Most young barrel racers dreams of running down the alley at the Thomas & Mack arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the National Finals Rodeo, and if there’s any question why, here’s what the NFR is like as a first-time competitor through barrel racer Sissy Winn’s eyes.
Just days before she made her appearance at the 2023 NFR, Sissy Winn sat down with BarrelRacing.com to discuss her first NFR experience in 2022 and the lessons she learned through those 10 runs. Spoiler alert: Winn’s mental and physical preparation paid off to the tune of two round wins and $120,939.64 in NFR earnings. Learn more about Winn and A R Dash Ta Flame here.
NFR Prep: One Week Out
The NFR experience doesn’t just start when you run down the alleyway in Round 1. A week out, Winn starts packing for the trip West from her home base in Chapman, Texas.
Winn: It’s not just clothes. It’s packing everything your horses need. It feels like we’re leaving for two summer runs, but we’re only gone for 15 days or so. You pack for any climate, any situation imaginable. We live pretty far South and it takes two days to get there, so we leave on Friday and get to Vegas on Sunday. I stay offsite and trailer back and forth to the Thomas & Mack. It’s close to the South Point Hotel. The horses know the place because I stayed there in 2022, so they’re comfortable there.
When you’re hauling, it’s always important to keep things consistent for your horses, too. Sometimes (A R Dash Ta Flame) Scoop needs a little texturized feed added because I’m feeding him extra supplements when he’s in heavy training. Sometimes I add in some senior feed in the summer because he draws up a little when he’s being hauled more. You just have to pay attention to what your horse needs and then make adjustments to your program. So I really try to anticipate all the things my horses could need when changing climates and elevations, then prepare for those potential situations.
When in Vegas…
Winn: Once I get the horses situated, I pull out my schedule. I plan everything out. I’ll unpack and organize my clothes when I unload the truck and just make sure everything is ready to go. It gets busy pretty quickly.
On Tuesday, we have the first barrel practice in the morning. For me, the first practice is when it all hits. Like, you’re at the National Finals Rodeo. You made it. When I rode across to the second barrel for the first time in that arena and saw just, gold and yellow everywhere, I thought ‘This is real. This is what you’ve been dreaming about since you were 5 or 6 years old watching this on the tv. Now it’s your turn to compete.’
But I still have to stay focused, because the main priority there is making sure Scoop’s comfortable in that pen and everything is right.
After last year, I went home and had yellow banners made that look exactly like the ones in the Thomas & Mack.. So mentally, Scoop and I have been getting used to those. That helps me a lot mentally.
We have the back number ceremony on Tuesday night. So you get all dressed up and they give you your back number. It’s a lot of fun. Wednesday, you have grand entry practice and then it’s pretty laid back. (At the time of this original interview, Winn could never have predicted the events that would unfold at the 2023 NFR grand entry practice. Click here to learn about it.)
Sleep and socializing
The NFR experience is notoriously exhausting for athletes. Between autograph signings, practices, actually competing in the rodeo, media appearances and other obligations, athletes stay on a strict schedule throughout their two weeks in Vegas.
Winn: I don’t sleep super well when I’m working, so I’m used to missing some sleep and that doesn’t affect me that much in Vegas. But the main thing to me is that Scoop is resting—that’s what matters.
As for the partying and nightlife out there, you already know what I’m going to say about that. I avoided it in college and I still don’t feel like I’m missing out by not partaking. That helps avoid sickness, too. I just want to run and stay healthy, not end up with COVID-19, the flu or strep throat, which everybody seems to come back with.
This year, my schedule’s slammed. I planned two full days ‘off,’ where I can like, go to lunch with some friends or walk around and see the sights, but we stay busy. The rodeo starts early this year, which I love and support because I want to go to bed earlier. We have to leave the place we keep the horses at about 4:15 daily to make it over there in plenty of time, so it’s early. It’s important to find time between all the appearances to spend time with horses before we run every night.
While Winn prepared for her second NFR in the 2023 edition, she shared what her first NFR taught her, one year prior.
Winn: Everybody’s experience out there is going to be different. It can feel like you’re a rookie again, your first year out there. I learned that you have to not only take it run, but literally practice by practice. And that was my personal experience—a lot of it depends on your horse. Going into this year, I feel much more mentally prepared. I want to focus on making as many smooth runs as possible. Last year, I think Scoop really figured out the Thomas & Mack at the end. I was like ‘Dude, stop pricking at the camera man on the first barrel or looking down.’
The most surprising thing about that arena for people is how tight it is. Your first barrel is just, right there. I think when you see it on tv you think there’s more room, but then when you show up on a big horse to a small arena you realize oh wow, this is tight.
And you’ve got to peel the paint off the barrels in there. The girls that win, they are on it. They go for broke every single time they run.
Is it worth it?
Taking a moment to pause just before she headed off to Las Vegas, Winn reflected on the things she’d tell a 12-year-old version of herself if she had the power to go back in time and talk to that girl.
Winn: I’d tell myself that it was all worth it. All the hard work, not hanging out with your friends, staying in and putting your horses’ needs first, it all ends up being worth it when you get here. I’d let her know she has what it takes.
Now that I’ve done it and I’m going back again, I never want that feeling to wear off. I never want to feel like this is a chore, even if it is my job. I never want to be too cool to be excited to win, or act like I’m just better than everybody else because I’m here. It’s so much work and it’s so much fun and I know I owe it to that little girl to make the most of every second here.