Learning to Let Go
That horse is capable of incredible things. The only way she’s going to show her true potential is if I let her.
This was my first year competing in Calgary at the Stampede, and it was raining on day one of my four-day pool. I didn’t know how Sister would do in the rain. She had never done that before. Or how she’d do at Calgary, a big outdoor arena with a huge crowd and a whole lot of distractions. Thankfully, the rain let up before we ran. We finished second. In each of the next three rounds, we won first.
Because we were in the second pool, Sister only had one day off before we had to make two runs on Sunday. Calgary’s format is a ten-man final round with a four-man shootout round to follow. To win Calgary, it didn’t matter how you did in your pool; you still had to make two smoking runs in the shootout.
On Saturday, I walked Sister often, and when she was in her stall, she rested. She’s good about that. She’ll rest when she knows it’s not time to work. It’s how she rejuvenates herself.
During the first run on Sunday, I needed to make the Final Four. On Sister, even at a place as tough as Calgary, that means make a good, clean run. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just make a clean run, I told myself. However, in trying to make a clean run, I safetied-up and made a mistake turning the third barrel. It was a small mistake—I still made the Final Four—but it bothered me. I had not given her my best.
I safetied-up in a similar way earlier in the year—in the shootout rounds of The American and Rodeo Houston. Instead of making that one-hundred-percent trust move, I held Sister up a little or moved her over too much, and that slowed us down.
When I safety-up, Sister will shake her head, like she’s saying, I know what I’m doing! Sometimes it’s necessary. We have a bobble, and I move her, and the barrel doesn’t fall. It’s all happening so fast. But if she’s in the right position, and I tense up and move her, she’ll shake her head, like What the heck? She did that at Houston and at The American and again at the Calgary Stampede.
After the mistake I made rounding the third barrel, I didn’t have time to go over things before the finals. We were up in an hour and a half. I was going to have to throw down and trust Sister, because it didn’t matter if I smoked my pool. To win Calgary, I needed to pretend in my mind that she was going to be absolutely perfect no matter how much I dropped the reins to her.
I’m going in full throttle, I thought. And that’s what I did.
It was as if Sister forgot my earlier screw-up. She made a smoking-fast run, just a tick off the arena record. Not only was it fast, but it was good—good enough to win first and a hundred-thousand-dollar check. Sister beyond delivered, which taught me a good lesson. No more safetying up. No more wasting runs by trying to be clean. Just trust her, because Sister trusts me. She’s at the point of absolutely delivering.
Sister has delivered more than I ever could have imagined. In 2016, I finished the year with less than twelve thousand dollars won and was ranked 105th in the Pro Rodeo World Standings. In 2017, my first full year on Sister, I finished second in the World with nearly three-hundred thousand won, not including more than four-hundred grand that Sister helped me win at The American.
Without a doubt, that palomino mare has changed my life, which makes the story of her humble beginnings even more incredible.
Thank You, Craigslist!
When Mom called the sale in Waco, we’d only seen photos and an online video of DM Sissy Hayday, a dishwater-yellow two-year-old with a knot on her forehead and a freakishly long mane. Mom and I pretty much split everything, and we agreed on our top dollar beforehand.
Mom and Dad were both at home watching the sale. Some star two-year-olds were selling high. Then it was time for the funny-looking filly we had our eye on. As we had hoped, there wasn’t much interest in her, and we placed the winning bid. I remember thinking, I hope she’s a good mare.
Even though she was on the lower end of that sale, we had a good feeling about DM Sissy Hayday, because we were currently training her half-sister, Baja. What’s even crazier is that we found Baja two years earlier on Craigslist! Mom had been looking for furniture for my brother and somehow came across this horse for sale. The breeder, Dillon Mundorf, had given the young horse to a South Texas vet as a payment. In the description the vet, a very nice lady, wrote: Looks like she could make a nice team roping horse.
Looking at the pictures, Mom thought, That looks like a barrel horse.
Mom has a brilliant eye for horses, especially ones that can run. Baja was beautiful, bright gray with a dark mane and tail. And she had really good structural conformation, meaning her frame and proportions were well-balanced. She looked like she could move nicely. You don’t know until you see them go, but it was a good guess.
Mom was right. Baja was fast and showed a lot of promise, but she turned out to be a late bloomer. She was kind of hot and excitable and took extra long to learn how to use her body and keep her brain in check on a run. But she was freakishly talented. The last thing we wanted to do was rush her and risk ruining her.
After working with Baja for a couple years, we were so impressed we called her breeder. We just love this gray mare. Do you still have that broodmare? He told us no, but he had one of her filly’s left and was planning to put her in the Waco sale. That was Sister.
Baja and Sister were similar in structure. Sister had a foot that was kind of crooked, but she was only two, and we figured we could correct that over time. And she was very angular. Baja, on the other hand, was fat, gray and real sleek, just pretty to look at. It didn’t take long to realize that Sister was the faster learner.
Putting in the Time
Sister was always a natural turner. Early on she had this ability to collect herself and move across herself with her feet. Our job was to get her soft. She’s a stiff, long-bodied horse, which is an asset that makes her fast. You can’t totally take that out of a horse, in my opinion, but you can improve it so you have full lateral control. That became our biggest focus.
I realized Sister’s left side was much stiffer than her right, and I run to the right barrel first, so that meant two stiff turns. But that was her faster turn, so I had to deal with that left side stiffness. I worked on getting her to keep her hips underneath her in her left turns instead of stiffening and dropping on her front end. I didn’t want to go into a turn and ball her up, because that would slow everything down.
How do you teach a horse something like that? It’s hard to explain. It’s mostly based on feel, something I’ve been learning since I was little and am still learning. You communicate using your body. You encourage them to round their back and lift their rib cage on the inside when they’re rounding the barrel. You use your legs and your seat. You make sure your upper body stays square. If you tilt one way or the other, they’ll feel that and counterbalance. And you have to keep your hands low. That’s something I’ve gotten better at. My hands needed to stay low at Sister shoulders to communicate anything.
When Sister was four, we could tell she was softening and becoming more willing to bend her body. That’s when we knew she was almost ready to enter. She had finally given us that release we were asking for. But would she be fast?
For the first couple of years we rode Sister, she was this chill, docile horse. I started to worry that maybe she was too laid back, maybe even slow. When we’d ask her to stretch out and gallop, she would rock back on her haunches and kind of lope along. She was like a rocking chair. We were thinking, She might make a nice horse, but she probably won’t be fast enough.
Not long after, during July of 2015 when I was home from college, I took Sister out to slow-lope the barrels. When she turned the first barrel, she slipped and kind of scrambled. That must have scared her, because she lunged forward and broke in two! She dropped her head down between her legs and threw up a big kick. I rocked forward and held on. She got off the ground—high off the ground! I’ve helped Mom break some of our colts and can ride a buck pretty good. But while Sister was bucking, I remember laughing and thinking, This is not real! I’m about to come off! I lasted five or six jumps, and then she sent me soaring.
I landed on my butt, still laughing.
I looked up, and Mom, mounted on another horse, was laughing and trying to catch her breath long enough to ask if I was okay, because that’s the mom thing to do.
Sister pulled up fine. She was just standing there looking like she didn’t know what happened either, like she was thinking, That’s it. That’s all I wanted to say.
My next thought was, This is great! For the first time, Sister had shown some attitude, a drive to express herself. I could work with that.
We joked later that Sister could either run barrels or work the rough stock end!
Passing Her Half-Sister
After the bucking incident, Sister started showing excitement about the barrel pattern. It was the first time I sensed that she could explode at any minute, not because she’s evil, but because it’s a fun game. That’s how we can still tell today how much she loves this job. Most of the time she is chill as a bug, but running barrels she is on the muscle—not hot, just excited and ready. It’s controlled excitement, like she’s saying, Just let me do this, and I can have fun with it. I can do it faster than you. To this day, if I lope up and stop at a barrel without letting her turn it, she will sigh at me. She’ll turn around and look at me, as if to say, I could do this better if you just let me do it my way!
Even though Sister added speed, she kept her desire to be good and stay in the turns. The next year, 2016, I was riding a finished horse I call TJ and hauling Sister to jackpots and college rodeos to season her. That May, I was entered in a tough circuit rodeo in Crockett, Texas. TJ didn’t like the setup there, so I rode Sister. Let’s just see how she does. Well, she placed fifth in her first rodeo ever. I thought, Whoa, that was good!
A couple weeks later, I entered her in another pro rodeo, and she placed fifth again. We weren’t making perfect runs—she was kind of all over the place, but mostly correct, and fast. I traveled to Elizabeth, Colorado, for a rodeo on the way to Casper, Wyoming, for the College National Finals Rodeo. The day before I was up at Elizabeth, TJ was acting a little sick, and we took him to the vet to make sure it was nothing serious. Though he could have made a run, I wanted him to have time to rest up for the CNFR, so I ran Sister. It was another tough rodeo, and she won it! At her first three pro rodeos, she placed at two and won the third.
After getting home from the CNFR, I planned out a six-week run of summer rodeos. I was going to take TJ and Sister, but the day before I hit the road, I decided to leave Sister at home, even though I was winning checks on her. I didn’t want to haul her and run her too much that young. Maybe we didn’t win as much as we could have that summer, but I learned a whole lot about when and where and how to rodeo.
During my senior year at A&M, I ran both horses, but we were still being judicious about where I ran Sister. I took her to a fall college rodeo, and Sister won it. I took her to The American qualifier the next weekend, and we qualified. She was soaring.
Talented Deep Down
My approach to training horses is largely relationship-based. That’s something I learned from my mother, Leslie, who pretty much taught me everything I know. We don’t demand results, and we don’t put a deadline on our horses. We can do that because they’re ours and because we’re stuck with them, whether they make it or not, so we want things to happen very smoothly. For the more trainable types, it’s easier. For a strong-willed one, like Sister, I want it to feel like it’s her game, and I’m in just it.
That’s why we never rushed her half-sister, Baja. Baja was fast like Sister and showed so much promise, but she was taking longer to put together all the pieces. She could run all over the arena and make a million mistakes and still be at the bottom of the 1D or top of the 2D just about everywhere. We were patient, and by the end of 2016 she was really starting to clock. She’d consistently finish only a few tenths off her baby sister.
All along, Mom and I had this mindset that whether Baja seasoned into a competitive horse or not, we were going to keep her and run her and enjoy her. She was mom’s heart horse. I was at school when she was coming up, so Mom was on her more. We always said, Even if she makes nothing more than a goofy jackpot barrel horse, we will take it because we love her, and we will always know that she is talented deep down in there, whether or not we can bring that talent out.
During the third week of January of 2017, I took Baja and Sister to a jackpot. Baja made a nice run. You could tell she was trying hard, but something wasn’t right. It was in her back end. I could feel it. When we finished the run, I looked down at the shadow cast by the arena light and saw the tiniest off-step in her right hind leg. That was Thursday night. I made a vet appointment for the next week. By Monday, Baja could barely put weight on her leg.
My vet in College Station couldn’t figure out what the problem was, so Mom picked Baja up and took her home to Cotulla, Texas. Baja’s condition worsened, and even our vet back home had trouble finding the reason why. Meanwhile, Sister was on a roll, a roll that included us winning The American and that huge check (which you can read about here).
Despite my life-changing win, Mom was pretty heartbroken. She just hoped we could save Baja for a broodmare. And if not, maybe she could just be a pasture horse.
Ten days after The American, Mom took Baja for a pelvic exam, which is a pretty intense procedure, the kind of thing you put off for as long as you can. The exam revealed three large internal melanoma tumors. One was close to her spine, one was inside her belly, and the third was pressing on her pelvis and had caused a fracture, which made her go lame. Melanoma tumors normally burst through the skin, but these grew inside her. There’s no telling how long they’d been growing, even though she never acted sick or went off feed. She just kept trying and trying.
There was nothing to do, so they had to put Baja down that day. It was shocking. I was expecting the pelvic exam would turn up something broken or pinched, and we’d go through a long process of healing. After Mom called with the news, I went to my best friend’s house and cried for the rest of the day. Mom was really torn up, too. Because I had just won all that money at The American, people thought that things were still good. That was one of the hardest parts. I wanted to say, No, things are not good. You think my life is great, but in my world it sucks right now.
I went through a month-and-a-half slump of not winning a thing—not in the breakaway or the goat tying or the barrels. I literally couldn’t go to a jackpot and catch a calf. I was in a mental fog. But I didn’t have a choice. I kept going.
Nothing will ever stop me from missing Baja or my horse Tripod, who we lost a few months earlier. I probably learned more from those two horses than any horses I’ve ever known. They taught me to be patient, that every horse has potential as long as you’re willing to put in the time.
And if it weren’t for Baja, we probably wouldn’t have looked specifically at a Royal Shake Em and Dinero cross. Beautiful, flashy Baja was wild and talented. As for her baby sister, we took a chance on her, and she grew out of her ugly-duckling phase into a gold-and-silver-dappled eyecatcher who loves to run the barrels. We’ve won more than I ever imagined, and I’m still not sure how far Sister will take me. I do know this: The only way I’ll find out is by trusting her.
I guess it’s as much trusting myself, which is even harder. I’m learning to trust my abilities, learning to trust that Mom and I did a good job training Sister. If I ride Sister in a run the way we started her at home—the way I still ride her at home—she’s gonna respond a whole lot better than if I’m stiff or I safety-up.
At the National Finals Rodeo, everybody wants to win the go-round and everybody wants to place in the average. I think I have a horse that’s capable of both. Safetying up might help me not hit a barrel, but it won’t win the go-round. This is Sister’s second NFR, and I’m ready to go for it. I’m ready to pitch it to her and let her put on her own show. If stuff happens, it does, but it won’t be because I caused it.
As I said earlier, Sister is a chill horse until it’s time to run the barrels. Then I have to deal with what I call the dragon of her enthusiasm. It doesn’t show itself so much in the alley but rather during the preparation time. I’ll see that Sister’s not into sitting still, that she’d rather be wiggling around, or maybe she’ll pull on the bit. That’s when I can tell I’m riding a controlled dragon. That’s when I think, I hope she’s gonna do this thing, because I don’t have a say in the matter!
There are some super strong barrel horses running right now. I think Sister’s one of them. She is capable of incredible things. The only way she’s going to show her true potential is if I let her.