Things have changed since Molly Powell made her most recent trip to the National Finals Rodeo in 2011, and even more since her first NFR qualification in 1995.
“You used to see so many horses that were one-hit wonders,” Powell said. “Like, they would go to the finals and win everything, then you’d never see them again. Most of them couldn’t last or stay sound, and half of it was the ground at the NFR, it just burned them up. When I’d try to borrow horses, people wouldn’t do it because they didn’t want to do it to their horse. It’s not like that anymore.”
Powell made that comment after multiple barrel racers stumbled and Stevi Hillman’s Sand In my Socks fell completely down in the hind end at the second turn in the No. 14 ground position in the third round.
“In the first couple rounds it was pretty good,” Powell noted. “The climate plays a big factor there–it changes daily. It’s hard, I mean you know they’re trying to make it good, but that throws a horse’s confidence off early in the week.”
She looks for the ground committee–headed up by Randy Spraggs, who took over ground management for the NFR in 2020 in Arlington, Texas— to work to improve condiitons before Round 4, and reminisced on a much different NFR experience for barrel racers in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
“When I went, I had horses that hated it so bad in that arena that they pinned their ears in the alley,” Powell said. “There’s some horses that you could tell after the first few rounds were not loving it and there will be some horse changes, but these girls are absolutely stacked in horsepower.”
Spraggs echoed that due to tunnels being open at both sides of the arena and varying weather patterns in Las Vegas, the NFR ground changes and is worked accordingly each day.
Powell also provided insight on some of the errors that riders have been making in the arena each night. Her main takeaway: don’t judge the top 15 until you’ve sat in their saddle.
“There’s some that are making mistakes, but people don’t realize how quick things happen in that arena,” Powell said. “You mess up one spot and you’re trying to make up time the rest of the run. Not only is it not an easy arena to make up time in—it’s so tight in there—it happens so fast.”
“These horses are just so fast,” Powell said. “And a lot of them are young. I always liked a push-style horse because I felt like you could make a mistake and get out of it, but on those strong, hard-running horses, it’s a huge challenge. You have emotions too, so you’re excited and trying hard.”
Powell is excited to watch NFR first-timer take her stab at No. 1 on the ground in Round 4.
“That horse (ChewingTheHotWire, “Chewy”) is so fast that I look forward to seeing how fast they csan be when they get their run perfect in that arena,” Powell said.
Another thing that has changed in the barrel racing scene is the level of care available for barrel horses, and the knowledge that accompanies it.
“I didn’t even inject a horse until I’d gone to the NFR like, seven or eight times,” Powell said. “We were running all-natural back then. Now, there’s so many therapies available for those horses, it helps them last a lot longer.”
NFR Horse Changes
Round 3 brought the first two horse changes—Brittany Pozzi to Babe On The Chase, “Birdie,” and Stevi Hillman to Sand In My Socks. In Round 4, Wenda Johnson will swap from Steal Money, “Mo,” whom she topped Round 1 aboard with a 13.59—the fastest time over the first three rounds in the barrel racing—to the horse that she broke the arena record aboard not once, but twice at the Fort Worth Stock & Rodeo aboard in 2022, Macgyver Moonflash, “Mac.”