When Lindsay Sears first picked up Sugar Moon Express ("Martha") from trainer Dena Kirkpatrick, it was just after the young mare's futurity year and Sears expected to spend 2006 seasoning her.
What she didn't know was that Martha already had her hammer down. As a "green"
6-year-old, she sent Sears, then 25, all the way to her first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. When Martha injured herself late that season, however, Sears had to go to the dance without her partner, suffering through a miserable two weeks on borrowed horses at her first NFR, during which she hit nine barrels.
Despite that experience, Sears remained patient until Martha was 100 percent, and then went on a mission in 2007 to give her leading lady a chance to run in the City of Lights. Sears switched the mare last spring to run to the left barrel first, and not only did the reverse not faze Martha, it seemed to make her that much faster.
She blew through the pattern 10 times at the Thomas and Mack Center quicker than anyone had in 20 years, and had that first barrel in that first run not tipped over, Sears would have won the average by a full second. Despite the penalty costing her roughly $50,000, Sears, who won five of 10 rounds, banked more dollars in one event than any cowboy at the NFR-$119,255.
Hard to believe she could top that fairytale season, but it's happening. Martha and Sears won every paying round at RodeoHouston in March to rack up $61,500 and take a lead in the 2008 world standings that they haven't relinquished yet. Later, they also won the Calgary Stampede, worth $113,500, and through August were enjoying a $30,000 cushion on defending world champion Brittany Pozzi-Pharr.
Martha, now 8, is by Dr. Nick Bar, a Leo-bred stallion (and half-brother to barrel horse sire Firewater Flit) that has sired handfuls of winners and competed himself at the NFR in the 1990s with Fallon Taylor. On the bottom, Martha is out of Baby's Blue Jeans, who is Easy Jet-bred on top and out of Lady Bugs Martha, a granddaughter of both Top Moon and Three Bars. So, aside from genetics, what's the "It" factor here?
Well, Martha receives a lot of TLC-Sears' Shiloh saddle tree was specially made for Martha (a similar line will be available to the public soon). Also, the mare has the extremely rare ability to run with her body fully flexed, and she's super smart.
In addition to needing no seasoning or time to learn a reverse pattern, Martha uncannily knows when to flip the turbo switch. "Lindz," a soft-spoken cowgirl with a penchant for high fashion and alternative rock, rides quietly but focuses hard prior to a big short round, and she says somehow that determination transmits to her horse.
"She knows when things are big," Sears says of Martha. "She loves to win. She loves the attention."
She also loves Sears, because Sears's non-aggressive style fits perfectly with the mare's uber-aggressive, all-out "try."
"It's the opposite of what you would think," says Sears, who grew up 35 miles outside Nanton, Alberta, and has a winter place near Lubbock, Texas. "I can't try to make things happen or try to be fast on Martha. Instead, I try to back off and do everything perfectly, and she'll stop the clock. You can't go out there and gas it on her. That's not her style, and it's not my style."
The photographs on the following pages capture the style that led to Sears' record performance at RodeoHouston, her huge sweep in her home province of Alberta and her first championship at the Daddy of 'em All.
Winning Cheyenne Frontier Days
This was one of the smoothest, most flawless runs I've made on Martha. This is really good body position for her -she can keep her forward momentum around the barrel because she's driving with her hind end and pulling with her front end.
I'm sitting square with my upper body tilted forward a little bit. My weight is in my stirrups and my rein hand is helping her around the barrel. I'm looking (and so is she) to where we are headed. I try not to get ahead of myself. I try to sit going into the barrel and stand up and tilt forward on the backside to help her drive out of the barrel.
I try to keep my weight over her withers so it's easier for her to drive out of the barrel. I ride with typically shorter stirrups, so that I can sit deep going into the turn and stand up on the backside. Short stirrups allow me to have the majority of my weight in the stirrups at all times.
I also ride with short reins so that when I sit going into the turn, it automatically brings my rein hand back into proper position, allowing me to maintain a square body position.
Winning Rodeo Houston
This was a great run. Martha was a little strong going into her first barrel, and in this picture, you can see me sitting deep in my saddle. She's reaching with her front end and her hind legs are coming up underneath her. She has her head up and her neck bent and her rib cage is also flexing around the barrel.
I believe that this style allows for her to carry so much speed through the turn.
Because her head is elevated and bent around the barrel, I can help bring her body around the backside of the barrel with my outside foot and my rein hand.
In this run, she ran a little harder than I wanted to the first barrel and I really had to sit and lift going into the turn to keep her shoulder elevated so that we didn't tip as we went into the turn.
My body is fairly square and I am looking where I need to go the next stride. My weight is in the center and this is, in my opinion, where it should be so that you're not off-setting your horse by leaning in the turn.
Winning the Calgary Stampede
She's a little stretched out at this point in the turn because she's preparing to make that final push out away from the barrel. You can see my inside foot is back a little bit behind my back cinch because her ribcage is a little straighter at this point, and I needed to move her hip around the backside of the barrel.
She has her head up, but not as much as normal because she had to stand up a little more square to compensate for the ground being a little harder.
I'm standing up trying to get my weight forward over her withers so she can move her hip around the backside of the barrel and keep her momentum. I am really asking her with my rein hand to bring her front end around the barrel and I have my inside foot in her so that her hip will come around.
I think the most important thing to remember is that your weight distribution is always giving your horse a signal, so always try to keep your weight in the center so that you don't inhibit your horse in the turn.