By Jolee Jordan
A rodeo arena and a tennis court may seem worlds apart for most people. But for Scottsdale barrel racer Barb Johnson, the two venues represent the two halves of her world, a unique blend that combines her passion with her commitment to family.
Johnson grew up in Arizona, the daughter of a Phoenix-raised cowboy and a Canadian, George Johnson. She inherited her love of riding from both parents and began by following in her late mother’s (Susan Johnson) footsteps into English disciplines like dressage and eventing.
But soon it was her father’s passion for rodeo, as well as an environment more friendly to Western riding, that had her picking up a barrel saddle. Her father rode bareback horses and bulls as well as team roped and Johnson followed his path to rodeo, buying her WPRA card by the time she was 20.
“My one big claim to fame is that I was the 1981 average champion at the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) in the goat tying,” she notes, adding with a laugh, “which has nothing to do with barrel racing.” That win did help her University of Arizona rodeo team to a third place finish in the nation that year.
Johnson graduated with a pre-veterinary degree but never went on to vet school. By that time, her father had hung up his rodeo boots and began a new career as a land developer. One of his projects is the highly successful La Camarilla Racquet, Fitness and Swim Club in Scottsdale.
“We’ve been in business for 35 years,” Johnson notes proudly. The family also has interests in other projects including running some cattle and she helps with most of them, acting like a business manager. But her primary jobs are sales and marketing for the club.
“We have to support our habit, right,” she jokes of barrel racing.
Balancing her family’s business and barrel racing for many years, Johnson has had plenty of success in both worlds. A veteran of numerous Turquoise Circuit Finals Rodeos, Johnson has competed at the then-Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo in Pocatello and came within a breathe of qualifying again last year.
“I hit a barrel in the second round and I was right behind Lori [Todd] and she hit one in the third round,” Johnson says of the Ram Turquoise Circuit Finals Rodeo, held last October in Las Cruces, N.M. Although she placed in both the first and third rounds, the hit barrel did not sit well with the veteran cowgirl.
“I just hate to hit barrels, I hardly ever do,” she said. “That’s the last one I’ve hit too.”
Johnson has stayed involved in the circuit and even served as President of the Arizona Chapter of the WPRA for several years. Though she has had her share of nice horses, she hasn’t yet had that one outstanding individual.
“I’ve been looking for that one super horse my whole life . . . I think I finally got him.”
Johnson’s newest mount is Playguns Fame, aka Ellis, a horse Johnson had her eye on since his futurity days.
“He won about $20,000 in the futurities and won third in the BFA Derby,” notes Johnson. His wins also included a pole bending futurity, which earned him the Roper Apparel All Around award for placing in both the poles and barrels.
Johnson purchased the gelding in early 2016, qualifying for the Turquoise Circuit Finals in their first year together.
It was a super match that almost never happened.
“Jessie didn’t want to sell him,” Johnson says of the horse’s owner and trainer Jessie Telford of Caldwell, Idaho. In fact, Telford had passed on previous offers to buy the horse. Telford and her husband Jake operate Telford Training, training and competing in reined cow horse events as well as barrel races. It was the former that brought them to Arizona last winter for the Sun Circuit show in Scottsdale. It was then and there that Telford changed her mind.
With two young daughters and plenty of horses, Telford decided she didn’t want the talented Ellis to be standing in a pen. Plus Johnson had two colts—one by Dash ta Fame and another by Frenchmans Guy—with the right combination of speed and cow to help sweeten the deal.
“I’m so thankful that Jessie changed her mind on selling,” Johnson says.
Ellis is by Playgun and out of the Dash ta Fame mare Zigzagenzani, now owned by Crago Performance Horses. He was bred by Copper Springs Ranch in Montana before the Telfords purchased him.
Though Johnson and Ellis had plenty of success stories in their inaugural year together, one rodeo they did not have luck with was Cave Creek, a rodeo just down the road from Johnson’s home.
“I hit a barrel to place last year so I had to redeem myself,” Johnson says, adding again how much knocked over barrels bother her.
With the 2017 Cave Creek Rodeo Days event on tap, Johnson entered the WPRA Divisional Circuit event held in conjunction with a WPRA roping event the day prior to the slack to help prepare.
“He jerked the left front shoe on that run,” Johnson says. “I knew I was ninth out in the slack (for the rodeo), so I just made up my mind to blast through as hard as I could go.”
The results of her well-executed plan were an awesome 15.95 second run that took the lead for the rodeo and was nearly two-tenths faster than anyone else in the slack. Though Jill Welsh pushed the time hard competing in the Sunday performance with her 15.97, Johnson’s time held up for the win.
“I’m so happy,” Johnson says simply. “It’s Ellis’ first pro rodeo win.”
It was a tough barrel race with just over two tenths separating the ten money winners. Johnson was quick to give credit to the rodeo committee for keeping plenty of water on the ground, noting that it had been some years since a slack run had won the rodeo.
The win came after a rough winter where Johnson battled a rib injury that forced her to turn out at Tucson, the Turquoise Circuit’s biggest rodeo. After picking up $1,603 in Cave Creek, she is now ranked seventh in the circuit.
Johnson was also excited to pick up 15 points on the WPRA’s Tour.
“That’s great. The Tour points from last year actually helped me get into Austin this year.” Johnson moved to 16th in the Tour standings with the win.
“I was hoping to get enough won before summer [to make the Circuit Finals] so I can stay up north,” Johnson says. She has a place outside of Heber, Utah where she bases for summer rodeos.
She’ll continue to balance the arena with the courts, too.
“I’m not going to burn him up running up and down the road,” she notes. “I think he can win a lot without doing that. If we can make more runs like Cave Creek . . . . that was so fun.”
“I’m so excited and ready for California,” Johnson says, making plans for the spring run of rodeos on the West Coast. “I’m keeping my horses at Kathy Petska’s—she’s so sweet, she’s going to take care of my ponies for me so I can fly back and forth for work.”
While Johnson is eyeing the rest of the season with glee, she makes sure to thank friends who help her keep her busy life balanced, allowing her to keep chasing her rodeo dreams but the biggest debt of gratitude goes to Telford.
“I just can’t thank her enough for selling Ellis to me. He is so broke and nice, he’s really a push button horse.”
For more information on the Cave Creek Rodeo Days rodeo, visit them on-line at www.cavecreekrodeo.com.