Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Winning Barrels: An Interview with Heather Smith, WPRA Barrel Racer, Author and Creator of

 Heather Smith, WPRA Barrel Racer, Author and Creator of
Winning Barrels: An Interview with Heather Smith
by Gina McKnight
Archived from the May 2024 Issue of Florida Equine Athlete
No duplication without permission.

Heather Smith knows that success is determined by work ethic and intentional effort. Heather is a seasoned equestrian, a Women’s Professional Rodeo Association member, the author of several books, and the creator of She inspires “to give peace to troubled horses, create positive, confidence building experiences for youngsters, develop high-level, competitive equine athletes, and bring out the very best in individuals with varying athletic tendencies and personalities.”

Welcome, Heather!

GM: Heather, I read your endearing story about Freckles, your childhood pony. Was Freckles your first? When was your first encounter with a horse?
BRT:  My mom always had one or more horses and I have picture of my dad holding me up on one as a baby. My own first horse was one we rescued from a neighbor - a foundered paint colored pony mare. We rehabbed her feet back to soundness. Freckles taught me a lot!

GM: Describe your journey to becoming a barrel racer. Is it inherent nature, or have you had formal training?
BRT:  Even though my mom always had and loved horses, she never competed. I grew up in the Red River Valley farm country of North Dakota. I had a desire to do more than trail ride around home but we didn’t have a truck or trailer. My competition options were limited but I did connect with a local mentor and was able to catch a ride for my horse to the County Fair where I showed in everything they had to offer. I was definitely more drawn to speed events and always wanted to rodeo.  When I was on my own and had transportation for my horse, that opened up doors to traveling, competing, moving to Wyoming and connecting with more mentors to learn from.

GM: Where in the world is your favorite arena? Why is it your favorite?
BRT: My husband and have recently completed the build of our new home, barn, and arena on 25 acres. I didn’t always have access to good, safe ground. As someone from the northern US, it’s easy to think that being in a warmer environment will solve all our problems. But when the ground doesn’t freeze, you realize there’s a big difference between areas that have black clay vs. sand here in Texas. Our new place has native sand, which recovers quickly from heavy rain and requires little maintenance. I put a lot of time and resources into designing and building our new roping arena. It feels like heaven to me and I’m so grateful – it’s my favorite place to be!

GM: With a lot of accolades and time in the arena, what is the single most important tip that every rider should know?
BRT: I wrote a list of my top ten tips that is on my site (available here - or search for “Top 10” in the upper right corner).

In recent years I’ve reflected back on times early in my horse training journey when I thought it was weird or wrong that I didn’t feel I could do a good job of riding a higher number of horses, as others did. But I believe in quality over quantity. We absolutely need to put in the hours, miles and runs, but there’s a fine line between being great and burning out. Plus I don’t want to feel rushed or pressured to skip steps in a horse’s development.

My most important tip is - don’t lose the love and fascination for horses. Don’t let it seem like a job or something you have to do, but that you get to do it. Making it work is a delicate balance, and we have to do things we don’t FEEL like doing all the time, that’s necessary – discipline and follow-through, etc. But don’t put yourself in desperate situations. Winning is important, but it’s not the most important.

There are things we can’t trade it for once it’s lost… health, relationships, etc. (with ourselves, our loved ones, our horses, etc.). As long as we are in love with and fascinated by horses we’ll be compelled and pulled to keep learning and improving, AND we’ll enjoy it – that’s key!

GM: Take us through a day in your life with horses...
BRT:  My daily schedule depends on the season and weather. I always start with time dedicated to personal development or devotional reading, a few journal lines and working out. When I’m home my days are usually divided in thirds – I spend one third riding, one third at my desk working on my business, and about a third on general work and maintenance around our place.  I’m always thinking about ways to streamline certain chores so I can focus even more on enjoyable and/or income producing tasks. In the winter I ride in the afternoon when it’s warmer and in the summer I ride first thing when it’s cooler.

GM: What do you look for in a barrel racing horse? Breed? Disposition?
BRT: As with most barrel racers, I ride Quarter Horses. My husband Craig and I are in a phase of life right now where we’re enjoying the later part of the careers of a couple of our horses, so I’m starting to think about what I want in an up & comer. I have a few bloodlines in mind I’ll be considering. Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet really stands out to me. My husband loves Epic Leader horses.

I had a mare when I was younger that was really hormonal and challenging. Had I known then what I know now, I’m sure we would have had an easier time, but she swore me off mares and I’ve only had geldings since. Recently we bought some roping cattle and the heifers are so much faster. That really has my wheels turning about my future horse choices!

As for personality, I have to say I really enjoy those more laidback “people horses” that also have natural quickness and athleticism. I’ve had to learn to bring out the best in more high-strung types but it just seems more fun and easy with a horse that is pretty calm and confident by nature.  We have to keep them responsive but it’s easier to maintain them mentally, especially when competing in speed events.

GM: How important is tack and racer's attire for competing? Do clothes and tack matter?
BRT:  When it comes to both attire and tack I think comfort and fit is always a priority. Personally, I err more on the side of dressing up vs. down and am known to match my outfits and tack sets, but I don’t take it too far or spend unnecessarily to do it. I’m still wearing shirts and using tack that I’ve had for many years. I like things that are classic and timeless vs. trendy.

Back in the day Martha Josey really stressed that when you look good, you’ll do good. There have been times I have competed where I maybe wasn’t the best or most prepared candidate to win, but I always figured I could at least look the best (or good and put-together, at least)! For many years I’ve worked from home but every single day I get ready and put makeup on, wear jeans, boots, and a belt with a buckle no matter what I have on the agenda.

Being tidy in general, organized and paying attention to our attire and appearance does make us feel good, which helps us do anything better. I think it can give us a sense of pride and mental clarity, and we can do that without spending a lot.

Specifically regarding tack - safety and fit is critical. And I believe taking care of our tools is part of ensuring they last and will continue to be safe (leather for example). We should take pride in ourselves, our appearance, our horses, our tools, etc. We tend to take care of what we value and we should value those things.

GM: What other equestrian disciplines do you participate in?
BRT:  I mentioned as a kid I showed in 4-H. My local mentor suggested I show in every single class just for the experience, that meant everything – even showmanship and English classes. In college I bought my own modest truck and trailer and started traveling and competing in some amateur rodeos – barrel racing, tying goats and pole bending. In my early 20’s I was very serious about the goal of becoming Miss Rodeo Wyoming. Competing in rodeo queen pageants required completing a reining pattern, so reining became my sole focus for several years. Barrel racing has always been a top priority but I’ve gotten away from it at times to also take really deep dives into horsemanship and colt starting. In the last few months since we finally finished our arena and have roping steers, I set a beginner roping goal for myself. I’m definitely anxious to get back to running barrels and I’m not sure that I’ll continue to do much team roping yet or not.

GM: Besides horses, what do you do for fun?
BRT:  Horses are my fun! My entire world and life revolves around them.  My interests are very wide and varied, but nothing compares to horses as far as what I’m committed to spending my time, energy, and resources on.

GM: What does horsemanship mean to you?
BRT: True quality horsemanship entails being an all-around good servant, leader, and steward. It’s working toward a goal of educating and preparing horses to do things outside of their nature, yet truly being a student along the way. It means we never stop learning and trying to understand them as best we can so that we can make adjusting to and living in our world as stress free as possible.

What we ask for them is such a stretch in every way possible for their nature. While we often have some kind of personal gain in mind, we owe it to them to make it as easy for them as we can. This includes ensuring they understand what we’re asking, that they’re prepared for what we ask, that we prioritize their health and well-being as we do, as well as make good choices in their best interest and generally put them first.  

They shouldn’t have to pay a severe price for being a performance horse. Their lives should be better because of what we do with them (and we should always aim to do things with vs. to), I really think that’s possible. I challenge myself to improve the lives of every horse I come in contact with in some way. This desire and a deep love for horses inspired me to help people in a similar way, which led to creating and my book series, which has been fun and rewarding!

Connect with Heather…


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