Loving and Losing Horses (Part 1)

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

When I was a child.

by Sarah Rose McDonald

I was seven years old.

It was the day of my sister’s wedding in our hometown, Brunswick, Georgia. I was entered in a saddle club event, competing for points in poles, cones, Texas barrels, arena race and clover leaf on my horse, Bones. Dad figured we could show up for the first two events and still make the wedding. That may sound strange, but my family owned a farm, and I grew up into horses.

The event was held at our hometown arena, where Bones and I had competed many times. We always ran out this narrow side gate to the left when we were done. This time, for some reason, after the first event, Bones went to the right, through a much wider opening. As soon as he did, he collapsed. I went down with him. Dad pulled me off Bones and made me look away.

Thinking back, I believe Bones knew he was dying. But he waited until he had run the whole pattern, and then he chose the wider gate so not to hurt me when he fell. He died of a heart attack, breathed his last breath still wearing my saddle.

We decided not to tell anybody about Bones until the wedding was over. We didn’t want to ruin things for my sister. The whole time, Dad and I were acting weird. Everybody was like, What’s wrong? I was sick all day. I probably threw up ten times.

Bones is buried at that hometown arena.

Some of you may know about my horse, Bling—how she took me to heights I never imagined and then, last year, left me way too soon. I’m going to tell you the full story of Bling and what she meant to me. But I also need to tell you about the other horses I’ve loved, including my current horse, Dutch. I owe everything to these beautiful animals, even if they sometimes leave you heartbroken.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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Her Name on My Notebooks

My next horse was Flicka, a beautiful palomino. I was eight years old when we got her. She was probably twelve. She was honest and fun. I did really well on Flicka. We ran twenty-second pole patterns. To some people that wasn’t fast, but it was fast enough that me and my family started traveling to bigger shows. Flicka was on all my notebooks at school: I love Flicka. Flicka is my best friend.

The summer I turned ten, I remember going to check on Flicka. I found her laying on her side. She couldn’t get up. I knew something was wrong with her, so I ran to get help. The vet told us Flicka had West Nile virus. We tried to save her, but there was nothing we could do.

Losing Flicka was definitely hard. I just didn’t understand. Why did this happen? Why did it keep happening to me?

I was sad, but it’s my family’s way to keep going. Dad was like, We’re going to find you another horse. It’s going to work out.

Dad didn’t have to push me much. I was a willful, stubborn girl. And I had fallen in love with horses at an early age. Back when I was barely five, I rode every day with my Mom. I taught her pleasure horse, Angel, all the saddle club events. Angel hated me. I always wanted to go fast, but she didn’t. She would buck, I would end up on her neck, and she would let me crawl back in the saddle.

Losing Bones and Flicka was hard, but it taught me to always keep working towards what you’re wanting to become.

At that early age, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to become. But I knew it had to involve horses. Where I grew up—along the Georgia coast, forty miles north of the Florida state line—rodeo wasn’t popular. I never learned to rope breakaway or tie goats. But we did have barrel racing.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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A Lot More Horse

When Flicka died, my parents knew I was dedicated. Around that time, my Uncle Stephen, who lives on the family farm, traded for a horse named Jerry. Uncle Stephen was like, Go put your saddle on him. Later, Dad bought Jerry for me.

I was the definition of a rookie. As green as they get.
You want to know what’s crazy? Less than three months later, I found myself in a race for Rookie of the Year.

Jerry was a lot more horse than I was used to. He was chargey and free-running. I was small and really, really skinny. The horses before Jerry were already seasoned. I didn’t have to do a ton to ride them. Jerry was a lot stronger and more difficult, but I learned so much from him.

I would go into the pasture to lope him, and we would end up running full speed out of control. I remember thinking, This is so difficult! It could be scary, too. But I never thought of quitting. I loved horses too much. I still do. I love cleaning their stalls. I love taking care of them. I love riding and, of course, competing on them. I wanted to do whatever I could to get better. It was never, Is this going to work? It was always, What do I have to do to make this work?

I had to learn how to use my legs for strength. I had to learn how to set Jerry at the barrels. My Dad and Uncle Stephen spent a lot of time helping me. There were days when they would make me trot the barrel pattern twenty times.

We started competing in local barrel races. Jerry’s style was very different. He was so fast that he would run wide around the third barrel. But he never let up. People would say, The clock didn’t work right. There’s no way you ran that! He just ran so hard. Soon, Jerry was winning, and people were paying attention.

Before Jerry, we didn’t travel far for barrel races. But now were going to bigger regional National Barrel Horse Association shows and winning. That’s when I was all in. Yes, I can do this! Jerry taught me how to jockey and ride. Now, he was taking me places I wanted to go.

When I was thirteen, me and Jerry won the 2005 NBHA World Championship, which is a huge deal in the barrel-racing world. Bling may have given me a rodeo name, but Jerry is where my career started. Back East, everyone knows me from Jerry.

People would tell me, Enjoy that Jerry while you have him, because you’re never going to get on another horse like him. I was young then, so I didn’t think much about it, but I owe a lot to that horse.

Fortunately, Jerry is still part of my family. He’s twenty now, and my niece back in Georgia ride him. There were probably times when my family could have sold Jerry for a lot of money—and we needed the money—but he earned his spot. He’s never going anywhere. I’m not the only one who worked hard to win barrel races. My whole family worked hard. Barrel racing kept our family really close. You can’t put a price tag on something like that.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


She Wore a Rhinestone Halter

I was fifteen years old and still riding Jerry and a couple other horses when my uncle bought a yearling at the Fulton Ranch sale in Valentine, Nebraska. I remember the day he brought her home. She stepped out of the trailer wearing a rhinestone halter. I thought, That’s cool!

She had a name to match: Bling.

Uncle Stephen has always had a good eye for a horse. He doesn’t like to go to shows and compete. He likes to train them. He loves staying home and working on horses that have problems and issues that need to be fixed. He partnered with his best friend, Larry, on Bling.

I kept at it hard during my teenage years, mostly barrel racing at NBHA events in Georgia and Florida. We would show up, and some horse owner would be like, Hey, we want Sarah to ride this horse. Dad would say, She’ll ride it. He was tough on me. Looking back, I’m thankful that he was, because it made me a stronger competitor. It helped me to be on so many different kinds of horses. There was also the fact that I needed to win to pay for my entry fees. That always stuck with me: We are doing this for fun, but we’ve got to win so we can keep going. It made me work harder.

But toward the end of high school, I hit a rough patch. Maybe I was a little burned out. I know my horses were sore. I had horses to haul but not to be competitive at the big barrel races. I wouldn’t say I stepped away from barrel racing, but things weren’t working out so well.

I was also starting to focus on what I would do with my life. I had always wanted to go to nursing school. Right after graduation, I enrolled at the Coastal College of Georgia in Brunswick to study nursing and stay home and keep riding.

Meanwhile, Uncle Stephen had been training Bling in the barrels. She had not shown much promise as a three-year-old, so we didn’t put her in any of the three-year-old futurities like most people would have done.

One day, after Bling turned four and could be entered in the barrel races, Uncle Stephen said to me, “Take Bling to the show and see what she does.”

Take her to the show? I thought. She’s crazy!

Bling was so high strung. When I rode her at home, she would literally jump around the pasture. It seemed like she was spastic. Bling was one of those horses that, when you sat on her, you knew she was different. She gave off this incredible energy. You knew she could be special if she would level out—if her brain would allow her to flatten out.

“Are you sure?” I asked my uncle.

He was. That first race was in Waycross, Georgia, about an hour from my house. Dad took me. Stephen stayed home. But before we left, we all came up with a plan.

Bling didn’t work the best to the left, but she would inhale the second and third barrels. “Don’t take off at the back of the alley,” Uncle Stephen said. “Wait until the first barrel.”

I took off just before the timer and high-loped to the first barrel. I kept Bling in my hand. I didn’t just let her go. I was trying to get the best first barrel that I could. After that I kicked the whole rest of the way.

When I heard my time, I was like, Wait, did I hear right? The run felt great, but you’re just not expecting to be within the 4D range the very first time you run a horse. We were so excited!

Later, we called Uncle Stephen and Larry. “I won the barrel race!”

They were like, “What? No you didn’t. You’re joking.”

I don’t remember what our time was or how much money we won. To me, none of that mattered. All that mattered was that Bling proved she could smooth out.

We have the horse, I thought. She is what we hoped she could be. We just have to be smart about how we finish her.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


The Need to Leave

We didn’t enter Bling in the four-year-old futurities. It was too late. We could have entered at the last minute, but we would pay double the fees. It was too much of a risk.

Before, when I had seasoned colts, I took them to all the barrel races in the region, whether they paid a lot or not. It was different with Bling. We felt like we knew from the beginning how special she was. We were really picky about where we ran her. We went to places where the ground was good or where there was money added.

She was also fragile-minded. If she would have been under lot of pressure, I don’t think she could have handled it. So we kept her in shape, but she didn’t see the barrel pattern much. That kept her mind fresh.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. She would turn second or third and sometimes hit some barrels, so I had to work through that and figure out how to use my body. I really had to use my legs and lean forward on her. I did things that look crazy in pictures. But it worked, and we got in sync and started winning.

I don’t mean for this to sound cocky, but once we got her running consistently, around the end of 2013, we dominated the barrel races. This is how amazing she was: We would arrive at a three-day show with six or seven hundred barrel racers entered each day, and we would win all three days of the show. She was for sure in the top five every time we ran. It got to the point where I was like, I need to run somewhere else. Bling was too good to keep accomplishing what she had already accomplished. But where?

I had a recurring thought. You’ve gotta do something else. There’s so much more you can do. But, I had no idea what to do.

Despite all the winning, I had a heavy heart. Even though I had good grades in college, I found out I didn’t love nursing the way I thought I would. I had been focused on horses and competing for so many years. Now, I felt a little lost.

Growing up in Georgia, I watched the National Finals Rodeo on TV every year, but rodeoing professionally never crossed my mind. I didn’t know anybody in the rodeo. My family hadn’t rodeoed. There just aren’t that many rodeos back East. I would go to my hometown rodeo, but I didn’t ride Bling there. I just did it for fun.

The summer of 2014, I visited a barrel-racing friend named Erika, in North Georgia.

“We should go to some rodeos,” she said. “Out West.”

“Yeah,” I said, “That would be a lot of fun.” To me, it was idle talk. I didn’t have a truck or trailer. I didn’t have much money. On days when I wasn’t in college, I worked at my sister’s restaurant to make a little extra cash.

“Let’s go!” she said. “Just for a couple weeks, to see what it’s like. We can take my truck and trailer.”

The seed was planted. But I still didn’t know where to begin. The 2014 rodeo season was more than halfway over. The summer rodeos were already underway. For some reason, I set my sights on the rodeo in Casper, Wyoming, in mid-July. I had never been to Wyoming—or anywhere else west of the Mississippi River. I was the definition of a rookie. As green as they get.

You want to know what’s crazy? Less than three months later, I found myself in a race for WPRA Rookie of the Year.

Go to “Loving and Losing Horses, Part 2: I put away childish things."