Kelli Tolbert and Cleo

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Tolbert reached rodeo’s pinnacle on a sorrel mare she calls Cleo, registered as RF Firefly.

"I found her on the Internet for $1,800 when she was a yearling in Riverton, Wyo.," says Tolbert. The filly had the lineage of world champion cow horse Dots Jessie on the bottom, the same as Tolbert’s good college goat tying horse, and was Smoke N Sparks on the top, which seemed like a great cross.

Tolbert broke Cleo to ride and is one of only about three people who have ever been on the horse, despite the fact that she’s "bucked every day of her life."

"We renamed her Firefly after a bucking horse in the Kirby string," Tolbert says. "She kicks over her head real pretty, but I don’t mind because it’s smooth and easy to ride. She’s all business when the barrels are up, so we’ve agreed to disagree and I figure it’s just who she is, so I stay out of her way."

Cleo earned roughly $35,000 at futurities as a 4-year-old, Tolbert says, despite hitting a lot of barrels. The same year, the duo ventured to a few amateur rodeos. They entered about 10 pro rodoes when Cleo was 5, and last year the two of them went to 26 rodeos and won the coveted WPRA Rookie of the Year award.

Tolbert had simply been hoping to make her circuit finals last year, and wasn‘t aiming for much this year until she won a big chunk at Cody, Wyo., traveling with Sue Smith.

Her family isn’t into rodeo, but Tolbert has been immersed in it a lifetime.

"I had a donkey when I was young, and I’d sit on it for hours," recalls Tolbert. "I just developed a crazy passion for horses."

She competed in all events in high school and entered barrel racing and goat tying in college, winning the national collegiate goat tying and all-around championships for Weber State College in 1997.

Today, she rides horses for a living, training her own and taking in the occasional outside horse, while doing a little leather work on the side.

"I rode with trainers and cutters, etc.," Tolbert says. "But I learned the most from this horse. I was paying attention to what she was telling me, and she made it so easy. She knew the barrels as a 2-year-old."

Despite landing in the top 10 in the world this fall, Tolbert hadn’t won hardly anything at the big winter rodeos this year, except in Houston’s giant Reliant Stadium.

"My goal this year wasn’t to make the Finals, but to simply end with the same horse I started the season with," she said. "I wanted to make money and keep my horse sound. As long as those two things were happening, I’d keep going. The Finals is just a perk."

While Tolbert stresses that her horse’s health and happiness are most important to her, she admits that an NFR qualification is both an honor and an exciting opportunity.

"I do know, however, that this mare hasn’t done well in buildings," she says, "so I don’t know how it will go. I may set a record for hitting 30 barrels…these are the things I think about at night!"

Ellensburg Slack

This is an enormous arena and the barrels are nowhere near the fences. To further complicate things, the pattern isn’t set square to the arena, and the ground in slack is a little deeper because it gets dry and loose.

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On her approach to this barrel, Cleo took a bad step and stumbled. This frame shows her as she’s recovering. My left hand is guiding her around while my body English is pushing her forward, to keep her from setting and rolling back over the top of the barrel. Even though she wasn’t tight, she kept moving forward and trying. She placed second in the round.

I prefer to use a long stick whip that I tape to my hand. The length allows me to reach her hip without twisting my body, and the tape holds it securely in my palm so I can keep a good hold on my reins.

Ellensburg Second Round

I was 11th out in this performance, and you can see how deep the ruts are at the third barrel.Cleo is a real "turny" horse, and she has a tendency to bury up in deep ground, which this picture shows perfectly.

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My left hand is down the rein and holding tension to keep her fron end moving. I'm squeezing with both legs, begging her to go forward a few more inches.I am keeping my head down, looking to where I need to be going. If I were to look at the next barrel at this point, it would stop her momentum and change her direction.

Cleo is very particular about her headgear. She runs in a copper three-piece Goostree Simplicity and a one-ear headstall, and I exercise her in a side-pull or halter. She is very sensitive, so I ride her with bumper spurs to get lateral flexion in her turns.

Ellensburg Short Round

Cleo is very tight mid-way through this turn, but I’m not at all worried about hitting the barrel because she’s squared up underneath herself and being honest. I only use the inside rein to correct her from getting in too close, so all the slack in the reins shows she is in great position and turning on her own. 

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I am centered and have a tight hold on the horn so I can stay with her and out of her way. I am forward in the saddle and have a shorter hold on my inside rein, ready to react if the situation changes.

I like the feel of leather reins and ride them extra long because she is low headed and doesn’t need any help coming around in her turns. You’ll notice my reins are hobbled together. This keeps the reins from flipping over her head as she turns.