Barrels of fun
EAGLE ” You tell barrel racers to “make a run,” not to “break a leg” or “good luck.”
Luck has a little to do with everything, but not much for barrel racers.
Eagle’s Margie Ward, one of the region’s top barrel racers, grew up a typical rodeo kid. She started riding because she was too young to walk. She rode as a child; she rode in high school rodeos back in her home town, Riverton, Utah, until she graduated in 1977.
“I did OK, but not as good as I’m doing now,” she said.
Not long after she graduated high school she married Gary Ward, who’s now Eagle’s police chief. She took about nine years off, got back in the saddle and started rodeoing hard about eight years ago.
Husbands make it possible, she said.
“Gary’s probably the reason I do as well as I do,” Ward said. “He’s points out when I do something wrong, and it pushes me to do it better.”
Besides Gary, for the last five years Margie has been partners with her horse, Fitz, a 13-year-old gelding about 14 hands high. (A “hand” is about four inches, or the width across the palm of your hand.) Most barrel racing horses stand 15 and a half to 16 hands tall and have a lot of what’s called “run” in their breeding ” race horse breeding and competition background. Fitz doesn’t, and while he’s a little short on stature Ward says he’s long on heart.
“I like a horse that has run cows. They have a better mind,” Ward said. “You can always teach a horse to run. Any rider can ride any barrel horse, but you won’t necessarily win. You can’t just jump on a horse and be competitive. It takes bonding and time to make a winning team.”
Fitz had been owned by a barrel racer who moved to Denver and wasn’t using him any longer. Gary asked if she was interested in selling him and the next thing you know Margie was back in the horse business.
On the road again, and again, and again
She and Fitz compete in three or four rodeos a week.
The rodeo schedule runs heaviest from mid May to mid September, but the season runs all year.
Ward was in Steamboat Friday night, Salida on Saturday morning and back to Eagle Saturday night. That’s what it takes to stay at the top of the region. The top 12 riders in the PRCA’s Mountain States Circuit, Colorado and Wyoming, make the Mountain States Circuit finals in November. Right now she’s sitting fifth. If she stays in the top 12 it will be her third straight year to qualify for the regional finals.
She also belongs to the Colorado Pro Rodeo Association. They take the top 12 money earners to their finals in September. She’s sitting third right now and this would be her second consecutive year qualifying for those finals.
She works full-time, so she has about two and a half days a week she can rodeo. Her takes vacation days are dedicated to barrel racing.
“I’m having quite a year and if the price of diesel wouldn’t keep going up I’d do even better,” she said. “We have some good girls with good horses. I never would have dreamed five years ago that I would have even qualified for the Mountain States Circuit finals.”
Before this weekend, Ward had ridden in 26 PRCA rodeos and nine CPRA rodeos.
To get to the National Finals Rodeo Las Vegas, you have to rodeo non-stop, all year, all the time. “You couldn’t do it while you’re working,” said Ward, who works full-time with the Eagle Police Department.
The NFR takes the top 15 money winners from each event. To make it this year in the 15th position, Ward estimates it’ll take between $55,000 and $60,000 in winnings.
Over the last few years the purses have gotten bigger, but the road is also longer.
The Eagle rodeo pays barrel racing winners $3,000. Cheyenne’s purse pays $25,000, as does the Greeley Stampede. Several competitors in Cheyenne will swing down to compete in Eagle County.
‘Running is their job’
The time it takes to complete a barrel pattern depends on the size of the pattern, which depends on the size of the arena. It also depends on footing and the horse’s mood. The one consist aspect is that for the last few seasons Ward is finishing faster than almost anyone else.
She doesn’t ride Fitz between events because horse work their legs while they ride in the trailer, and Fitz gets his share of miles. If Fitz does have to be ridden between rodeos, it’s a trail ride. She says it helps him relax, keeps his mind off racing and keeps him “legged up” ” in good condition.
“When a horse knows its job I don’t believe in drilling it into them. It makes them arena sour,” Ward said. “They don’t want to go into an arena and once they get there they don’t want to perform. Running is their job, but you want them to enjoy it.”
When Fitz doesn’t “clock” ” doesn’t run as fast as he should have ” Ward says it’s because there’s something wrong, not because he doesn’t want to go hard. Like their riders, horses have good days and bad days.
“I like to get to a rodeo a couple hours before I run,” Ward said. “I like to take the horse into the arena and let him roll in the dirt. If they’re out of whack in their shoulders or back it puts them back in top adjustment.”
Fitz gets a massage once a week, sometimes more if they’ve snuck in an extra rodeo or two during the weekend. Amy Davel, who also helps run Horse Rescue, does the work.
It’s what thing partners do for each other.