On a normal year, northeast North Dakota is heaven for horses in late spring, summer and early fall, with its moderate temps and the abundance of lush grass that grows in the fertile soil of the Red River Valley of the North.
The other half of the year is another story. Not only is the mercury prone to plunge well below freezing, the remoteness of Molly Otto’s Grand Forks, North Dakota, home provides limited barrel racing resources.
There are no such thing as weekly jackpots. The closest arena to schedule monthly barrel races is three hours away, and Otto says she’ll travel up to seven hours to exhibition colts in the last few months leading up to their futurity year.
But there’s a silver lining in every cloud, as they say, and Otto has found a way to thrive in the challenging environment.
“I do a lot of hauling to friends’ houses, so my colts almost get seasoned without getting seasoned,” she said. “In the summer, my outdoor arena doesn’t have very good ground, so I do a lot of slow work. I don’t go super-fast because I don’t want the horses to get hurt. It really teaches my horses where to put their feet and how to handle themselves and take care of themselves. I feel it makes them better. They figure out pretty quick what they need to do with their feet, and it helps them in a lot of different situations.”
A small, but unheated, indoor arena on the Ottos’ property provides a place to cut the windchill enough to exercise horses and practice drills sheltered from the harsh gusts of winter.
“If it’s below zero, I’m not going to ride, but I try to make sure my horses stay in shape all year because I don’t want them to get sweaty in the winter,” she said.
And so, Otto prepares her colts for their futurity debuts, and then, she says, they get thrown to the wolves. Against these odds, she keeps her expectations in check with close scrutiny placed on each horse’s progress and maturity, but it is in precisely this way that she has recorded more than $450,000 career earnings – and counting. Otto finished 10th overall in the 2021 WPRA World Standings with $134,698 following a second-place finish in the overall aggregate worth $56,171.