It's safe to say PJ Burger has learned something from virtually every horseback event that exists.
The tiny cowgirl (she's not five feet tall) from Pauls Valley, Okla., actually grew up in Minnesota showing Western Pleasure horses and doing hunt seat competitions before going to work for several years for trainers in cutting and other cow-horse disciplines.
She moved to Oklahoma a decade ago to work for world champion reining horse trainer Doug Carpenter, and six years ago married Joey Burger, with whom she has a small child. But Burger never lost touch with barrel racing, and 2009 was her career year in that event.
In her third season competing on Dan and Sue Rudy's 6-year-old Dash For Perks gelding, Fancy Man Perks ("Perky"), Burger hit pay dirt at the Reno Rodeo and swept the first two rounds and the average at Puyallup, Wash., to punch her ticket to December's Wrangler National Finals Rodeo alongside her mother-in-law, Mary Burger. Perky had actually been started by Mary Burger and then trained for almost a year by Sharin Hall before PJ finished him.
"He has a lot of try, and he has the speed to make a mistake and still clock," Burger said. "There's not many of them out there like that."
Burger had been ecstatic to learn she'd squeaked into her first-ever NFR, but a day later was scrambling for horseflesh when it was determined she wouldn't be riding Perky in Las Vegas.
Instead, she borrowed two look-alike seasoned horses-a gray 15-year-old Mito Paint-bred mare named Cody Lea Coaltown ("Lulu"), and a gray 14-year-old Master Hand/Sticks An Stones gelding named The Stone Master ("Stoney").
Lulu had been Burger's mother's Western Pleasure horse before being trained on the barrels by PJ and her sister, Ivy Sondergard. The mare was then sold to current owner Jana Jarreau of Greenwell Springs, La.
And Burger had first ridden Stoney while giving lessons to his owner, Lauren
Underwood of Meeker, Okla. Underwood lent the gelding to Burger for the Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo in November, where the duo placed in every round and earned a trip to the Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo.
"I didn't really have enough time to get confident on either horse," Burger admitted.
"But I can't complain; it was a blessing just to be at the Finals."
In Las Vegas, Burger barely tipped the first barrel to place second in the first round on Lulu, and later placed in the fifth round during one of the toughest NFRs on record.
"The chips didn't fall where they needed to in Las Vegas, but I'm okay with that," Burger said.
She doesn't know what horse she'll be running at the big winter rodeos that she's finally eligible to enter, but she'll "sure enough work something out."
In the meantime, she'll continue taking outside horses, and has a handful of young prospects that she just got back from colt-starter Phil Haugen.
"I also might get back into roping more," said Burger, who with her husband tracks steers and ropes on most of her barrel prospects.
She's grateful to Joey for his support last season, as well as to Prime Performance Nutrition, Basin Tack, B&B Machine Shop, Cowgirl Tuff Co., Oxy-Gen, Flaharty Bits & Spurs, Centurion and KristiQ Designs.
Running a 13.98 in the NFR's Fifth Round on Lulu
I'd ridden Lulu in the first three rounds and then used Stoney the night before this run, so Lulu was fresh. She runs real level in four-wheel drive, with her front and hind ends moving at the same time.
I don't usually look at a barrel in the turn because that can cause you to hit one, but I think I'm looking at it here because I'd rubbed it on the way in.
I have my hand laid practically on her neck, waiting until she gets past the barrel before asking her to turn. As soon as you move your inside rein, this mare turns.
I'm using a custom Flaharty gag bit and tie-down. I began using the tie-down in my program just for balance in the turn, and it's usually sloppy loose. If you do use a tie-down, be sure to use a keeper so your horse doesn't step over the strap if he stumbles.
Winning the Reserve Prairie Circuit Finals Title on Stoney
This gelding is real honest and consistent. He's been there and done that and runs the same every time, so I'm just sitting up in the center of him and asking him to finish the turn.
I try not to handle a horse a lot in competition. I want to do my training at home, and then just sit and let one turn.
I'm looking where I'm going next because it helps my horse finish the turn. I have short arms, and I ride my reins short (you can see some outside rein pressure) because it helps me get up over a horse when I leave a turn.
Stoney was used to being run with a whip, so I carried it, but never did use it. And I don't ride spurs at all. With my short legs, when a horse sets, it can tip me forward and my feet can get back near the flank, so with spurs that wouldn't turn out very well.
Placing Third at the Reno Rodeo on Perky
Perky's rear really drops as that inside hind leg drives underneath to prepare for the turn. His style is to run full-tilt in there and when he gets to this spot, he buries up and then swaps directions and is gone.
At this point, I'm just starting to ask for the turn with my inside hand. I'm too little to manhandle horses, so as soon as I pick up an inside rein, they better be following my hand and stepping over themselves.
Also, I only want a horse to take three steps around a barrel (although it doesn't always work with all of them). Perky is so ratey that I had to wait until he reached this spot before I asked him to follow my hand.
He has one ear back, which I really like. During slow work, I can tell if a horse is listening by its ears. When horses run, that inside ear should flick back almost like the ear is making the turn before the horse does.