brewing abscess, which at the time of this writing had resolved, sent them home early right at the season’s end. Thankfully, Lindahl’s gelding Six Appeal (“Jimmy”) was back ready to roll.

            Otto’s indoor pen specialist Jimmy, having won the BBR Finals, American Semifinals Buy-Buck Round and other trap-pen runs, had surgery midsummer for kissing spines, where the dorsal process (top) of the spinal vertebrae are painfully close.

            “I told Katie that if I do make the NFR I want this horse sound, so let’s do the surgery now,” she said. “That way I have enough time to get him ready and make some runs. She was really nervous about taking him off the trailer because she knew I didn’t have anything else.”

*Editor’s note: This story was first published in the December 2021 issue of Barrel Horse News.


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