When Dena Kirkatrick piloted Kates Always First to the victory at the Great Plains Stampede Rodeo in Altus, Okla., August 21-23, it might just as well been the championship at the Barrel Futurities of America (BFA) or the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
“I’m so proud of her . . . and of me. I am 52 years old now,” laughs Kirkpatrick. “I’ve never had one like her.”
Considering some of the horses Kirkpatrick has thrown her saddle over in her career, that’s saying quite a lot. Amongst the winners who got their start under Kirkpatrick’s One Smooth Motion training methods are futurity winners like the phenomenal Willy Nick Bar and several Wrangler NFR horses including WPRA World Champion Sugar Moon Express, aka Martha, who earned the title twice with Lindsay Sears.
“I’ve been so blessed,” says the humble trainer. “Every time I win something I think, oh gosh, this could be the last time.”
Given Kirkpatrick’s track record and current mount, that’s not likely to come any time soon.
Kirkpatrick always had a passion for horses, even as a small girl. Her grandfather raised thoroughbred race horses and her father liked to team rope. Kirkpatrick got interested in rodeo and barrel racing traveling with her father to competitions.
“It’s what we did where I grew up,” she says. “I always thought I’d like to try jumpers but they didn’t do that where we were. We went to rodeos.”
Kirkpatrick, her father and her sister rode the family’s thoroughbreds for their rodeo events, often doing multiple events on the same horse. She credits her father as having a knack for picking horses.
“When I got married and moved to the ranch in Post [Texas], I took my race horses,” Kirkpatrick talks about her start as a trainer. Basing her methods on the horse she had junior rodeoed on, Kirkpatrick entered her first derby and won.
“It was beginner’s luck,” she seems to cringe, noting that the wins did not pile up. Instead she ran into trouble and decided to become better educated. About then she met Celie Ray.
“Meeting Celie is the thing that put me on the right path,” Kirkpatrick explains. What has followed in the decades since is a steady stream of outstanding barrel horses who have won with Kirkpatrick and with the jockeys who followed her. In addition to Martha, Kirkpatrick trained Wrangler NFR horses Fols Classy Snazzy, who won a round at the 2000 NFR with Marlene McRae, Frosty Feelins, who won two Wrangler NFR rounds in 2006 with Denise Adams, DJ Nick Bar, who backed up Martha for Sears, and Ima Nonstop Princess, who served as Tammy Key’s back-up in 2008. And the list of futurity standouts is too long to mention.
Though she’s had plenty from which to choose, Kirkpatrick does not hesitate when asked about her favorite moment as a trainer.
“The highlight was definitely the BFA with Willy,” she says. “I had a pretty nice horse, Chicago Moon Express, the year before but he was so spectacular. But he wasn’t easy to ride and we hit lots of barrels.”
“In fact, I would usually win first and then hit a barrel,” she continues. “The thought of getting him around the barrels three times in the same arena in a week just didn’t look promising.”
The task didn’t seem easier after Kirkpatrick won the first two rounds easily.
“I was a nervous wreck before the finals,” she laughs. “I stayed up late, just walking and trotting him around the pattern, trying to get him to calm down.”
“The run in the finals was probably the prettiest run I’ve ever made,” Kirkpatrick remembers. “When I turned the third barrel and I knew I won it, it was the most exciting moment for me ever.”
The clean sweep at the world’s biggest futurity is a record that still stands today.
“The next morning was probably the most depressing of my life,” she laughs, “because I realized I would never duplicate that accomplishment or feeling.”
Kirkpatrick no longer trains for the public, choosing instead to focus more on teaching clinics. She travels the world sharing her knowledge.
“As a trainer, watching Martha is just awesome,” she says. “And now I’m more into coaching and trying to help riders.” One of her most well-known students is likely 2014 Wrangler NFR qualifier Kassidy Dennison. “She’s worked so hard and done so much. And all on one horse.”
“It keeps me going,” she says of the days when a student calls to tell her of a recent success. She also takes time while traveling to clinics to do “touristy” things. “I like to incorporate some scenic viewing, take time to stop and smell the roses.”
“It’s not a job; I never get to the place where I think I’ve arrived, that I don’t have to prove myself anymore,” she says. “Especially as a teacher, I feel that I must continually work to prove myself worthy to teach.”
“There’s never not a challenge,” Kirkpatrick says. “And with age, the challenges change!”
With a changing focus from training to teaching, Kirkpatrick has found herself with a barn filled with older horses, a new concept for the woman who spent years training young horses for the futurities. Time away from home means her horses are getting trained at a slower pace because she doesn’t have anyone else ride for her.
“I love the learning process with the young ones. I get a lot of joy and pleasure out of the little things they learn to do,” she says. Taking older horses to amateur and a few pro rodeos is part of the process as well but only if they’re still in her barn.
“I always said, if the right horse came along and by some freak chance it hadn’t been sold . . . .”
That horse is Kate, whose story is just as fascinating as her owner’s.
An own daughter of First Down Dash (the only one running barrels, according to Kirkpatrick), Kate was purchased through the Ruidoso Select Quarter Horse Yearling Sale by Kirkpatrick and her partner Cindy Gail.
“She’s very unique,” says Kirkpatrick. “She’s big and fast. She’s not necessarily cut out to be a barrel horse.”
Kirkpatrick struggled with the mare’s power and speed, constantly trying to slow her down. She added there was lots of pressure during the mare’s futurity year in 2009.
“It was a high profile futurity year because everyone knew where we had bought her and how much we’d paid,” she says, adding that the barrel racers and the race horse crowd alike thought they were crazy to be chasing cans instead of racing down the track. “And I had no first barrel; I didn’t know if I’d ever figure out how to slow her down to it.”
Saying the mare had a “different kind of mouth,” Kirkpatrick played with different bit choices. As the futurity year ended, she and Kate clocked the fastest time of the BFA in Oklahoma City. “Then I messed up in the Finals; like I always tell my students NOT to do, I went in there and tried to win instead of just riding my horse.”
“But if you can’t ride the lows as well as the highs, you’re probably not going to last very long,” Kirkpatrick says. “Dealing with these horses is like riding a roller coaster.”
The sting of the missed opportunity was dulled somewhat when Kate injured herself shortly after her futurity season came to an end.
“My vet calls her the walking miracle. They didn’t think she would ever walk again let alone run barrels.”
Kirkpatrick gave the mare three years off. She flushed an embryo and let Kate carry a foal. One of those foals is on his way to the Ruidoso Select Quarter Horse Yearling Sale this week, the same place where his mother became a Kirkpatrick.
As for Kate, she recovered from the injury and Kirkpatrick began to take her to some amateur rodeos close to the house.
“In her first year at rodeos, she was winning them by two, three and even four tenths,” Kirkpatrick marvels. “So I decided to go to some pro rodeos.”
Kate’s first pro rodeo performance came this month in Lovington, N.M.. She earned a share of eighth place.
Then came the win in Altus. As the only competitors clocking in under eighteen seconds, Kirkpatrick and Kate took the victory by better than two tenths, earning $987.
“She tries to live up to her name,” laughs Kirkpatrick, adding “I haven’t fallen off!”
For now Kirkpatrick is slowing her clinic schedule to spend more time at home with her family and her horses. Her two daughters are both grown and she’s trying to convince her husband Cliff, a life-long tie down roper, to take up team roping.
“I told him, I have two horses that would make good head horses,” she laughs. “He wants to rope on Kate and I told him I don’t know about that!”
Though she anticipates more competition to come, she has always lived with the same philosophy.
“We’ll do what the horses are telling me they need to do.”
One thing is for sure: Kate IS always first . . . in Kirkpatrick’s opinion at least.
“I won’t ever sell her; she’s dear to my heart.”