When the curtains rise on the 2019 National Finals Rodeo this December at Las Vegas’ Thomas Mack Arena, the top barrel racers in the nation will be streaking around the cloverleaf on equine athletes that have been many generations in the making.
That wasn’t always the case.
When the Girls Rodeo Association formed in 1948—and for many years thereafter—cowgirls often competed in a variety of events, such as roping, cutting, and running barrels, all on the same mount. By the time the GPA changed its name to the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association in 1982, established barrel horse bloodlines were emerging, with top pedigrees often including AQHA Hall-of-Famers Leo and the Thoroughbred racehorse Three Bars—by then, sometimes four or five generations back.
Breeding horses specifically for barrel racing arguably reached its watershed moment in 1992 when the National Barrel Horse Association first established divisional barrel racing, opening the gates to riders and horses beyond those who could compete in the top levels. Around the same time, barrel horse futurities swelled in popularity—becoming more lucrative, as well— and provided a new springboard to launch a barrel horse’s career. In the decades to follow, breeding for the barrels would become increasingly sophisticated, increasingly lucrative, and increasingly competitive.
Any short list of barrel racing royalty would include Sun Frost among its luminaries: He sired Pro Rodeo Hall of Famer Kristie Peterson’s magnificent gelding French Flash Hawk (Bozo) that propelled her to four World Championships in the ’90s; Sherry Cervi’s PC Frenchmans Hayday (Dinero)—that sired Cervi’s MP Meter My Hay (Stingray) and Hailey Kinsel’s DM Sissy Hayday (Sister). Lisa Lockhart’s Rosas Cantina CC also traces back to Sun Frost on her dam’s side.
Most prominently, Sun Frost sired Frenchmans Guy, whose progeny earnings now exceed $13 million.
Also in the stratosphere of top sires is Dash Ta Fame, a racehorse whose progeny earned more than $17 million on the track and more than $20 million around the cloverleaf. His grandsire is The Four Sixes Ranch’s famed Dash for Cash, that is also great-grandsire of Lisa Lockhart’s An Oakie With Cash (Louie), grandsire of Nellie Miller’s Rafter W Minnie Reba (Sister) and the sire of JL Dash Ta Heaven, standing at stud at the Jud Little Ranch.
Small wonder that Frenchmans Guy and Dash Ta Fame (both have the renowned Thoroughbred AQHA foundation sire Three Bars in their five-generation pedigree) are considered to be a “Magic Cross” on each other’s daughters—a holy grail of sorts in the ongoing quest for the best possible genes to lay the foundation for a world-class barrel horse.
Nellie Miller bred her high school rodeo mare, Espuela Roan, to KS Cash N Fame, a son of Dash Ta Fame to get her exquisitely consistent mare Sister—a process that was, all in all, a decade or more in the making.
Hailey Kinsel bought her equally consistent Sister as a 2-year-old. Kinsel was already sold on the dam side as she owned a half-sister out of the same mare, Royal Sissy Irish. That Cervi’s Dinero is Sister’s sire clinched the deal.
Lisa Lockhart’s blistering buckskin An Oakie With Cash (Louie) has Dash Ta Cash on the dam side, and bloodlines going back through AQHA Hall-of-Famer Doc Bar to Three Bars.
So what goes into breeding a great barrel horse? Conformation counts, of course: a short back, long shoulders, low hocks, short cannon bones, solid bone, a clean throatlatch, athleticism. But it’s the magic that breeders aspire to capture: Whether you call it “heart” or call it “try,” it’s the secret sauce that can blast a barrel horse’s performance into the stratosphere and today’s breeders are out to get it.
Jud Little Ranch, Ardmore, Oklahoma
Although being a top barrel-horse breeder doesn’t require an economics degree from the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, having one has served Jud Little well. He runs both the Quintin Little Company, an oil-and-gas exploration company, and the 2,000-acre Jud Little Ranch, aka “The Bar Nothin,” in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
Little, a former world-class polo player, brought his passion for the characteristics that he loved in his Argentinian polo ponies—trainability, turnability, and lots of speed—into play, determining in the late 1990s that he would breed champion barrel horses. And that he’s done; today, Jud Little is one of the preeminent barrel horse breeders in the world.
“Twenty-five years ago, I could see the future and popularity of barrel racing, and I knew that the money would follow. I began to acquire the best and fastest mares I could find to use as broodmares, and then bred them to the fastest stallions.”
The strong economic and analytical foundation Little first forged at Wharton and plied in the oil business arguably gives him a competitive edge, as well, in implementing such modern-day analytical tools such as Equi-Stat, which bases its statistics on monies paid out in a wide range of events, and Robin Glenn Pedigrees, which maintains statistics on more than 2 million performance bloodlines, both of which he utilizes in his breeding equations.
Still, Little’s primary benchmark is performance. “I use all of the statistical tools available,” he says, “but it’s not just bloodlines, not just pedigree, but the individual and how he or she performs that matters most.”
Also supercharging Little’s rise to prominence as a barrel-horse breeder was a change in the nature of breeding itself.
The first recorded (but perhaps apocryphal) incident of artificial insemination harks back to 1322, when an Arab chieftain stole semen from a rival’s stallion to impregnate his mare. And although the American Quarter Horse Association has permitted artificial insemination “on the farm” for many decades, it only approved the use of shippable cooled semen in 1997 and of frozen semen in 2001. Then, in 2002, AQHA eliminated all restrictions regarding the registration of foals produced via embryo transfer, making it retroactive and opening the gate to allowing mares to still compete while their embryos, implanted in recipient mares, continue their bloodlines.
“The number of embryo transfers is only limited by the pocketbook,” says Little, who adds that costs for each embryo transfer can range from $5,000 to $7,000.
“My founding philosophy is my belief in mare power,” says Little. “I believe that the mare is 70 to 80 percent of the equation. I knew that from way back, with my years in polo. I believe in starting with a great, great mare.”
Little also believes that both the dam and the sire should be proven barrel racers themselves. “You wouldn’t breed a racehorse broodmare to a stallion that had never run himself,” he states. “I don’t keep any geldings among my 100 head of horses. All my barrel-racing gals run mares and the occasional stallion, so we can find out which ones can really perform. I give my stallions the chance to run themselves, to prove themselves, and then retire them to stud … just as is done on the racetrack.”
However, just because a stallion is an outstanding performer doesn’t automatically mean that he can pass his traits onto his progeny; As any horseperson familiar with Secretariat’s dud-as-a-stud record knows, none of the 453 foals he sired came close to his performance record.
Little points to his two leading sires, JL Dash Ta Heaven and Chicados Cash as examples of top performers that successfully stamp their progeny.
“Both competed at NFR before retiring to stud; I’m a great believer that a stud horse has to prove himself in the arena first,” says Little. At Jud Little’s 2019 annual sale, Chicados Cash offspring sold for an average of just under $6,500 while progeny of JL Dash Ta Heaven brought an average of just over $10,000.
Myers Performance Horses, Onge, South Dakota
Bill and Deb Myers started their business on the racetrack, but they weren’t destined to stay there. After eight years on the track, they relocated to the Black Hills where they began raising a family of four sons and transitioned to breaking colts, training rope and barrel horses, and competing in cutting and snaffle bit events. They started building up a band of mares with proven bloodlines and the conformation and attitude to succeed.
“We were actually looking for a good arena prospect when we bought Frenchmans Guy as a weanling,” says Deb. “We owned a lot of his maternal brothers and sisters, and they had good run, good cow, and were people-friendly.”
His dam, Frenchman’s Lady, was out of Casey’s Ladylove—also the dam of Caseys Charm, who would produce Peterson’s Bozo and Cervi’s Dinero. The Myers planned to geld him and train him as a barrel prospect before selling him.
But then, fate intervened. The Myers’ eldest son was cleaning stalls, and the young Frenchmans Guy spooked—jumping right into an upheld pitchfork and losing his right eye.
“We were so discouraged,” says Deb, “that we kicked him out in a friend’s pasture for two years and kinda forgot about him.”
When Bill and Deb visited him sometime later, they saw something unique in the one-eyed colt that had been turned out on natural forage and still thrived. They decided to put him into training. After all, he was sired by Sun Frost and backed by the prominent Casey’s Ladylove mare family. His phenomenal “try” combined with his speed, agility, and extended stride showed that he’d inherited the best traits of both his sire and his dam.
“He looked so good, and trained so well,” says Deb. “We trained him in roping and on barrels. He was winning barrel races as a 6- and 7-year-old. He never cocked his head the way some horses do after losing an eye but stayed completely straight and balanced.”
Many breeders avoid having to compete with a stallion and standing him at stud simultaneously, but as a small family-run operation, the Myers didn’t have that luxury. They continued to run him in barrel races, while limiting breeding to about 10 covers a year. They found that even on so-so mares, he showed a great ability to stamp his progeny and as their breeding operation became more sophisticated, the Myers began purchasing better broodmares. By 1996, Frenchmans Guy was breeding 50 mares per year, and at his peak in 2008, he sired 134 registered AQHA foals. Now at the ripe old age of 32, Frenchmans Guy breedings are only offered as intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) procedures.
“He consistently stamped his progeny,” says Deb, “along with the ability to ‘clean some stuff up’ on a mare—shorten a back, refine a head.”
As barrel-racing records continue to fall and horses become faster than ever thought possible, new stars and new “Magic Crosses” will continue to emerge—and a breakout bloodline can appear on the horizon at any moment.
“There’s a whole spectrum out there,” says Lisa Lockhart, who has won two Wrangler NFR Average Titles and blistered to a $100,000 win at the 2019 Calgary Stampede on Rosas Cantina CC by 3/1000ths of a second over Hailey Kinsel and DM Sissy Hayday. “Some that are not the very best bred can still succeed, as even though the breeding industry is so finely tuned, there will always be exceptions. A good mind helps, but athleticism, heart, and the desire to please are key.” SE