For most barrel racers, the big dream is to make the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Hearing your name called out at the Thomas and Mack Arena is the ultimate sign that the goals youve worked for have finally been achieved. Veteran barrel racer and trainer Dena Kirkpatrick, however, uses a slightly different measuring stick. Shes never been to the NFR. Shes never even qualified for the circuit finals. But, the Post, Texas, trainer may be the most successful barrel racer youve never seen at the NFR. Dollar for dollar, horses trained by Kirkpatrick command the lions share of the barrel racing purse year after year. You see, Dena Kirkpatrick is a rare breed of barrel horse trainer who not only has the talent to churn out powerhouse equine athletes, but has an easy-to-follow training style that makes the transition from futurity and derby horses to rodeo champions almost seamless.
While Kirkpatrick has trained a host of fabulous horses, there’s one horse most people know by first name. Martha, AKA Sugar Moon Express, is?Kirkpatrick’s star pupil. Along with Canadian barrel racer Lindsay Sears, the duo became WPRA world champions while cementing Kirkpatrick’s place as one of the sport’s premier trainers. While Martha stole the show at last year’s NFR winning five rounds en route to shattering the year-end earnings record, Kirkpatrick had two other graduates present at the event. Tammy Key-Fischer jumped on sister Jackie Dube-Jatzlau’s palomino mare Princess while Sears’ backup horse was Courtney Cantrell’s DJ Nick Bar. While neither Princess nor DJ earned money at the event, having three horses competing at the NFR that were trained by one person is impressive.
Kirkpatrick’s philosophy is simple: teach the horse to stay round throughout the turn while sliding the inside hind leg underneath his body as he moves around the barrel. The position allows the horse to maintain momentum to rocket out of the turn using the hind leg as a propeller. While that is an oversimplified version of Kirkpatrick’s program, its ease of use to the horse is undeniable. Martha is, perhaps, the perfect example of Kirkpatrick’s training techniques. She is almost rubber band-like flexible and incredibly strong throughout the turns. Plus, she can get around the barrel with a smooth, one motion turn. Follow along as Kirkpatrick talks about the style differences between Martha, DJ, Princess and Denise Adams’ 2006 mount Frosty Feelins.
Martha and Frosty were the same age and a lot alike. Princess was older but still trained like the other two. They really wanted to be pleasers. Martha was an aggressive mare, but she’s also very sensitive. The mares were late bloomers, while the gelding DJ came on very quickly. Princess was a little stiffer type horse so I had to work to keep her flexed through the turn while teaching her to stay on her butt. I learned to let her turn her way instead of trying to make her turn my way. With Princess, you can’t panic. Even if she gets a little stiff, as long as she keeps rolling, she can shut off the clock. The work to keep her flexible and on her rear would keep her thinking when she ran. Frosty was similar. She wanted to be front-endy so it was a struggle to get her to run all the way into her turn but stay on her rear end around the barrel. But, even when she switched onto her front end, she was so quick it didn’t affect her much. Even if she got on her front end and stepped by a barrel she could still be quick.
Martha was a dream from the beginning. She was a late bloomer, and I think that may be why she’s so strong today. If I’d pushed her, or if she hadn’t been taken care of like she has been, she’d never have made it. She’s super sensitive and has the biggest motor and those two things together can backfire. Early on it was almost like she could run and go faster than she could think. I had to keep her slowed down until she got confident. You have to earn her trust and let her know you are going to take care of her. Lindsay has done an excellent job. During the first year, Lindsay knew if something felt different or wasn’t working right. She’d call and we would talk about what’s going on and there were times when she would come stay a few days to get back together. Martha couldn’t have a better home. She’s a hotter-bred, big-motor type mare who’s very aggressive and if she’d gotten into the wrong hands, she’d have blown up. It’s just the little things you have to recognize with her and her disposition. She’s a really sweet mare who is very sensitive. There’s a fine line with Martha and Lindsay has done a good job raising her.
Frosty and Martha were on the same pace during their futurity years. One time Frosty would outrun Martha. The next they’d switch places. The funny thing is they really were totally different. But, I taught them exactly the same-staying round through the turn and getting that inside hind leg up underneath their body. That’s the key to getting the horse to be able to drive away from the barrel to set up the next turn. All these horses have similarities in their style around the barrel, it just took different routes getting them there. I want a lot of power into the turn and a smooth, one motion turn around the barrel with the hind leg underneath their body.
This picture of DJ Nick Bar shows the style that made him such a good horse. He’s got his hind leg up underneath himself and Lindsay’s hands are low and she’s helping him around the barrel. Lindsay planned on taking him to the Finals (NFR) last year, but he abscessed in both his front feet and was too sore to run. But, he’s probably the closest style-wise to Martha of all these horses because he can fire into a turn and slide his inside hind leg underneath his body. He would make the same run and made it fun to ride him. He wasn’t nearly as flexible as Martha. He learned really quickly and came on fast, and won the first futurity I took him to. He got hurt when he was young so I’d work him and haul him then rest him. But, he turned out to be a solid, tough horse and he’s had a lot of success.
This picture of Martha is beautiful. You can tell how powerful she is and you can see she’s flexed through her entire body. She has amazing flexibility and gets so much of her power from the fact that she can make that smooth, one motion turn around
the barrel. Lindsay sits Martha just perfect and helps her around the barrel. She lets the mare do her job
This picture of Princess is different. She’s a little more elevated in the front end and you can tell she’s a stiffer turning type horse. But she’s so fast and so strong that even though she stiffens up on her turns, she can still turn in great times.
Frosty and Princess’ pictures look a lot alike to me. Frosty wants to get on her front end and Denise did a good job of learning to ride this mare in a short amount of time. Denise leased the mare just before the (2006) Finals from Jud Little. Her hands are low and she’s really staying out of the mare’s way. She looks like she really fired into the turn and she’s got her inside hind leg in a good position to power away from the barrel.