Described as selfless and humble, yet as handy with a barrel horse as anyone, barrel racer Linda Gail Stewart was looked up to by all who knew her both inside and outside the arena. Competitors from across the Southern region of the United States flocked to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, from October 12-15 to compete in her honor at the 3rd annual Linda Gail Stewart Memorial Barrel Race, produced by Big Rewards Barrel Races.
Aside from the $10,000 added to the open, Bayou Productions hosted the Grand Slam Slot Race Tour Stop #2, providing barrel racers of the Southeast opportunities to run for life-changing payouts.
When the curtain fell Thursday afternoon, it was a fairytale ending of a day for twin sisters Natalie and Hailey Stephens of Convington, Louisiana.
Natalie Stephens jockeyed 5-year-old gelding Firewaters Fortune (Tres Fortunes x Happy To Run Em x Firewaterontherocks) to the 1D win among some of the toughest open horses in the Southeast, stopping the clock at a 14.696 to take home $21,000 in one run.
After a win like that, the Stephens sisters thought it couldn’t get any better, until it did.
Natalie’s time placed her sister, Hailey Stephens, and 6-year-old gelding Sparked A Blaze (Blazin Jetolena x Flingin Sparks x Smoke N Sparks) exactly where they needed to be — winning the 2D with a 15.201 and collecting a check for $11,000.
Along with walking away $32,000 richer, the twin sisters also both earned qualifications to the Grand Slam Slot Race Finale in Jackson, Mississippi, on December 14 where $170,000 will be paid among 95 contestants who received qualifications from Hattiesburg and Tour Stop #1 in Perry, Georgia.
“Initially, we didn’t even want to enter the slot race, we just wanted to run in the open. It was my dad, Michael Stephens, and our mentor, Talmadge Green, who pushed us and encouraged us to go ahead and enter,” Natalie admitted.
Unbeknownst because of their recent success, the 20-year-old sisters have only been barrel racing for a little over five years now.
“We had always done separate hobbies in the earlier years of our lives, so when we decided to start barrel racing, we decided this was the one hobby we were going to do together as a team,” Hailey explained.
The twins’ ability to place their pride aside and selflessly encourage and help one another has played a crucial role in their progression toward success barrel racing as a team.
“We really aren’t afraid to admit when one rides one horse better than the other. That’s how we decide who rides who. It is whichever one of us gets along with that particular horse better,” Natalie said.
While Natalie prefers a bigger, racey type horse that is free with a longer stride, Hailey prefers a smaller, short-strided cow horse type that is more push-style.
Initially the Stephens sisters got their start with professional horse trainer Chris Martin, who also trained both geldings they are currently winning on.
Along with the initial help of Martin as well as their dad and each other, the sisters explained that EquiStat No. 7 all-time winningest barrel racer Talmadge Green of Sandy Hook, Mississippi, has played a crucial part in taking them to the next level of competition.
With more than $2.6 million in EquiStat reported earnings, Green is known as one of the winningest futurity trainers of the 90s. He has spent the latter part of his life still winning along with coaching fellow barrel races like Hailey and Natalie.
“Talmadge has made such a big difference in teaching us how to keep our horses together in between runs. He taught us how to tune each horse correctly as individuals, where to place their bodies and keep them soft in their slow work,” Natalie explained.
The twin sisters have ventured out to compete at the larger futurities and derbies with the help of Green. They both most recently won nice checks at the Breeder’s Challenge Finale in Fort Worth, Texas, in September.
“Being able to do this with a twin is really the best thing to ever happen to me. When one of us is down, the other is always right there to pick each other back up. We support each other whole-heartedly and stay positive for each other regardless of what happens in the arena,” Hailey said.
Aside from barrel racing and being full-time students in college online, the sisters also decided to dabble in the breeding side of the industry as well.
“We really have a long-term goal to have a successful breeding program of our own, training and competing on our own horses we bred and raised as well as selling some. We bred 11 mares this year, mostly to stallions in the incentives, and we are really excited about the colts we have on the ground,” Hailey said.
The sisters are off to a strong start. They purchased Ruby Buckle stallion Just Winnin from the Pink Buckle Sale in October with the help of their father and grandfather.
The 2018 black stallion is by Winners Version and out of the blue hen mare TR Dashing Badger, Jill Moody’s National Finals Rodeo mare best known as “Dolly,” who has produced earners of nearly $800,000. The young stallion wastrained by Ryann Pedonne and is just what the Stephens sisters were looking for in a stallion prospect as an outcross and performer in the barrel pen himself.
“We are really excited that he has a Ruby Buckle spot, but we are also planning on running him some too. We are still ironing out the details, but we plan to breed some of our own mares to him as well as stand him out to the public in the future,” Natalie said.
The Stephens sisters now have their sights set on preparing for the upcoming Ruby Buckle Regional Race in Memphis, Tennessee, as well as the Barrel Futurities of America World Championship in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
Together, they thank Purina and Core Feed for their sponsorship in keeping their horses looking and feeling their very best while going down the road and competing.
Natalie and Hailey also express their gratitude to Talmadge Green for the time he has put into coaching them and helping them with their horses over the past year.
Not to be left out, the twin sisters thank their father, Michael Stephens, as well as their grandfather for being their biggest supporters.