By Storms Reback
Sarah Rose McDonald and her horse Bling were so inextricably linked that when Bling unexpectedly passed in January it sent McDonald into a brief tailspin.
"It's been very difficult losing Bling," she said during a recent phone conversation. "I think it's probably the most difficult thing I've ever had to go through. Basically, I've had to start all over again."
Most people expected McDonald to take an extended break from the circuit, but that's not the 22-year-old barrel racer's style. Borrowing Sharon Hall's horse, McDonald competed at the SandHills Rodeo in Odessa, Texas, in mid-January less than two weeks after Bling's passing.
She actually managed to place in Odessa, finishing in a tie for 12th place, but when she tried the same tactic in March, borrowing Mark Singleterry's horse Flash to compete at the Houston Rodeo, she failed to make the money.
When asked how hard it was to use someone else's horse in competition, McDonald said. "It's definitely challenging because you don't know the horse and you don't know your timing. Every horse has a different style and feel. You just go and hope it works out."
McDonald was forced to borrow horses because the ones she had weren't quite ready for the pro circuit. Her two 3-year-olds were far too young to use, and her 5-year-old mare Diamond was still a work in progress.
Aimee Kay had trained Diamond and held onto her as a 4-year-old before handing her over to McDonald last March. As usual, Kay had done an excellent job of patterning Diamond, but the horse was still a bit immature.
"She was just kinda not focused and a little goofy," McDonald said. "When I got her, I tried to haul her on the road some, but she got really upset, so I sent her home to (McDonald's hauling partner) Taylor Jacob's house and turned her out with all her yearlings in a huge pasture for two or three months and just let her kind of chill out and get her mind back."
Only after she was done with the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo last December did McDonald start working with Diamond in earnest. Her plan was to finish Diamond just as she'd done with Bling. With that goal in mind, last December she started hauling the mare around the country and entering her in slack events.
"I was planning on just bringing her along easy and seeing how she handled everything," McDonald said. "I don't futurity much, but I wanted to enter her in a couple. That means her first run was literally December 1, 2016."
McDonald had started seasoning Bling in slack events when the horse was 4, but she'd never seasoned a horse while competing in high-profile events like the San Antonio Rodeo, as she was forced to do with Diamond in February.
"Diamond was just kinda thrown into everything," McDonald said. "If you would have told me a year before she would have been able to handle that, I would have told you you were crazy. She was just so young and green, but she really stepped up. She's a funny horse. She wants to be the center of attention, which I think was good for me during that time."
According to McDonald, Diamond is a completely different horse than Bling, so it will probably take the pair some time to get used to each other.
"Bling was all muscle and really excited," she explained. "She was really quick and sharp. She had very slick feet when I first started running her. She was running past barrels, especially the first barrel. We knocked a lot of barrels over when I was seasoning her because she was so tight.
"Diamond's a bigger horse than Bling, and she's smoother and more long-strided," she continued. "I don't think she's learned to run as hard as she can yet. She's also a little bit more laid-back now that I've been hauling her. I don't know that Bling could have handled all the pressure I've had to throw at Diamond so early."
Because Diamond is so different from Bling, McDonald has been forced to adapt her riding style.
"I think a lot of people associated me with being sort of an out-of-control rider, a crazy rider, because I had to stay so far forward on Bling and really push her to get around the barrels," she said. "With Diamond, I have to sit back more and make sure I'm driving her because she's so young. I really haven't nudged her yet."
When asked about the areas in which Diamond needs to improve, McDonald said, "I think she's still learning how to run. She'll figure out how to add more speed. For now, I'm mainly focused on her consistency and her turns, more than asking her to go as fast as she can. At this stage, I just want her to be focused and always hugging the barrels."
Hoping to not push Diamond too hard too fast, McDonald gave her the entire month of March off.
"I tried to let her be a horse, to play in the pasture, eat grass, and get fat," she said. "I feel like that really keeps their minds cleared. My goal with her this year is to season her and get her ready for the following year, not to push her so much this year she can't handle any more."
When she's not working with Diamond, McDonald has been hosting clinics all over the country, passing down some of the skills and wisdom that have helped her earn more than $750,000 on the pro tour.
"I've really enjoyed doing that, spending time with the younger generation and keeping barrel racing knowledge going," she said. "I think everybody can learn a lot because there are so many variables in barrel racing. It's never constant."
As bright as McDonald's future with Diamond looks -- the two have already established a comfortable rapport -- McDonald maintains a realistic outlook about the future.
"My main goal is consistency," she said. "Just to be right there, just out of placing or placing. Next year, my goal will be the Circuit Finals and just kind of climbing up the ladder again."
After Bling's Passing, Sarah Rose McDonald Starts Over With Diamond
By Storms Reback