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Barrel Racing

Barrel Racing Then & Now: with Kelly Yates & Ashley Schafer

Reminiscing on the past and contemplating the future of the sport.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Kelly Yates

Rodeo fans, competitors, and trainers alike have borne witness to the intense growth the sport of rodeo has seen within the last few years, andbarrel racing is no exception. I asked two champion barrel racers, Kelly Yates and Ashley Schafer, who know the industry best to break it down for me: barrel racing circa 2018 and prior versus barrel racing in the present.

Kelly Yates, a veteran NFR barrel racer and owner of the great mare Firewater Fiesta, reminisced about going down the road with a tight knit barrel racing community.

“Everyone was so respectful of each other,” said Kelly.

The rodeo community has always been infamous for having that quality. She reminisced how things moved much slower then, and she was not talking about the horses.

“We hit some great rodeos for the year, but we certainly didn’t have one every weekend, like there is now,” she continued, “When I go now, I must do my research and decide the best place to go. There’s just so many more barrel races to choose from.”

Yates also expressed the contrast in horsepower required. She acknowledged how there has been an increase in the amount of horsepower required to go down the road today.

“I was fortunate that Fiesta won a lot, so I didn’t have to haul her a lot. I could have sure hit 48 or 50 rodeos, but now you need two or three top caliber horses going down the road now to hit all of them. We just didn’t have that. I have seen a total change in the industry over the last five or ten years,” explained Yates.

Ashley Schafer is no stranger to the rodeo road. Ashley Schafer, 2023 Run and the Rose Futurity Champion with LTE of $1.8 million, said, “Within the last five years barrel racing has seen a huge change in the industry, especially on the futurity side of things..”

Schafer credits increased opportunities to run at extremely large purses.

“I remember when I first got started, $10,000 added in the derby was a big deal. A lot of the derbies we were going to were $5,000 added, if that,” she explained.

According to Schafer, the spark that lit the fuse was the stallion incentive races which saw a lot of investors step up when there was no blueprint for stakes that high.

“In hindsight, it was pretty lucrative for some of these stallion owners, but at the time, that was really risky,” she continued.

There is rarely reward without risk, and Schafer expressed her thanks and appreciation for the inventive industry pioneers. Schafer also commented on the increase in the value of a horse over the last five years.

“When I first started as a futurity trainer, after a horse’s futurity year, you either had to go rodeo or enter open barrel races. Now, there are so many more routes you can go with a barrel horse, and that has been huge,” said Shafer.

A barrel horse is much more dynamic now, in terms of their value to the public. She is excited about the inclusion of five-year-old’s in futurities, and the extension of derby years.

“It is now worth it for trainers to keep a horse in training longer or run them in the derbies after their futurity year because these producers have seen the need for more money in the derbies or more money in the open races, more money in things besides just the futurities.” Shafer continued.

As for the future goes, Schafer says she doesn’t know how much more the industry can grow laterally. “Trainers can’t get their horses trained for next year’s futurities if we are on the road much more than we already are. My hope is that we can sustain at this level.”

Ashley Schafer at the 2023 OKC Royal Crown Photo Credit: Lexi Smith Media

She, however, has hope for a longitudinal growth spurt in the future. “It would be exciting to see corporate sponsors enter the scene at some of these events, not only to alleviate some of the pressure on stallion owners, but also to allow trainers to showcase their horses that are not incentive eligible.”

In all talks about past versus present, one thing remains…

“Good horses are good horses regardless,” stressed Yates.

Afterall, that’s what this sport is all about and time simply does not change that. This is a pivotal time in the barrel racing industry. As for Ashley Schafer’s hope that this level of growth can sustain, I have no doubt about that. Barrel racers, then and now, are some of the toughest, most graceful, and determined group of individuals in the sport of rodeo. If they can do anything, it is sustain.

Ashley Schafer was the 2023 Run for the Roses Champion Photo Credit: Cody Klein of TK210 Photography

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