Whilst the details surrounding the starting round of the 2023 National Finals Rodeo are still a mystery, one thing that’s for sure is that the barrel racers and their equine counterparts will be ready when the gates open, as demonstrated by the first NFR barrel racing practice on Tuesday, Dec. 5.
The first NFR barrel racing practice is an opportunity for barrel racers to get inside the little yellow walls of the Thomas & Mack and get their horses familiarized with the setup. For first-timers, it’s their first opportunity to soak in the sights and figure out that tricky, blind first barrel situation with the extra long alleyway in the back. BarrelRacing.com was in attendance and here are the things that stuck out from each barrel racer.
1. Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi
With barrel racers working in their regular season world standings order, Pozzi Tonozzi had the first chance to enter the Thomas & Mack.
- She started with slow work on Jets Top Gun, “Benny,” then brought in Babe On The Chase, Birdie, then SR Industry Titan, “Titan.”
- Birdie is the only one of Tonozzi’s A-team that has ran inside the Thomas & Mack before. Read about the 13.57 that earned Birdie and Tonozzi a round co-championship at NFR 2022.
- Titan has made an NFR appearance—he ran at the 2020 NFR with Wenda Johnson—but that was the year the finals ran in Arlington, Texas, meaning he’s a 2023 newbie to Vegas.
2. Jordon Briggs
Jordon Briggs opted for slow work on both of her geldings when it was her chance to enter the Thomas & Mack.
- Briggs made her first two passes on her two-time AQHA/WPRA Horse of the Year, Famous Lil Jet, “Rollo.”
- Rollo looked strong and more fiery than usual, but Briggs kept him controlled and working on his hind end with patience at each turn.
- Remember, Briggs currently holds the NFR aggregate record on Rollo inside the Thomas & Mack, a record they set in 2021 en route to Briggs’ World Championship. Read about their 2021 NFR here.
- Next up for Briggs was KN Bam Shake Da Room, “Bluey.” She focused on slow work for the derby horse, who looked comfortable inside the quiet building.
3. Emily Beisel
Emily Beisel always brings the unique slow working sessions to the Thomas & Mack that fans have grown to love. She’s entering the 2023 NFR in her personal highest regular season position in six NFR trips.
- This year, Beisel has three bullets in the gun that are capable of success in the Thomas & Mack. She won rounds in previous NFR’s on Namgis D 33 “Chongo,” and started on him for her first practice.
- Beisel caught fans’ attention with her unique slow working routines in 2022, and repeated a similar pattern in 2023. She first went to the third barrel area, then looped back to the timer along the wall and comfortably looped Chongo at a walk around the arena. “Practice for Chongo is about ‘scoring,'” Beisel wrote on social media. “He knows his job and has made a lot of runs inside the Thomas & Mack, so keeping his mental game is 100% the goal.”
- Beisel plans to start in Round 1 on Chongo.
- Next up was Ivory On Fire, “Liza,” the mare Beisel dominated every round of competition aboard (minus the round win she split with Tonozzi and Titan) at the Cinch Playoffs finale in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. More on that win here.
- Beisel cruised Liza through the pattern after a fresh drag on the pen, then took her back in for fine-tuning. Liza perked her ears up at a few of the sights, but looked more curious than spooky in the quiet arena.
4. Taycie Matthews
NFR first-timer Taycie Matthews was next on the list for practice. After the injury of Fame Fire Rocks, her 2023 AQHA/WPRA Horse of the Year, “Poprocks,” Matthews pulled out her old faithful stallion, Heavenly Firewater, “Bud the Stud.”
- For fans that may not be familiar with Bud, he’s been in many coliseums and small, narrow pens from his days coming up in the International Professional Rodeo Association with Matthews before she even had her driver’s license. After she got the win in Salinas, California, on Bud this summer, her mother, Kim Matthews, said “They were at home in there. Bud and Taycie both cut their rodeo teeth on ‘track pen’ rodeos and those setups.” This puts Matthews in a strong position going into her first runs in Las Vegas.
- After working Bud on multiple rounds, Matthews brought in Stoli My Firewater, “Stoli.” The yellow mare is a daughter of Bud and looked slightly nervous during her first pass. Matthews switched into trainer mode and calmed the young horse down well, looking much smoother by the end of practice.
5. Lisa Lockhart
Lisa Lockhart is on trip No. 17 to the NFR, and she brought three bullets in the gun who are comfortable inside the arena. See the list here.
- Lockhart nearly broke the barrel racing internet in 2022 when she entered the Thomas & Mack on foot next to Promise Me Fame Guys and calmly walked him around the arena. At the time, she noted that she is willing to adapt her approach to what each horse needs, and Levee’s comfort was her No. 1 concern. This worked out well for Levee, as he showed out at his first NFR and helped Lockhart split a round win. Read about that win here.
- In similar fashion, Lockhart walked Levee around for his first pass at the 2023 edition of barrel racing practice.
- Next up, she stayed aboard Prime Diamond, “Cutter.” On Cutter’s cruise through, he looked flawless on the pattern. During his slow work, his relaxed, loose style in the turns was mesmerizing to watch, while Lockhart calmly sat in the middle of the saddle and guided him to each turn point.
- Lockhart worked all of her horses one-handed in the turns at varying speeds.