Mentoring relationships can be one of the most helpful things you can do to progress in your horsemanship.

If you want to improve your riding, get past a sticky spot in your horse’s training, or just level up your competitive goals—working with a mentor is a good decision. How can you find a mentor, and make the most of that relationship? These two pairs of barrel racers have found great value in their relationships as mentor/mentee, and they shared their advice.

Keeping it Simple

Casey Chappel was hoping for help with her 12-year-old Appendix mare Smoken Kendra. The St. Cloud, Florida, resident looked to a fellow competitor for advice on “Moonie.”
“I have competed against Jennifer Sims at many barrel races, and I was always impressed with her riding ability,” Casey says. “I knew Jennifer’s riding style matched well with the way Moonie runs.”

Jennifer is a Women’s Professional Rodeo Association member, divisional tour qualifier, National Barrel Horse Association World Show qualifier and Florida International Barrel Racing Association Finals champion, as well as the 2015 NBHA Florida State Show first go winner.

Casey approached the Jacksonville, Florida, resident at a show to ask for help with Moonie, and the two women instantly hit it off.

“From the moment I met Jennifer,I could tell we were going to work well together, not only in the arena, but outside as well,” Casey says. “She had some really unique techniques to help me get with Moonie that I never thought to try. She is just so knowledgeable.”

If you want to improve your horsemanship, finding and learning from a mentor can be one of the most helpful things you can do to progress.
Finding a mentor can help improve your riding and give you a competitive edge to achieve your goals. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Jennifer works with riders to have clarity about the way they ride.

“I try to help my students know what they are doing and help them understand why they are doing it,” Jennifer says. “That way it becomes second nature to them when it counts in a run. I really emphasize a positive attitude, a good mental game plan and a sound horse.”

Jennifer’s philosophy is, in a word, simple.

“Keep it simple,” Jennifer says. “Barrel racing can be very overwhelming, especially if you listen to too many people at one time. And not everyone wants to see you do good. So I try to break it down so my students can have fun and stay positive. Too many orders at one time can be frustrating.”

Within a short amount of time of working with Jennifer, Casey saw an improvement in her bay mare.

If you want to improve your horsemanship, finding and learning from a mentor can be one of the most helpful things you can do to progress.
Choose a mentor who shares your philosophy about riding, and whose horses enjoy their jobs. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

“Every time I’d go up to Jennifer’s place to ride horses and work Moonie, she would run fantastic at the next barrel race I took her to,” Casey says. “It didn’t take long for our relationship to develop, because after months of trying to get with Moonie and feeling defeated, we just started to click. I finally felt like Moonie and I were taking steps forward instead of back, and becoming a team.”

Casey won the 2D average at the 2015 NBHA Shamrock Showdown with Moonie, and credits Jennifer for helping her achieve that goal. She won the Florida NBHA State Championship show reserve 1D championship title, and was the average winner at the Coastal Cash Barrel Blast, and she’s won money at multiple professional rodeos in the southeastern circuit.

The learning process works both ways: Casey continually learns new things from Jennifer, and Jennifer gets to solve new problems because of the variety of personalities and styles in the three horses Casey brings to her.

“I never stop learning—whether it’s simply a placement of my hand or a total bit change,” Casey says. “It’s a continuous learning experience for both of us.”

Casey says she could fill a book with the things she’s learned from Jennifer, but the greatest lesson was about trust.

“I have to trust my horse and give her the respect she needs,” Casey says. “Once a horse knows you respect them, then it’s much easier to ask them to give you their all.”

Casey considers Jennifer one of her best friends, and says they talk often—at least three times a week. Their relationship was a game changer for her riding career with Moonie.

“It has helped me become a competitor on Moonie,” Casey says, “and it has given me the confidence I needed to become competitive on her as well.”

“I try to break it down so my students can have fun and stay positive.” —Jennifer Sims

If you’re looking to find a mentor, Casey says you don’t have to commit to the first person you choose.

“Don’t be afraid to ride with multiple people until you find the right person that fits with not only your horse’s style, but yours as well.”

Jennifer suggests looking for riders who are good at what they do on multiple horses.

“That way you know their program is working,” Jennifer says. “They know their process and they don’t skip steps. They’ll be people who can get your horse to the next level and achieve the goals you have set for yourself, regardless of what level you are at in your training.”

To get the most out of the mentoring relationship, Casey advises working hard to prove to your mentor that you are committed.

If you want to improve your horsemanship, finding and learning from a mentor can be one of the most helpful things you can do to progress.
L to R: Jennifer Lee-Sims, her daughter Kaitlyn and Casey Chappel. Jennifer and Casey have developed both a mentoring relationship and a friendship. Photo courtesy Casey Chappel.

“Show dedication,” Casey says. “When they know how bad you want it and will work for it, then they know you are capable of achieving any goal you have put your mind to.”

Jennifer says to determine your goals before you approach the trainer.

“Make a game plan together so they can help you stay on track,” Jennifer says. “When you have success, know what you did to get it, because you will need that reference to keep being successful.”

Casey is thankful for Jennifer’s help with Moonie and her other horses.

“I want to thank God for bringing Jennifer into my life and the life of my horses,” Casey says. “And I want to thank Jennifer for putting up with me and pushing me to be a better rider than I ever thought I could be.”

Students of the Horse

Tucson, Arizona, resident Cheryl Murray started barrel racing in 1994, and prior to that, she rode a variety of other disciplines. She knew when she became a barrel racer finding a mentor was extremely important.

“As with all disciplines, bad habits can develop quickly if you don’t have a knowledgeable person to help develop your skills,” Cheryl says. “I have learned that the fastest way to improve is to align yourself with someone who excels in the area you want to compete, such as jack- pot races, futurities or rodeos.”

Cheryl says she also seeks riders who excel at their craft.

“I tend to gravitate toward people that have an overall philosophy similar to mine,” Cheryl says. “I want mentors who are winning consistently on multiple horses. I want them to be confident yet humble. I want to see them treat their horses with kindness. I want to see them seeking to improve their competitive skills as well as their horsemanship skills.”

Look for mentors with successes on multiple horses, so you can see that their program is working. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Barbara Merrill is a special mentor to Cheryl. The pair struck up a casual acquaintance when they both competed at a winter barrel racing series at the Buckeye Equestrian Center in Buckeye, Arizona, a few years ago. Barbara has a reputation for making high-level rodeo horses and winning futurity horses. She’s a two-time National Finals Rodeo competitor, a circuit and futurity winner and has raised horses that have gone on to compete at the NFR and win the National High School Rodeo Finals two years in a row.

“When we first met, she was setting world records on a standard pattern in Buckeye and making it look easy,” Cheryl says.

Cheryl attended a few clinics Barbara and her husband, Neill, hosted in Arizona, and she also took some private lessons from the couple. Over time, a friendship developed.

“I think a great friendship is a key component to a mentor relationship,” Cheryl says. “Barbara taught me to be a ‘student of the horse.’ We are both very analytical by nature. We spent hours discussing all the nuances of barrel racing and horse training. She has really helped me correct some bad habits and avoid some mistakes as I continued my journey up the barrel racing ladder.”

Barbara says Cheryl became a good friend, and she enjoys helping her with her horses.

“It is just fun being out there riding with her and just watching each other ride, enjoying each other’s company,” Barbara says.

Cheryl says Barbara has spent years refining her training techniques and honing her mental skills in the competition arena.

“Find a mentor who will give you complete honesty.”
—Cheryl Murray

“She was humble and kind and willing to share that knowledge with me,” Cheryl says. “To excel in the barrel racing world, we have to establish and maintain an especially strong bond with our horses. She taught me the importance of groundwork. She showed me how great ground work skills translate to the saddle.”

Barbara helped Cheryl break the barrel pattern down into pieces and fix issues, which allowed the mentee and her mare, 10-year-old Blazin Ruby Rocket, to start running in the 1D. Cheryl won the 1D average at the Greg Olson Memorial in 2013, and with Barbara’s help, she began entering professional rodeos.

“Barbara was very helpful when I started entering pro rodeos for the first time,” Cheryl says. “She gave me valuable tools to keep my horse performing at a high level and she gave me great pointers on navigating the entry system.”

Barbara says her goal was to point out problem areas when Cheryl was stuck and offer advice on how the horse could be helped.

“We identified resistance in the horse, if the horse was resisting,” Barbara says. “We don’t like our horses to have resis- tance, and we don’t like fighting with our horses. To me, it’s all about timing. When do we ease the pressure and reward the horse? We want the horses to want to run barrels, not make them run barrels.”

With Barbara’s help, in 2013, Cheryl and 2006 sorrel mare Blazin Ruby Rocket won their first 1D average at the Greg Olson Memorial, their first final round at a PRCA rodeo in Tucson, Arizona, and their first professional rodeo at Queen Creek, Arizona. The pair qualified for RFD-TV’s The American semifinals in 2015. In August 2015, Barbara and Cheryl both attended the Xtreme Reno Reunion. Both ran in the open competition each day for four days, cheering each other on and taking turns outrunning each other.

“The last day she outran me, and she placed first in the 1D average, and I was second in the 1D average,” Cheryl says. “It was by far the most exciting weekend of barrel racing in my career. I loved being able to stand next to her in the photo. I wouldn’t have made it to that place without her wisdom and support.”

A great friendship can be a key component to a mentor relationship. Photo by Abigail Boatwright.

Barbara recommends looking for riders who continually have good horses, and watch how the horses act in the warm-up pen.

“Look for competitors whose horses enjoy their jobs and really like to do it,” Barbara says. “That’s someone I’d want to ride with.”

If you’re looking for a mentor, Cheryl recommends seeking out people with whom you have a lot in common, and be willing to both ask questions and listen to their answers.

“I think it is helpful for all competitors to have a mentor,” Cheryl says. “When you are searching for a mentor, find someone with whom you have a lot in common. Find the person who challenges you to advance your skill set. Find a mentor who will give you complete honesty. Don’t expect your mentor to tell you, you did a great job when there is room for improvement.

“Be a good listener and ask great questions,” she says. “A great mentor has years of experience. Use that experience to help you avoid common mistakes as you learn and grow in our sport.”

This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Barrel Horse News.

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