Big Red Woman: Legendary Jumper

Big Red Woman: The Legendary Jumper

Part charisma, all heart, this $350 mare flew over jumps with the speed of a barrel racer.

Big Red Woman and her connections pose in front of the photo backdrop at the 2001 AQHA World Championship Show, after the sorrel mare won the reserve world championship in jumping (Credit: AQHA file photo)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By Honi Roberts

By the time she retired from the show ring in late 2003, Big Red Woman had won two AQHA jumping world championships, a reserve world championship in jumping, earned numerous high-point awards and qualified for more than a dozen AQHA world shows.

Those who saw her jump will never forget the excitement she created.

Part charisma, part guts, and all heart: Crowds loved her. When she walked through an in-gate to face a course of jumps, people all over the show grounds dropped what they were doing and ran to watch. ESPN profiled her, as did several magazines and newspapers.

But before she reached her status of revered superstar in the Quarter Horse firmament, her circumstance in 1987 – when Buck McAdams found her at a horse sale in Ada, Oklahoma – was the opposite. Her life expectancy then was measured in hours.

“It was just chance that I went to the sale,” Buck remembers, when the big, lanky 3-year-old caught his eye. “She had wonderful breeding and walked like a cat.”

Big Red Woman has two notable grandsires: Her sire, Big Red Bar (TB), was by  the legendary Three Bars. Her maternal grandsire was the prolific Pacific Bailey, a multiple track-recordsetter and open AQHA Champion, who was respected as a sire of runners and riders. Buck learned that the mare was consigned to the sale after jumping out of her owner’s paddock one too many times. A glance told him that she was an athlete, supreme.

“The killer buyers offered $300,” Buck remembers. “So I offered $350. I wasn’t sure what exactly I’d do with her, but I knew she was something.”

And something might also describe the mare’s personality.     

“She’s real smart and sensitive, and will test you,” Buck says. “I’ve never spanked her, because she knows that I know what she knows. But she’s high-strung and different from any horse I’ve ever had.”

Buck and his sons, Clegg and Brian, are teachers as well as rodeo competitors in tie-down roping and steer wrestling; Buck proudly carries his gold card from the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, honoring 25 years of competition. But jumping horses – they were a whole new world.

“Dad brought her to my house from the sale,” recalls Brian, a school principal. “He got on her, walked around, and there were no fireworks.”

Both breathed a sigh of relief, and Buck took her home. He set some poles between bales of hay, tossed a stock saddle onto her back (ignoring her half-hearted efforts to bite him) and climbed aboard. He pointed her at the makeshift jumps.

“She loved it!” he says. “She’d jump anything!”

Buck promptly ordered an English saddle.

“I figured I was over my head,” he adds. “So, I took her to ‘hunter horse people’ in Oklahoma City. They were concerned that she couldn’t get her strides right between fences, but that mare didn’t care how many strides there were between fences! We brought her home.”

With several catch riders at AQHA shows, Big Red Woman was the 1988 high-point junior jumping horse. Still hoping to find one person who could bring out the best in his mare, Buck watched the world-class show jumper Tony Font on television as he won the prestigious Oaks competition. Buck called the Magnolia, Texas, trainer, who asked to see Big Red Woman.

“Three days after I brought her to him, he called,” Buck says. “He told me that a champion jumper must be athletic, careful and big-hearted – and she was. He said, ‘If I was you, I’d never part with her.’”

The family took his advice to heart.

“My wife bought secondhand show clothes for me to wear,” Buck says with a chuckle, “and some cheap, plastic boots – because we didn’t know how long my jumping career would last. We went to our first show – and won. We had a beat-up old trailer with retread tires, and after we’d won the jumping class, I could hardly wait to get back to the trailer to change out of that costume, and put my own Wranglers and boots back on! But we won ‘most everything we entered that year, including the 1990 Dallas Classic.

“When it came to the AQHA World (Championship) Show, though, I was a little intimidated,” he adds. “I was just a cowboy!”

At the 1990 World Show, Buck and Big Red Woman had a clean preliminary round in the amateur jumping class.

“Then I got a little too smart and crashed a fence,” he reports. They placed ninth overall, an accomplishment that remains a highlight for Buck.

There was no time to relax, however: the open jumping class was next, and Buck had three hours to find a rider for Big Red Woman, or climb aboard himself. Then a friend mentioned that he knew someone who rode hunters, which is how Tracy Finny came to ride Big Red Woman to the 1990 open jumping world championship at the mare’s first World Show.

In 1993, Buck briefly sold Big Red Woman to a talented young equestrian, Amanda Mason, who guided her to that year’s youth jumping world championship. Back in the McAdams barn, Big Red Woman continued her winning ways throughout the 1990s, almost always placing in the top 10 at the World Show in both amateur and open jumping.

Then, in early 1998 at Fort Worth, Texas, her rider was a no-show, and Brian saw his opportunity.

“I’d always wanted to ride her,” Brian says, “but Dad hired other jockeys.”

“Brian’s a good roper and bulldogger,” Buck recalls, “but I told him, ‘This is different; I’ll scratch her.”

But Brian was determined. While his wife borrowed clothes, he went over practice jumps and fell off several times. Buck wondered if this could possibly end well.

It did. Brian and Big Red Woman earned fourth place at the show.

“It was a blast!” says Brian, who rode her from that day forward. “I was scared, but thrilled. It took guts to ride her, because whether she was in a good place or not, nothing could stop her from going over a fence. Words can’t describe how much she craved jumping. She was calm in a pasture, and you could ride her with a cotton rope around her neck. But at a show, when she heard the loudspeakers, she got her game face on – and you’d better have your game face on, too!”

Next, Brian and Big Red Woman won the All American Quarter Horse Congress, despite a new saddle that slipped dramatically before the last fence. By then, the big red mare had a huge following and when asked for her autograph, Brian drew a horseshoe with the initials, “BRW.”

In 1998, their first World Show together, Brian and BRW finished third in open jumping, a thrill he will never forget.

“In the finals, she took off like a barrel racer,” he says. “She had one speed: all out! And she turned on a dime. We went clean, and the crowd went crazy. It was a great moment for us.

“Through the years, she never mellowed,” he says. “She was so wild on a course, they’d drug test her every time – people just couldn’t believe she was naturally high. But she was. She was always just barely under control, and with her mane and forelock flying – what a sight! Our whole life revolved around that horse and it was an incredible time for our family – we had so darn much fun.”

Although she was high-point jumping mare in 2002 and qualified for the World Show in 2003, the family decided to retire their star jumper while still in top form. Her retirement included life on 40 acres, where she loved jumping a rushing creek.

“People would call from all over to say they’ll never forget seeing her,” Buck adds. “We’d explain she’s living the good life, and they’d comment on how lucky she is. No, I tell them, we’re the lucky ones.”