As the race heats up for the NCHA World Finals, it is not uncommon to scan the lists of top 15 riders across all weekend classes and determine that a large majority are coming from one barn, Mike Wood Performance Horses in Scottsdale, Arizona. The barn churns out a record amount of world finalists every year, and for the last three consecutive years, the 2,000 Limit Rider World Champion has come from their barn. This year, it seems that Mary Penner is going to be able to continue that brilliant winning streak. With $10,651 won, as of today, Penner has a clear opportunity to once again take the title back to Arizona. We sat down with Penner to chat all that is haulin' for the newest instalment in Western Twist Media's series.
Mary Penner and "Bless Chu Mate" churning up some ground at a cutting in Queen Creek, Arizona. Photo Credit: Ann Mulchay Photography
Tell me about the horse you've been riding... Her name is Bless Chu Mate and she's owned by Doctor Gerald Dorros, her barn name is "ChuChu", she's a Smart Mate out of a Chula Dual mare. Tell me about their personality... Chu is one of the barn favourites, everyone loves her! She can be a little goofy about the weirdest things though. Bombs could go off and she would just stand there, but heaven help her if a plastic bag blows by in the wind! She always lopes around with her tongue out, people love to watch her because she's just so happy loping around. She's a real doll, and honestly a saint for putting up with me! She really takes care of me. Describe her style in the show pen... The best part about her style is the way she stops, she flat just drags her butt and eats the ground. My favourite thing though, is I can get nervous thinking she's not hooked onto a cow and you're thinking oh my gosh, she's not going to turn, then BAM!, she's got it covered up. She's just a rockstar, there's no better way of explaining it. What class(es) do you show in? I'm hauling in the 2,000 Limit Rider class. It's a great class for all of us just learning to show but it really can be tough! I do show in the Open occasionally just to help Mike out and get horses ready for our clients, which is also an amazing opportunity. I definitely get more nervous showing in the 2k, mostly because that's the class that I feel the pressure in. I mean it would be pretty cool to win a cheque in the Open, but I really like it for the experience and to get the nerves out before the 2k.
Leading up to this year what was your favourite moment or biggest accomplishment in the cutting pen? Before I worked for Mike and Roper [Mike's Partner] I was kind of just floating. I rode reiners up until 2016, working for Justin Henderson in Cheyenne, Wyoming whilst in college. Then I worked for Marcy Ver Meer, and she taught me so much about the feel of a horse. After she retired I had gone to work for the OX Ranch on their summer yearling allotment in Newman Park, Arizona. Then the day we shipped that fall a mutual friend of mine and Roper's called wondering if I knew anyone looking for work. Little did I know that taking that job would lead to me hauling for a world title. My goals were to just find my place, completely clueless to what God had in store for me here. Is this the first time you are headed to World Finals? This will be my first time showing at World Finals. I went last year to lope Buzzted, Stylish and Smooth and Little Jackson Cat for Mike and Les Bates to show, so atleast I got to know the facility.
Mary and "ChuChu" are currently leading the highly contested race for the 2,000 Limit Rider championship heading into NCHA World Finals. Credit: Ann Mulchay Photography
Do you ride with a trainer? I work for Mike Wood. Home and Roper are probably the best place to go, well, for anything. Mike could teach a monkey riding an ostrich to cut! In fact, that's how I felt the first couple times I worked a flag - but here we are! What is the best advice your trainer has given you? The best advice Mike has given me is to just keep going. He's probably the most amazing person to learn from because he has such positive vibe and works harder than anybody I know. Even if it's not going right, in the show pen, working two or three year olds, whatever, he just says "that's alright, next time." If he even knew how many times that's kept me from quitting he'd be amazed. Roper is the best support system I could ask for, he always knows what to say. Whether it's constructive criticism or an "atta girl", he just always says what I need to hear, even if it's not what I want to hear. Maybe that's the best part. What has the highlight of your year been, so far? My highlights of this year aren't limited to the several 75's I've gotten to mark on Chu. Most of them are the memories and lessons i've gotten to learn with this years crew. We have such an awesome barn full of clients and lopers. It really is a big family! Have you had a low point? Yes. We go on a summer haul each year and in Ignacio, Colorado this summer I flat out couldn't get through a run. It was so discouraging because it wasn't my horse, it was just me doing too much, over riding, leaning, all that jazz. How did you get out of your slump? I got out of it because I have the best turn back help in the world. Todd Adolf always has the advice to get my focused before I cross the eye. Usually something like "hey, get one in front of you, and don't let it go back, it's that simple." Then Les Bates always tells me as I'm walking into the herd, "nice and easy towards Michael, come to win something not to "not lose." Mike always has the best things to say to keep me on track. When to kick, when to sit, when to quit, he's like Yoda! Do you get nerves in the show pen? Nerves. Holy cow yes. I deal with it the same way every day though. Before I go into the pen, I pray. Then I shake my hand three times, snap twice, put my chin up, and away I go. It's weird but if I don't do it my run just won't work. What has been the best advice you've received this year? Some of the best advice I've gotten all year actually came during my low point. I was almost in tears every day walking into and out of the herd. But then a total stranger pulled me aside, and told me to stop doing so much, go back to the basics, and I quote, "look up and let people see you, and it won't kill you to smile." That was the point I came out of that low point. The following day, after marking five 60's, I marked a 75. What could you not live without at a cutting? I wouldn't be able to survive a cutting without Roper. He keeps the whole ship sailing. What's your number one tip for hauling down the road? Pack as if you're moving across the country, always be prepared for everything. Have you had to haul pretty hard this year? Hauling hasn't been super hard because it's just our life. We haul a ton. But it's just the way we live. I always tell folks if I don't call you, don't you worry, we're just onto the next one in another town. What is your favourite show to haul too? My favourite show is the New Mexico Cutting in Watrous at the Phoenix Ranch. It's just like a family gathering... only with horses and no weird relatives. Well, maybe scratch that last part. ;) If you could show to one song, what would it be? If I could show to any song it would be George Strait's "Where The Sidewalk Ends" or Elvis Presley's "Follow That Dream" Looking towards World Finals, what are you most excited about? The most exciting part about World Finals is the idea that i've finally made it to the end goal. I didn't quit, I didn't give up, WE made it. What are your goals for next year? Next year's goal is to make it more epic than this one, if that's possible! The biggest thank you's go out to Dr. Dorros for giving me this incredible opportunity. There's no way to ever express that. Thank you to Mike and Roper, their patience, guidance and faith in me. To the crew, to my turn back help for putting up with my amateur mistakes, and I thank the good Lord above for the gift of the horse and the creation of cattle.