Go or go home?
It’s a tough call when you’re close to obtaining a goal, whether it’s a young horse excelling during the rodeo seasoning process or trying to make the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
“You don’t have the chance to win if you don’t show,” noted two-time World Champion Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi. “You also need to know when the odds are stacked against you, and you need to go home. Nobody knows that better than yourself.”
The one thing that shouldn’t influence your decision to keep going is the fear of missing out.
“It’s hard to say, ‘My time will come …’ but that’s so true,” said Ivy Saebens, the 2019 NFR Champion. “You save so much stress on yourself and your horse. The fear of missing out—FOMO—can leave you going way too hard and putting too much pressure on yourself.”
Know Thy Horse
The deciding factor is always the horse.
“You just have to let the horse tell you,” said Pozzi Tonozzi. “If you want a horse by the end of the year, you’ve got to listen to your horse. Sometimes you’ve got to make that call. Is what I’m doing going to be detrimental to this horse’s career or am I going to be able to get by and make it to the Finals? It’s so horse specific. You have to weigh the risk to reward.”
Lisa Lockhart, a two-time WPRA Reserve World Champion, said her main concern is keeping her horses happy and healthy and that often means extra work for her.
“I try to be so careful when I’m on the road, finding a place to stay where the horses are going to be happy and they can rest,” says the 15-time NFR qualifier. “I think that time off is crucial—whether it means one day, two days, a week or 10 days. I know sometimes I’ve driven out of my way just so they can be home.”
Longevity is something that’s very important to Lockhart. She noted that Fast An Gold (“Chism”) and An Oakie With Cash (“Louie”) had very long careers.
“I’m an advocate for the horse’s longevity,” she said. “You have to ask yourself what are your long-term goals? If you want to stay hooked and do this, longevity is part of it. If you want to go hard one year, all risks and no costs, so be it. Everybody has their own agenda.”
Shelley Morgan, a three-time NFR qualifier, said she wants her great mare HR FamesKissAndTell (“Kiss”) to last as long as possible.
“I’d love to win a world championship,” she said, “but at the same time, I’d rather go to multiple NFRs.”
Morgan said her summer was a little boring because she “sat around a lot” for the sake of Kiss’s longevity.
“I’m very protective of Kiss,” she says. “You always want to keep going. We’re competitive and love rodeo. I was jealous of all the girls getting to run in the Northwest this year, but I’m also happy I brought Kiss home. She’s rested and happy. I feel like I can start her up in December with the NFR, we have circuit finals in January and then we’ll be going to the building rodeos. I’m good with that because I feel like I’ve rested her this fall.”
Protecting the Precocious
Morgan also did her best to protect Kiss when the mare first started showing promise on the rodeo circuit.
During Kiss’s 4-year-old futurity year in 2018, Morgan went out a little bit and tested the waters during the summer run. After a successful summer run in 2019, Morgan had a decision to make—keep going or go home.
“Kiss had been doing so well, and I wanted to go to the Northwest for selfish reasons,” said Morgan, who was close to the top 30 in the WPRA World Standings at the time.
Her husband Rex—“her voice of reason”—talked her out of it.
“I used to coach basketball,” she explained. “I’m always in the moment and he’s like, ‘Call a timeout!’ That’s what we did. We called a timeout and talked about it. Obviously, I wanted to go to the NFR in 2019, but in reality she would have had to set the Northwest on fire. We came home and said, ‘We have a horse. Let’s save her for next year and take a run at the NFR.’”
For three-time WPRA World Champion Hailey Kinsel the voice of reason was her mother Leslie.
In early June 2016, Hailey Kinsel and DM Sissy Hayday (“Sis”) had just won the Elizabeth Stampede in Colorado. It was the first pro rodeo win for Kinsel’s 5-year-old mare who was only six months into her barrel racing career.
Kinsel, who was still a student at Texas A&M University at the time, started eyeing a Fourth of July run with Sis, but her mother Leslie told her to bring the mare home. The elder Kinsel advised her daughter to run her older seasoned horse Thunder Stones (“TJ”) that summer and “learn the ropes and pay her dues.”
At the time, Kinsel was disappointed with the decision but now believes that it was the pivotal point in Sis’s storied career.
“Most people would have taken her,” said Kinsel. “Frankly, I would have too if not for the voice of reason. Yeah, you take the winning horse and go, but I might have ruined her, trying to make the NFR as a 5-year-old, and she wouldn’t be what she is now.”
Lockhart found herself in the uncomfortable position of having to go more than she ever has in 2021.
“I went more this year than I’ve ever gone—somewhere in the mid-60s—to me, that was a lot,” she says. “I was so busy in August and September, but I had to be. Even still, I’m definitely my horse’s advocate, trying to figure out who runs best where and trying to keep the runs to a minimum.
“There’s always a lot of strategy involved, going where you think your horse can win. It’s not always where everyone else is going. There are places I don’t enter because I don’t feel my horses fit that situation, so why bother?”
Saebens says she made some mistakes with her entering in 2021, which ultimately forced her to go home to Nowata, Oklahoma, when she was on the bubble in late summer. Even though it was just a two-week break, Saebens and KN Fabs Gift Of Fame (“J Lo”) won their first rodeo back in Caldwell, Idaho.
“I realized what I did, and thought, ‘Man I’ve just got to go home. I’ve messed up on my entering. These aren’t places I should be going. I’m just going to go home, give her some time off and go to the places that I know work—like Caldwell.”
Saebens says her decision to turn out is often followed by a chorus of ‘Oh, J Lo’s hurt,’ which leaves her having to keep the mare’s owners Kenny Nichols and Dale Barron in the loop.
“I don’t run J Lo and everyone is like, ‘J Lo’s hurt,’” she quipped. “Like at Guymon, I didn’t run J Lo because I was 12th out of the whole entire slack—I’m last out in the first drag. That’s the worst draw you can have there. I didn’t run her because she was hurt; I didn’t run her because I was 12th out and it wasn’t worth our time.”
For Kinsel it’s about execution.
“Sis ran at 29 rodeos and I won or placed at 24 of them,” she said. “I hate that I wasted runs at San Antonio and Rapid City. Keeping our percentage high is important to me. If you’re doing your job and executing, nine times out of 10, you should place.”
Saebens agreed on execution.
“When I tip barrels on J Lo, I’m like, ‘That’s so stupid!’” she said. “I’m never going to have another horse like this, and I just wasted a run on her. I’ve even talked to Hailey about it, saying ‘If things don’t start picking up, I’m going home!’ I’m not hauling J Lo all over the place for me to keep messing up. She doesn’t deserve that.”
Maximize the Second String
The developmental string is often the key to the longevity of the main horse and repeated NFR qualifications.
Pozzi Tonozzi wrote the book on developing young horses on the road—it’s also why her rodeo count appears high. A lot of the rodeos are on colts that may one day be her No. 1 mount.
“I just try to ride the best horse for the setup,” she says. “I usually know what the setup is like and what the ground is like. I just try to put each horse in the best situation for them.”
This summer Pozzi Tonozzi made the performances at the Cheyenne Frontier Days on her 4-year-old futurity horse Rock On Guys (“Lefty”). He also won smaller pro rodeos out of performances.
Morgan, who had a very capable backup in Kinda Heavenly (“Phoebe”), also noted that sometimes you have to make yourself ride the second string.
“If you’re not going to run them, you’re never going to develop them to the point that they can help you,” Morgan says. “Even if your No. 1 can place, sometimes you have to run your No. 2 or No. 3 so you can get them in a position to help. They’ve got to get that experience. Who doesn’t want to get on their No. 1, but every now and then, you’ve got to sacrifice.”
Stay In Your Lane
The run and rest cycle has worked well for Kinsel and Sis. Even with a horse like Sis, it’s hard for Kinsel to stay home and watch everyone else climb in the standings while she waits for the rich rodeos that favor her main mount.
“Even this year was hard,” said Kinsel. “I went into the summer with $12,000 won, which is nothing. It was hard to sit at home while everyone was in California.”
Ultimately, you can’t let what others are doing influence your decision regarding what’s best for your horse.
“It’s knowing your horse and where they can win,” said Kinsel. “It’s sticking to your guns and not paying attention to everyone else. It’s knowing that going home isn’t throwing in the towel—it’s to regroup.
“It’s those little things, those decisions, that you hope and pray about that help a horse become a unicorn. Otherwise, they could just be another horse that comes and goes.”