Round-Winning Rookies

Round-Winning Rookies

Two young barrel horses shine in the early rounds of the 2021 NFR. 

Wenda Johnson and Stevi Hillman both won early rounds at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo aboard young horses. PRCA photos.

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Holly Clanahan for The American Quarter Horse Journal 

Through the eyes of a young horse, the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, host to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, has to look like a madhouse. The noise, the commotion, the tension – not to mention the tight arena that can sometimes be difficult to navigate for an unseasoned horse. 

But in rounds 3 and 4 of the 2021 NFR, two 5-year-old barrel horses showed the old pros how to handle the pressure. 

In Round 3, it was Famous Lemon Drop, ridden to the win by Stevi Hillman of Weatherford, Texas, and owned by Matt and Bendi Dunn of Wynnewood, Oklahoma. “Lemon Drop” is a 2016 palomino mare by First Down French out of A Famous Lady by Dash Ta Fame. She was bred by Shannon Ackerstrom and ridden in futurities by DaCota Monk. 

“She is a free running mare, and she gets stronger every run,” Stevi, who is at her sixth NFR, told the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “The most important part of being in this tiny pen is being honest, and I knew she would stay honest with me. I told myself, as long as she handled everything mentally, being just a 5-year-old, we would just keep making one run at a time.

“That first barrel here is so tricky, and I don’t care how many times people tell you how to run it, it is a feel, and I didn’t do that well the first round, but she stayed honest. We are adjusting and getting our timing down, and she is taking care of me. She was dialed in tonight, and I wasn’t, but she took care of me,” Stevi said.

“Our team is sure feeling blessed & thankful for this special horse,” Bendi Dunn wrote on Facebook after Round 3. The Dunns, who breed racehorses as well as barrel horses, also own MCM Imasharpguy, aka “Sharpie,” whom Stevi piloted to NFR round wins in previous years. 

Stevi and Lemon Drop earned $26,996.97 for winning the round, as did Wenda Johnson of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, in Round 4, aboard Steal Money with the fastest NFR time so far, 13.46 seconds. 

Steal Money, aka “Mo,” is a 2016 bay gelding bred by J. Santos Espinoza of Grand Prairie, Texas, and owned by Tres Mesa Horses of Aledo, Texas. He has been competing for less than a year, starting in futurities with Kassie Mowry. 

“It is great to be here on this big stage and, ultimately, it is really just another run,” Wenda told PRCA after her first-ever NFR go-round win. “Riding a young horse, each run is a development run, and it was definitely a development run for him. He has not been competing long. He didn’t get ran as a 4-year-old. His first futurity runs were when he was a 5-year-old, and he doesn’t even really have much rodeo experience. I took him in June and ran him at a few this summer.

“I am just trying to build his confidence. He has never been in a big setting like this, so I am trying to be very concise and careful on how I handle him, how he reacts to it, each step he makes and really try to help him stay focused and calm. This way, he can go out and make a dominating run. He has a lot to give and a lot to offer, and my goal is to keep him healthy and happy so we can go out, have some fun and make some great runs.”

Wenda, who is competing at her second NFR, works as a nurse practitioner in an emergency department and also earned a doctorate degree in 2021.

Interested in training your own prospect? AQHA members can get some free advice from Stevi and four other professionals who share barrel-horse training advice in AQHA’s Guide to Barrel Horse Training. Log in to the AQHA member services page and receive complimentary access to a library of premium eBooks.