He sat down with BarrelRacing.com to share his expertise and how the dirt stayed consistent and safe at the 2023 installment of the rodeo despite two intense rains during the week, plus he shares some tips to help arm barrel racers with their own footing knowledge.
Just a few years ago, Sikeston, like many other major ProRodeos, didn’t implement a drag halfway through the barrel racing performance. When Morton began putting on a barrel race in the same arena as the ProRodeo and barrel racers realized the difference in the footing, he decided to take it to the Jaycee committee.
“We looked at the numbers and realized I had less slips and falls with 900 horses in one day than they did in 100 runs over a week,” Morton said. “Once we presented it to them, they realized it wasn’t a horse issue, it was a ground issue. The committee has done amazing embracing this and seeking out information on the ground and how they can constantly improve.”
Listen to JT Morton on The Rundown below.
“I’m not going to say it’s every year,” Morton said, laughing. “But it never fails, we always get one monsoon during Sikeston. You don’t know when it’s going to hit, but it’s going to hit.”
Regardless of the forecast, slack started out on August 9 with a fully watered and groomed arena.
“The way I look at,” Morton said. “We had all that slack before the rain was going to hit. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting another 10 inches that night, there’s slack every morning. They deserve to have the ground right before every go, and we have to deal with the consequences whenever the rain hits. I can guarantee one thing, though—we’re going to make it safe for everyone, regardless of what weather hits.”
When the rain hit, the crew acted fast to get it scraped and worked well for the nightime performance and saw competitive times come out of that night. Then, they continued to add water to the sandy arena daily to keep it wet enough to hold barrel racers on the days that the rain didn’t hit. And then, Saturday rolled around.
“We put a load of water on it Saturday morning early, at like 6 am so it would be good for slack,” Morton said, adding that the Saturday slack was entirely made up of roping events. “They were close to being done when the bottom fell out and flooded everything. The parking lot, the arena, the new cow house the Jaycees just put up. We spend the entire day trying to get it cleaned up and to get the parking and arena safe.”
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Morton and the crew took advantage of the drain built into the arena to drain the bulk of the water off the top of the arena. He noted that around 10:30 a.m. when the rain stopped, there was about a foot of water on top of the dirt. They then dug down to uncovered the drain and used pumps to drain the entire property where they could, including the arena.
Then, they let the sunlight do its thing until about 2:00, when Josh Carroll was called in with a blade for reinforcements.
“Josh worked some magic,” Morton said. “By 4:00, I was in there with our Black Widow drag and we had the main arena dry enough that I could drag it and not make a mess. I think the conditions we had for the Saturday night performance were the best we had all week, personally.”
Morton was quick to point out that it wasn’t just his dirt knowledge that made the entire week come together.
“When there’s a problem, you call the Jaycees and they will come out of the woods to help,” Morton said of the Jaycee Bootheel committee. “They will break their back to help us get it right. They were in the livestock pens, different areas—a whole crew was out there working to make sure everything was right.”
Pro Tips: Barrel Racing Ground Work
Morton shared a few of his top tips for working the dirt in various setups, and some things barrel racers can look out for to help better inform themselves on the dirt they will be running their horses on.
1. Know your dirt.
Morton noted that one thing about the sandy Sikeston arena is that the more water it takes on, often the better it gets.
“I guarantee contestants that ground will hold,” Morton said. “Because the only time it won’t is when it’s dry—and we don’t let it get dry. The only way to give sand like that a base is to get a lot of water on it and keep it wet.”
But, he noted that not all dirt is created equal.
“Having different soil is the bigges thing,” Morton explained. “Some arenas have sand, some have clay, topsoil or even pea gravel. Sometimes there’s combinations. Rodeo ground is knowing for not being your typical barrel racing ground. You’ve got to learn your soils.”
2. Beware the hardpan
Morton explained that some arenas have a slick patch of dirt hidden below the surface. It’s what barrel racers call a “hardpan.” That’s what ladies encountered at the Cheyenne Frontier Days before Randy Spraggs flew in to come up with a fix.
Morton explained that arenas with a lot of clay can easily create a hardpan if the crew doesn’t have the knowledge to break it up, understand how to use their drag or know the proper moisture balance for that particular patch.
“When a horse’s metal shoes hit slick dirt that’s been sitting,” Morton said. “It’s like wearing ice skates. Think about being a kid and playing in the rain. If it was clay, it would ball up underneath you and be nasty and slick. You probably made mud pies with mud like that. Now picture a horse dropping to turn and hitting that.”
3. Test it out
“Dirt’s a lot like making a snowball,” Morton said. “If it has enough moisture, it will pack and you make a ball out of it. You can walk up, pick the dirt up a little below the surface and feel this. If it’s just powder, or say, sand that doesn’t have enough water on it, it will run through your fingers and won’t pack. If you can pick sand up, and make a ball out of it, or you see water laying on top, that’s as good as it’s probably going to get. Now, if it’s the opposite and it’s too wet—where it gets your hands muddy when you try to make that ball, you don’t want that either.”
If you’re not looking to get your hands dirty, Morton says to use your head, and your feet.
“Check the dirt underneath that top layer. If it’s 100 degrees out and the sun is shining, obviously it’s going to look dry on top. But that doesn’t mean the ground will be dry. Kick under that topsoil and see what it feels like.”
4. Ask questions
“The tractor driver is going to be able to tell you what he’s feeling out there,” Morton said. “He knows how hard that dirt is, and if he can feel that his teeth aren’t in the ground deep enough and if he knows what he’s doing, he’ll be able to tell you what’s going on with it and where problem spots could be.”
Morton emphasized that most ground experts or tractor drivers should be willing to have an open, honest conversation with barrel racers and other contestants, but that some may lack skills or get defensive at times, so it’s best to approach the situation calmly and with an open mind.
“He may have factors going on you know nothing about and be doing the best he can,” Morton said. “Listen to his side. But, if the driver’s got any sense at all, he will also have an open mind and listen to the contestant. They’re the ones who drove a possibly long distance to get there and know their horses. It’s really better if all sides can listen to one another and work together.”