“Stop grabbing the back of the back of your saddle!”
“Get your head out of those reins. If that horse took off, you’d break your neck!”
Standing on the viewing platform next to her outdoor practice arena in Alto Pass, Illinois, Jerri Lyn Sanders is hard on her students, but not harsh. She encourages them all, urging them to kick at just the right second to urge a barrel-racing horse on during the straight aways or to pull the horse to a full stop as they dismount for goat flanking.
On a surprisingly cool July afternoon, Jerri has four pre-teen and one just barely teenage girl in the circular outdoor arena at J & M Quarter Horses. Six-and-a-half year old Amy Pender is the youngest one currently on a horse, though her sister who’s three is also learning to ride.
At first, the girls are taking turns running the horses through the cloverleaf barrel-racing pattern and then letting them cool down walking around the fence. “We were happy it was cool enough to practice outside today,” Jerri said. “Normally, we’d have to be inside.”
Inside is the massive indoor arena of J & M’s barn. The arena hosts rodeos once a month from September to February, serves as a practice floor for local teen and pre-teen rodeo competitors and in the winter months is a really oversized arena for Spot, a retired rodeo horse who doubles as an instruction horse.
“He was a professional rodeo horse and when his owner retired, he gave the horse to Morgan,” Jerri said. Morgan is Jerri’s 10, almost 11, year old daughter.
Spot is twenty-something and a bit arthritic, so even the larger stalls that are standard at J & M don’t provide him with adequate room to move around in the winter months. And, since they don’t want to keep him outside in the pasture in the winter, the next best solution was to give him the run of the arena each night.
“He’s a bit spoiled,” Jerri said with an easy smile. “We might retire him after this season.”
Talk to this hard-working lady for just a few minutes and her dedication to her students and her animals becomes very clear. In addition to the 23 horses currently living at the farm, there are goats, cattle, some barn cats, Morgan’s dog and the barn raccoon Chatter.
“We bottle fed a raccoon last year. Now everybody loves Chatter and she thinks she is just one of the animals, maybe a dog,” Jerri said.
The presence of the raccoon is just one testament to the family’s dedication to its animals. The continued presence of Morgan’s dog Bo is another.
“Two years ago, one of the steers kicked him in the throat and crushed his esophagus. The vet said we were going to have to put him down, but my older daughter spent the whole winter nursing him back to health. He’s a little skinny, but we did what the vet said couldn’t be done,” Jerri said.
Jerri co-owns the farm with her husband Mark, but mostly, she said, he leaves the teaching and the horses to her. But they both pitch in doing the things that are needed to keep the farm afloat. On Thursday before her afternoon lessons, Jerri and Mark spent the first half of the day out picking up hay.
“We’ve got most of the barn full with square bales,” she said, pointing out the difference a year makes. “Last year, between the late frost and the heat, the hay just burned up. What hay we did put up was only good as roughage. We brought hay in from Oklahoma and it was still a really hard winter.”
Jerri and Mark built the barn and arena facilities in 2004 to train cutting horses. Initially, they employed a full-time trainer to help as well, but the trainer has moved on to other things and so have Jerri and Mark. “We may go back to that someday, but for now we’re concentrating on the rodeos,” she said.
Cutting is a rodeo event that requires a rider to cut, or separate, a single animal – usually a calf-from the herd of cattle. Then, the horse imposes itself between the separated animal and the herd, staying between the calf and herd with low, zigzagging movements. The rider controls the horse only with his knees and must keep his hands off the reins.
Though they don’t currently teach cutting classes, Jerri does teach most of the other rodeo basics. They have classes for all the events in the Illinois Junior Rodeo, which has rodeo events for kids from kindergarten through eighth grade.
That means on this particular July afternoon, the girls in the arena were running the barrels. Morgan, when she rides her usual horse, has been clocking in at 14 seconds flat. “A few months ago, they got started and the horse just fell in the dirt. I don’t think either one of them realizes just how fast they are moving,” Jerri said.
And, the competition in the Illinois Junior Rodeo is tough, but this sport is a bit different than most of the other competitive events children compete in. “There are three girls in Morgan’s division that are always just a few fractions of a second apart in their times, but they will always be there on screaming just as loudly for each other as their parents or anyone else. Everyone of these girls will tell you that they don’t compete against one another. This competition is about me, my horse and a time clock,” she said.
That means it is not unusual for competitors to share advice, equipment or even horses. “If you have a horse lose a shoe or come up lame, you’ll have half a dozen girls saying, ‘Here, use mine’,” Jerri said. That is one of the things she enjoys most about the sport.
Another is the responsibility it teaches the children. “These kids ride every day and then they have to take care of their horses. A horse is a big responsibility, seven days a week all year long,” she said.
The rodeo practices means that Jerri has a barn full of kids on any given night of the week and all summer long. Usually, she runs day camps for kids to improve their riding skills during the summer, but found this year that she had a lot of kids spending the night.
“With the cost of gas, parents’ in like Norris City couldn’t afford to drive down here twice a day, so we just let the kids stay here,” she said. And life at the farm isn’t particularly interesting, she said, but the kids love it anyway. “I told Mackenzie (George) that we stay at the barn working with the animals and feeding them and doing chores until about 9:30, then go up to the house and get baths and off to bed. Then we do the same thing the next day. She stayed down here anyway and said it was the best day of her summer so far.”
Jerri knows that keeping a kid riding can be expensive, so she has devised a pay schedule that she says works for most parents and allows the kids to learn some responsibility along the way. A riding lesson, in Western pleasure horse riding or any form of rodeo riding, is $25 an hour. If the child is paying for one hour of lessons a week, then the child can come out to the barn at other times during the week and ride for free, but for every hour they spend on a horse, they owe Jerri an hour’s work in the barn.
“It works out well for everyone. Without them, I’d have to hire more help to run the barn and after a few times, they know what needs to be done. I don’t have to spend all my time telling them what to do. They know to bring up the animals to feed, clean the stalls, etc. It teaches the kids the value of hard work and saves the parents’ some money,” she said.
Some of her students come to riding lessons like they approach anything else, Monday night piano lessons, Tuesday night riding lessons, Jerri said, and some are very dedicated.
Barrel-racing and pole-bending are among the most popular events for girls in the summer rodeo series and one of the most dangerous is goat flanking. In fact, goat flanking results in more injuries in rodeo than bull riding does, Jerri said.
Goat flanking is sort of like calf-roping in concept except that the girls do not have to actual rope the goat. A helper holds a goat in the center of the arena on a picket rope and then the contestant rides at full run as close to the goat as possible, jumps off her horse, catches the goat, up ends him and ties three legs together.
After practicing their barrel racing Morgan and fellow student Mary Blakely were practicing their goat flanking on Thursday. These girls are quick and manhandle a goat as easily as any grown cowboy tosses around a calf. The only problem, and the key to doing well, is how the girl’s boot sits in the stirrup. If her foot gets caught while she is trying to dismount the horse, the rider can be drug behind the horse until it is caught or stops running.
The move, called “The Flying Cowgirl”, is both dangerous and fun, Mary and Morgan proclaimed.
Another event that is very popular in the fall at the rodeos held at the barn is team sorting. In that event, nine numbered calves are in the arena when a team of two riders starts their turn. The judge will call out the number of one of the calves and the team must separate that calf from the herd and force him into a pen at the side of the arena. Then, they must one by one add the other calves to the pen, in order.
For example, if the judge yells out “four”, then the team starts with calf number four, then five and so forth up to nine, and then calves one, two and three. Like most rodeo events, this is time-based, and must be accomplished in less than 60 seconds.
During the winter months, or when the summer sun is too hot, practices are held inside the arena in the barn. On Thursday night, the high school rodeo team practices roping and the weekly event has become a social gathering for local high school kids, Jerri said.
“Most Thursday nights you can’t get another car or trailer into this parking lot,” she said. Kids that don’t rope or even ride will come out to the barn to hang out and be social. She usually has hotdogs and drinks and encourages the teens to hang out.
“This time of year, it’s not unusual to find the teenagers up here practicing late into the night,” she said. “I figure there are a lot worse things that they could be doing.”
Morgan, in addition to winning numerous awards at the Illinois Junior Rodeo, where she has been riding since kindergarten, works at the barn, babysits, exercises horses for other people who stable their animals at J & M and helps her mom lead trail rides.
Big brother Jake, 17, competes in roping events and breaks horses. Mark, Jerri said, does just about anything she asks, including mowing the hay to make sure the barn has adequate supplies for the coming winter.
In all, the local kids competing in rodeos attend about 25 a year between the local rodeos, rodeos at the Flickerwood Stable in southeast Missouri, and the Illinois Junior Rodeo. Next year, many of the girls will move up to the Wrangler division, for sixth, seventh and eighth grade students. Then, if they can finish in the top four in their event in the state, they qualify to compete at the Wrangler national rodeo in New Mexico.
Jerri and Morgan also lead guided trail rides from the ranch and Jerri conducts the day camps as well.
And, as if she weren’t already busy enough, Jerri is leaving Tuesday to explore the options to add a therapeutic program at the farm. Reverend Steve Hamson from Mt. Vernon, his wife Jeannie and Jerri are headed to Louisville to a seminar on instituting therapeutic riding programs for children who are disabled, physically or mentally challenged or abused.
Jerri said her sister is an occupational therapist who will be helping with the program and Jerri is investigating to find out exactly what certifications she will need to add service to children in need as one more program offered at J & M.