Outlaw or Next Great One? Part 1

Sometimes it’s best to play along with a horse’s quirks. Sometimes you need to get help.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

Horses, like people, come equipped with personalities that often take on a life of their own. Some are renegades or outlaws who need an experienced hand to draw out the talent. Veteran horse trainers and competitors know that to get the best out of a horse, they have to play into these quirks, often adjusting how they do business, instead of expecting the horse to change.

But what if you find yourself with an outlaw and you’re not a veteran horse trainer?

That was the case for Sandy Jones Eddleman in the late 1980s. Sandy came from a rodeo family, with her father and brother both world champion steer wrestlers, but she was new to barrel racing when she bought a high-powered, expensive stallion named Thingamajig.

Outlaw Turns Dangerous
Sandy was humiliated, frustrated and finally ready to admit that her horse was a danger to herself and others.

Sandy bought “Thing” early in her barrel-racing career while she was still inexperienced. She gelded him as soon as she bought him, but he was still a lot of horse to start a career.

She was told by a friend that Thing wasn’t ready for competition, but she entered anyway. And she wasn’t shooting for rodeos in her backyard either; she was paying up at San Antonio, Houston and Cheyenne Frontier Days.

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At San Antonio, Sandy was riding Thing to the first barrel when he reared, did a rollback, made two or three laps around the arena and then didn’t stop going out of the alleyway for what seemed like four miles.

“I remember when a girl on a horse ran out of the arena, through the parking lot and kept going,” barrel clinician Connie Combs says. “I said, ‘I don’t know who that girl is, but she’s going to get hurt.’ ”

That girl was Sandy.

“I remember in Roseburg, Oregon, you aren’t supposed to hear what the announcer says when you’re making a run,” Sandy says, “but I could hear him talking about my dad and my brother and all they had accomplished in rodeo. Thing rounded the second barrel and tried to head back to the gate, and I thought, ‘He’s not going to do this after what the announcer just said.’ I finished the run and got a time, but it was just embarrassing.”

Even though Thing took Sandy to the winner’s circle from time to time, she never trusted the horse. Most of the people in Sandy’s life told her to give up on the horse, sell him, move on, but she was able to recognize that it wasn’t the horse that was at fault. It was his previous training and her greenness combined that hurt the duo. Sandy listened to too many different people on what they thought her horse needed. In the end, no one had been able to help, and the mixed advice had actually hurt their progress. Thing didn’t trust Sandy to have consistency, and Sandy didn’t have faith in her horse.

“I was part of his problem as much as he was a problem,” Sandy says. “I enhanced his problem by being green.”

In the late 1980s, Sandy was trying to enter the alley of the Oakdale, California, rodeo when Thing reared back, pranced around and sent the gate man scrambling for the fence like a wild bull had been let loose. That moment, re-examined through the impartial view of a camcorder tape, redefined Sandy’s perspective on her horse and her career.

She decided to get help from Connie.

Loving the Outlaw
When Connie was 16, she had a passion and a dream: barrel racing and the National Finals Rodeo. Getting up to work with her horses every day at 5 a.m. was just part of her plan to win a world championship in barrel racing on “Joak” (joe-ack).

Connie had the help of her parents when she had trained two earlier renegades – one that would run her under every tree within a five-mile radius and one that refused to stop or turn.

Then the family bought Joak, a 15-hand bay stallion. Joak had the breeding to be a top-notch horse (double-bred Joe Reed with two brothers who were AQHA Supreme Champions). Martha Combs, Connie’s mother, laughed as she recalled picking up Joak in Oklahoma.

“He was a rundown, AA track reject with worms.” Martha groomed and massaged the horse daily. What she didn’t realize at the time was that she was setting a pattern for Joak that he refused to change. After his grooming sessions, Connie rode him, and that’s how it went for the rest of Joak’s life.

“Connie could ride the hair off his hide, but if she tried to work with him on the ground, he’d stomp her or bite her,” Martha says. “He was just like that, kinda full of himself.”

As soon as Connie started working Joak, she knew she had something special. From the “show him one time” intelligence to his rocket-powered hind-end action that snapped her neck coming out of a barrel, Connie knew she had to stay on her toes to get the best out of her new horse.

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Connie hauled Joak to his first rodeo after just 90 days of training and placed second. But six months later, the quirks started coming out. A lot of horse owners today look to pain as a reason that a horse won’t work, but Joak wasn’t in pain, as Martha gave him almost daily massages, allowing her to know whether something was off or whether the horse was just being a pill.

“He was moody. And if he wasn’t in the mood, he’d weave between the barrels or lope like he’d never seen a pattern,” Connie says. “He would duck and dive, and I’d just driven 1,000 miles and he’s pulling this crap.”

Figuring out how to keep Joak’s mind on his job wasn’t easy. Connie would try a quirt; it’d work once and then not again. Or she’d ride him with spurs, and it would work, but if she did it again, he’d shut down and quit running.

“I would do a reining pattern on him if I thought he was going to shut down that day,” Connie says. “One day, I took him to the arena early for a reining pattern, and he just threw me to the moon. I hit the ground, and he stepped on my hand, and it swelled up so bad I thought I wouldn’t be able to run barrels that afternoon.”

Even with the slightly dangerous quirks that Joak was exhibiting, Connie never felt a need to give up on him or sell him. Instead, she relied on family members who helped her discipline Joak. Her father, Russell, would take Joak to the arena and remind the stallion who the boss was. However, their style of discipline was never mean or haphazard. Every move they put on their horse had a purpose.

“My dad always taught me that you have to have discipline in your horse,” Connie says. “Dad said, ‘You make them mind, and when you show them something, make it correct the first time, and if you make a mistake, don’t make it more than once.’”

Connie won the National Finals Rodeo average three years in a row, 1975-77, and the world championship in 1976. In five years, she never knocked over a barrel in competition. After reaching her goals in AQHA with three horses qualified for the World Show and in rodeo with seven NFR qualifications, Connie started giving barrel racing clinics.

Read the rest of Connie and Sandy's story in Part 2, coming up next week!