Runnin' With Madonna

An impressive horse runs barrels with a tracheotomy.

America's Horse

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the January-February 2011 issue of America’s Horse.“Madonna” is now 19 years old and is retired from barrel racing. She is still a member of the Steiner family, and Jamie Steiner says the family still rides her regularly to keep her in shape. Steely Steiner is now 9 years old, Rocker Steiner is now 7 years old, and their father, Sid, is now 37.

Everyone knows of Madonna, the racy pop singer who is as famous for what she wears - or doesn’t wear - as she is for her music.

Down in Texas, another “Madonna” also draws attention during her performances - she runs barrels with a hole in her neck. The 18-year-old mare has a tracheotomy, but it doesn’t slow her down.

Madonna is Pay Rewards Lady, a sorrel mare by Pay Reward Too and out of Eternally Glynda by Moore’s Eternal De. That’s not modern racehorse breeding, but as with every American Quarter Horse ever registered, the mare traces to the track, in the first four generations in her case, to such racehorses as Eternal Sun, Magnolia Bar, Gay Bar King and Goldseeker Bars.

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Bred by Kenneth Runnels of Fayetteville, Arkansas, Madonna is owned by the Steiner Ranch at Austin, Texas, which bought her as a 3-year-old. The mare now runs barrels and poles with Steely Steiner, the 8-year-old daughter of Sid Steiner, 35, who was the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champion steer wrestler in 2002, and Jamie Steiner, who was using Madonna as an alternate horse when she went to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2000. The Steiners also have a son, Rocker, 6.

“Madonna’s the family horse,” Jamie says. “We couldn’t just let her go, so we gave her another chance. When Steely is on her, it gives her another life.”

Make no mistake: This is no walk-trot thing, either. “She’s running a half second off the 1D, at the top of the 2D with Steely on her,” Jamie says. Open barrel racing generally is split into four or five divisions, 1D to 4D or 5D. Depending on how it’s divided, horses that run, say, within a half second of the fastest time on the first day or first go-round are in the 1D; half a second to one second slower is 2D, etc. For example, if the fastest time on the first day is :16.0, everybody from :16.0-:16.49 is 1D; :16.5-:16.99 is 2D; :17.0-17.49 is 3D, etc.

“My in-laws bought her out of the Fort Worth sale because she looked like the mare that my mother-in-law (Jolene Steiner) went to the NFR on,” Jamie says. “But she liked to buck, so we sent her to a friend, Roy Carter, the cutting horse guy, for six months. Jolene really didn’t ride her much, and she became my father-in-law’s ranch horse. He loved her and ranched on her pretty much until I came into the picture, and then he told me she’s really a better horse than just a ranch horse and that I should try to run barrels on her. My husband and I made our living rodeoin’ at the time, and I made her my backup horse. I ran her at the Houston rodeo and other places.”

Madonna produced her first foal in 2003 and another each year through 2007. But a problem arose with her second pregnancy.

“We were coming out of winter, and all the mares in the pasture had a virus going,” Jamie recalls. “They were all wheezing and gasping. Everybody else got better, but Madonna kept wheezing. A month went by, and she still wasn’t getting better. I took her to Dr. Tommy Hayes at Elgin, and he scoped her, and was like, ‘Wow, no! The first hot day or when she has that baby, she’s a dead horse!’ ”

According to Jamie, scar tissue had reduced the air passage in Madonna’s trachea to about half an inch in length and to the width of the flat side of a quarter. The scar tissue could have been cut out, but it would have soon grown back, Jamie says. So the most economical solution was to give the mare a tracheotomy, in which a hole is cut through the neck into the trachea to make an artificial opening for breathing.

“She was out in the pasture for several years with the trache (rhymes with rake), and then we brought her in in the spring of last year for Steely to start riding her,” Jamie says. “They started out doing the walk-trot stuff and all that, but now she’s running all out. A year ago, we had to open up the trache a little bit farther because she wasn’t getting quite enough air, and she hasn’t looked back since.”

“There is simply a hole - no filter, no tube, nothing else - in Madonna’s neck. Because she doesn’t have working nostrils, the mare produces a little more mucus than normal, which comes out around the opening of the tracheotomy. The Steiners clean it and put petroleum jelly around the opening, which helps collect dust and debris, and also helps prevent the hole from closing.

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“No other treatment,” she says. “Dr. Hayes told me she cannot be in a pasture with a tank (or pond) because if she lays down, she’ll drown.”

“Madonna didn’t start out as a kid’s horse in her younger days,” Jamie says. “She likes to go - she’s an energetic horse, and she’s got some gas. But she’s a great ranch horse, she’s so broke and so good, and at this time in her life, she and my daughter mesh so well. Steely just wants to go and have a good time and have a little bit of success.

“There’s no pressure on her because Madonna knows what she’s doing. I guarantee that if I would get on that horse now, she wouldn’t work half as good as she does for Steely - it’d be ‘Nope, don’t want do this.’ Steely gets on her back, she’s like, ‘I got this, we’re running the barrels.’ And she just takes her through the barrels. It’s a great little pair. We couldn’t replace that mare. I’m so glad we have her. Madonna is so good with that little girl.”

Steely says riding Madonna is “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” (And, yes, that’s a statement from an 8-year-old).

“She’s amazing,” Steely says. “When she runs, it’s like nothing else in the world is happening.”