Why I saved the “yellow horse” for The American
People thought I was crazy.
“Why aren’t you running the yellow horse?” they asked, looking at me like, Dude, whatcha doing? Friends. Fellow barrel racers. Lots of people.
This was Friday, February 17, 2017, and I had just arrived in San Angelo for the rodeo’s finals. The San Angelo Stock Show & Rodeo is one of the biggest winter rodeos of the season, and I had not expected to make the short-go. They were talking about my horse, Sister. These days, Sister is famous, but a year ago nobody knew her name.
“You could win on the yellow horse!”
“You’re probably right,” I said, “but I know what I’m doing.”
At least I think I do.
According to conventional wisdom, they were right. You stay on the horse that’s winning. And Sister had been winning. She was the reason I was here. The Sunday before, I placed on Sister in the second round at San Angelo. But I had returned for the short-go with my other barrel horse, TJ. Why?
Because I was saving Sister for The American.
The American, held each February since 2014 at AT&T Stadium, is a one-of-a-kind event. Not only does the rodeo give up-and-comers the chance to qualify and compete against the world’s top cowboys and cowgirls, it pays a million-dollar bonus to any underdogs who out-ride or out-rope the superstars.
Last year, I was one of those underdogs.
So was Sister. She was an ugly-duckling of a filly when Mom and I bought her at a Waco sale. That’s a story for another day—how Sister blossomed from a dishwater-yellow two-year-old with a knot on her forehead and a freakishly long mane into a gold-and-silver eyecatcher. And how we trained her ourselves to become a champion.
For now, though, with The American on everybody’s minds, let me explain my decision not to run Sister at San Angelo—and the consequences of that decision.
The week before The American was crazy. So busy!
I was a senior at Texas A&M and living in Bryan. On Friday, I drove my horse TJ to Athens, Texas (two hours away), for a college rodeo. He ran great and placed there.
On Sunday, I drove to Bryan (two hours), exchanged TJ for Sister and drove to San Angelo (five hours) to run the second round of that rodeo.
On Monday, Sister and I drove to Fort Worth (four hours) for the first of three semi-final rounds to see who would qualify for The American.
Sister and I ran on Tuesday and advanced. That day, I drove back to Bryan (three hours) to go to class.
On Thursday, Sister and I returned to Fort Worth (three hours) for the next semi-final round. I advanced again. That night, I stayed in Fort Worth and celebrated with my parents. Sitting third, Sister and I were likely to make it to Sunday’s big show, The American. Then, around midnight, we found out I made the short-go at San Angelo. The short-go at San Angelo was Friday, the very next day.
My busy week got even busier.
The logical move was to drive straight to San Angelo with Sister, make the run and get back to Fort Worth in time for The American semi-final on Saturday. Sister was young and running great. There was a chance I could win money at San Angelo and at The American.
Instead, I decided to run TJ at San Angelo. I wanted Sister to rest.
Rest for Sister meant the opposite for me—driving her back to Bryan (three hours), picking up TJ and heading west for San Angelo (five hours), and then driving the whole thing in reverse to get back to Fort Worth by Saturday. One day of rest for Sister meant twice as much driving for me.
Why go to all the trouble, especially when the “yellow horse” was winning?
Because it was best for the horse.
That’s what I kept telling myself. This is best for Sister, and that’s what matters.
I know what I’m doing.
At least I think I do.
I came by my way of thinking thanks to my mom, Leslie, who taught me how to start colts and train barrel horses. Together, we made Sister, and we did it by taking our time. I didn’t want to run her legs off. I wanted her to enjoy rodeoing.
Sister was still green. It had been less than a year since she ran her first pro rodeo. She had shown promise, placing at her first two rodeos and winning the third. But, after that, instead of pushing her, I left her at home during my six-week summer run. And I didn’t win much. That was when the chatter started: What the heck are you doing? You can win on the yellow horse.
That first summer, Mom was super helpful about deciding when to run her. Mom’s a heck of a guidance counselor. I’d say, What do you think about such-and-such? And she’d give me a general framework of what to consider without telling me exactly what to do. We’re straight up partners on everything. Mom deserves a lot of credit for helping me keep Sister sane through her younger years.
There was no sense pushing her now. I knew TJ would be dependable at San Angelo. I also knew he didn’t have the fire to compete at The American.
The American, of course, was a longshot. If I did make the cut, I’d still have to compete against nine other qualifiers and ten invitees—the very best barrel racers from the previous year. The 2017 season was my first serious attempt at professional rodeoing. My goal for the year was to finish in the top thirty in the world. Money earned at San Angelo counted towards my 2017 WPRA standings. Money earned at The American didn’t count—if I earned any money.
The odds were against me. But I had to try.
At San Angelo, TJ and I placed great in the average.
Back in Fort Worth, Sister and I advanced to The American.
I’m a studier. I like to be prepared. That Saturday night, I drove by AT&T Stadium to get my bearings before the next day’s routine. The parking lots were vast. The stadium dome rose up and blotted out the sky. For the first time during this busy week, I got excited. Wow, I thought, I get to run here! What if I win?
Sister was running good, but she could have a perfect run and still not make the final four. I was at peace with that. The best run I could make. That’s all I wanted.
The next day, in the long-go lineup, I ended up running between Sherry Cervi and Lisa Lockhart. Barrel-racing legends!
When it was our go, Sister smoked the run—14.4 seconds! Out of twenty runs, we were fastest.
The crowd went wild.
What is this yellow horse, and who is this girl? I had been successful in youth and college rodeo, but to these pros—and everybody else—I was an unknown. She came out of nowhere!
Later that day, I would run against Sherry, Lisa and Brandon Cullins in the shootout round for $100,000. Since Brandon and I were qualifiers, we were also competing for all or a share of the million-dollar bonus.
My plan was to ice Sister’s legs and give her a massage, some water and a little bit of hay. Take care of her.
“Do you have your phone on you, Hailey,” Mom asked as we walked Sister through the tunnel.
“It’s back at the trailer. Why?”
“Do what you want, but my suggestion would be to turn it off,” she said. “You’re gonna have a lot of messages from people congratulating you and giving you advice for the shootout round. You’re gonna get caught up in what you just did, but you only have three hours to turn your brain around and prepare for the next run.”
I did exactly that. I’m glad, too, because that phone would have fried!
Back at the trailer, I went into bubble mode. I hung out, played with my dog, ate a banana, took care of my horse. Because I had the fastest time, I was up last. In the arena, I found the quietest spot in the AT&T Center, behind the roping boxes. I didn’t watch the other riders. I didn’t want anything to change my game plan.
At The American, your long-go times don’t carry forward. In the shootout, you start over. Fastest time wins.
I let Sister walk back and forth to keep her calm. Right before my run, I could hear the announcer pumping up the crowd by telling them how much money was as stake.
And then we were up.
We made a good turn on the first barrel. Halfway through our run, I knew we weren’t as fast as we had been during round one. But that mare can make up time, so I wasn’t worried. I knew to just let her roll. I stayed loose and tried not to worry about being perfect. Try too hard to be perfect, and you can hit barrels.
We turned the third barrel, and I knew. The crowd exploded, and I was certain. We won!
Later, at the press conference, I turned to my brother and said, “By the way, what was my time?”
"14.6 seconds," he said.
I’m still in awe of how well Sister handled everything, being so young. We were up against a lot of seasoned campaigners, horses that had rodeoed year in and year out. And the sensory overload at The American is extreme—noises, flashing lights, constant crowd movement.
Reporters all want to know how winning The American changed my life. They mean the money. Winning close to half a million dollars was definitely exciting, but the confidence I gained in my horse, Sister, means more to me than anything. It’s thrilling. You train a horse, and you want her to do well, but you don’t count on her becoming famous! Sister’s a superstar.
She didn’t start out as a star. Sister didn’t come through a big futurity program. Mom and I only start one or two colts a year. With Sister, we went slow. We gave her lots of attention, let her be an individual, let her do things her way. That’s our program. We let her be our star.
I guess we did know what we were doing.