Author's Note: After writing this and speaking to some of those who loved and knew Celie best, I really feel like I knew her. I think she can still teach the younger generation and those who might not have known her a thing or two.
From the time Cecelia Ann Whitcomb was a little girl she knew how to speak the language of the horse - from the subtle cues of her body to the movement of her hands and feet that were almost imperceptible to anyone watching. This mastery of the most complex animal language was engrained deep in her bones. Her father Milo Whitcomb is a legendary horseman in his own right and her mother, Ann Whitcomb, instilled a passion for animals in her daughter.
"Celie" as the barrel racing world would grow to know her, would become a household name in her short time and leave a lasting impact on the barrel racing community.
Celie's upbringing instilled a deep knowledge and understanding of what it took to breed a horse that was not only fast, but also versatile in and out of the arena. Her father Milo Whitcomb raised and trained Tonto Bars Hank (Tonto Bars Gill - Hanka, Hank H). Tonto Bars Hank was not only a fast race horse, he was also an AQHA grand champion. Additionally, Milo enjoyed owning and training cutting and reining horses and Celie got her start on many of those horses.
There was one mare in particular that was the catalyst to her career. Celie's lifelong friend, barrel racing photographer Kenneth Springer noted, "Harletta was the foundation of her success."
Harletta was the barn name for Slash J Harletta (Harlan - Frogs Annette, Frog W). Harletta was a true all-around mare earning a young Celie performance points, halter points, and numerous youth AQHA championships. Additionally, Harletta qualified Celie for her first NFR in 1971.
"It was hard not to notice Celie," Kenneth Springer remembered, "she was very beautiful - as was Harletta." The flashy palomino became a broodmare in 1974 and it wasn't long before Celie saw the ability Harletta would pass on to her foals. Slash J Harletta was the dam of not only Firewater Flit and Letta Hank Do It, but also Celie's stand out winners, Free Etta, I Got Bugs, Ima Etta Too, Shawnetta Bug, and Smakabug.
Vickie Adams and Celie would become good friends and business partners. It was a good looking horse that spawned their business deal - which is usually how the best business deals in our industry get their start. "A good looking horse always catches my eye," said Adams, "and Harletta was just a good looking horse." The two were at the PRCA rodeo at Waco, Texas when Adams asked Celie how the flashy palomino mare was bred. "We didn't want to partner on Harletta's offspring, so we decided we'd each take ownership. I wanted a colt and Celie wanted a filly. So naturally when the colt was born, I got him." The colt Adams is speaking of was Firewater Flit.
Not only did Celie have an eye for a good horse and the understanding of the importance a good foundation made, she was one of the more successful futurity trainers of her day. "Her horses had confidence," Kenneth Springer said. "She knew when to give them that confidence."
One of Celie's closest friends, Libby Hurley got a closer look into Celie's life and colt starting methods than most. "It was maybe 1983 or 1984 when I first met Celie. I was in Grand Prairie, Texas at the Texas Barrel Racing Association Futurity. I had my first futurity horse and we were just trying to get ready for Ft. Smith. A beautiful, small, slender woman approached me and told me she had watched me run and that I had good hands," Libby laughed, "then she wanted to know if I wanted to come live with her and help her train futurity horses. I didn't know who she was, and when she walked away my friend turned to me and said 'That was Celie Ray!' So of course I took her up on her offer. I lived with Celie and her family in Colorado and when she moved to Oklahoma. She became one of my best friends and mentors."
Celie picked up much of what she learned on training barrel horses from Allene Gayler-Mourne. Allene was wildly influential to help barrel racing become what it has today. First making the NFR in 1964 when it was held in Dallas, Texas, Gayler-Mourne would qualify 8 more times to the national finals. "Celie said it was like a light-switch came on when she was riding with Allene," said Kenneth Springer, "and it all clicked for her. The first time I met Celie she was helping Allene at the NFR but Celie had yet to qualify. [Of Celie] Allene told me, 'She'll be here next year,' and she was."
Celie's understanding of a horse was second nature to her. After she started a colt she could have it ready to run barrels in as little as three months because she was so consistent with what she did. A young Dena Kirkpatrick befriended Celie when Dena was struggling to train another good futurity horse. "I became fascinated with the mental part of horse-training because of Celie. She was always in the right mindset no matter if she was in the practice pen or at the NFR. She really did have ice-water in her veins. Nothing bothered her," said Kirkpatrick.
Her consistency played into her confidence as a rider, trainer, and competitor and into the horse's psyche as well. "She would have them loping the pattern as a 3-year-old," Hurley recalls, "Then she would turn them out in the winter and get them back up the following February."
One thing Celie really focused on was not making runs on her colts at home, "While I was with her I never saw her run a horse at her home pen. She would walk twice, trot twice, lope twice, then walk again. When they were ready to take and exhibition she would breeze them through on her first exhibition. She never took them slow first. That way, she could see what she needed to work on, if anything at all," said Hurley.
Celie was visibly known for her one-handed riding. "As soon as her colts knew the pattern she always went to one hand," Hurley said. "She told me, 'If you teach them with two hands, then when you get to the barrel and drop to one hand, the colt will lose confidence." Celie never rode with split reins and started all her colts in a simple gag.
Vickie Adams knew her ability to ride behind Celie and Celie's quietness in the arena came from a similar place. "We both grew up in the horse show industry and I think that had a lot to do with how quietly Celie rode and trained. In that industry, showing your horse gains or loses points in itself. "That's why you never saw her jerking or pulling on them in a run. She was just taught a better way growing up around all that," Adams said.
"I watched and studied Celie's horses. I became obsessed with her horses and training," Dena Kirkpatrick remembered, "all her horses were fast and a little unruly. But, when they made it into the arena, they were all business."
"The biggest piece of advice I remember Celie giving me about training was not to start the turn too early," Kirkpatrick said. "Also, to never use an outside leg to finish a turn - if they put their feet in the right place, they won't need that outside leg."
Celie didn't over break her horses or work on bending and flexing too much. "She always told me all you need to be able to see was their eyelashes and the edge of their nostril whichever way they were going," Hurley remembered, "Celie always said 'You don't want your horse running to the first barrel looking at it with their left eye.'"
"Another thing Celie did that you don't see many others doing is that when she did her rollbacks, she did them away from the fence, not into the fence," Hurley said. Hurley eventually figured out that Celie did her rollbacks away from the fence because it was advantageous in that it helped to keep the hip under the horse.
Going into a turn Celie liked their hips square and she would take her horses a little straighter to the pocket than most. When she stopped at the top of her pocket, she would back the horses up, pause, and go forward again. Upon resuming motion Celie would always make sure the front feet moved first to keep their forward motion.
Hurley remembers what it felt like to go around a barrel on a horse Celie had trained, "It felt like you were on a motorcycle and you had your inside leg on the ground, and the motorcycle was pivoting around your inside leg in that perfect circle. It was just the coolest feeling."
Adams agreed that Celie definitely put her stamp any horse she trained. "I ended up riding this mare Celie had started and sold. She had been through a few bad hands after Celie and she had some issues. But even through her issues, when she turned the second barrel there was no denying who trained the mare. "That was a typical Celie second barrel. I could tell Celie had trained her even after all that mare had been through," Adams said.
While she had a remarkable amount of patience and never let her temper get the better of her with a horse, she expected them to understand the arena was a place where business was conducted. "She was really big on her horses moving their feet and not 'lollygagging,' as she called it," Hurley laughed. "I remember if I had a horse that was a little lazier she'd tell me while we were just riding around to never let him just 'lollygag like that!' When we were done in the arena, she would never ever walk back on her horse. It was always a rule to stop the horses in the arena when we were done, face the arena, get off, and then lead the horses back." Hurley remembers.
Celie never used her feet in a run, nor did she use her hands to check a horse. "She would always tell me to, 'run up there and flip that rein at them,'" Hurley said. Celie's horses knew the sleight of hand with the pinky going into their neck and body was their cue to turn. "Picking up that inside rein picked up their shoulder, rib cage, and hip and they would just make the perfect turn," Hurley said. Celie was known for sitting very square in the middle, never leaning, and just barely tipping her shoulders down in a turn. Another thing Celie never did? She never over rode her horses.
"If they're giving you all they've got and you're still flogging them - they're eventually going to stop giving," Celie told a young Hurley. "Don't ever over spur your horse to get him to go. It shortens their stride." Celie finished up this lesson with Hurley by getting her to lift her arm over her head. Hurley lifted her arm into the air above her head. Celie then took her finger and poked Hurley in the ribs. The first thing Hurley did was drop her arm down to protect herself. "Now see what your horse does?" Celie asked. If you're lucky enough to find a video of Celie's riding you'll notice she rides quietly, one-handed, never over exerting herself to get her horse to run. It's clear every horse she ran, ran barrels because they craved running barrels.
Besides taking her horses a little straighter into their pockets, Celie had another different approach to the first barrel. "The shortest part of the barrel pattern is between the timer and the first barrel," Celie told Hurley. "Just get around the first and then go." Celie was also not worried about her horses getting their leads. "It's too uncomfortable for them to turn in the wrong lead. They'll figure it out," she said.
While the mechanics of how Celie taught and trained gained her notoriety and established her career as one of the best barrel horse trainers of all time, she had a personality as big as her heart and everyone who had the pleasure of meeting her had a story or two about her.
Barrel horse trainer Kelly Conrado remembers Celie as "...a classy, brilliant woman who was always extremely put together. I remember being at a Texas futurity and watching her run for the first time. It was a big outdoor, standard pattern and she just daylighted the field. We met there and she told me I should come work for her. Eventually I did. I packed up and moved to Sulphur, Oklahoma and even though it wasn't easy at times, it was one of the best decisions I've ever made."
Conrado's time with Celie also helped pave his way as a barrel horse trainer. "She liked to do things herself. She was the only one who could saddle Bugsy (I Got Bugs [Bugs Alive In 75 - Slash J Harletta, Harlan]) She was very particular and liked things done her way." Conrado remembers Celie's way with horses as, "unbelievably patient." "You don't see that a lot with these futurity trainers anymore," Conrado said, "She had this ability to wait on a horse until they were ready. You never saw her ask a horse for more than it was capable of giving."
Kenneth Springer shared Conrado's sentiments. "To Celie every horse was special. She would let her horses be horses," Springer said. "She had an eye for the future of the horse, not just for their futurity year." Springer remembers her great Bugsy as a prime example. Bugsy was not only a stand out futurity and derby horse, he also helped Celie win rodeo Houston in 1989 and helped qualify her for two of her four NFRs in 1987 and 1989. Her best finish on Bugsy came in 1989 when she finished third in the world behind Charmayne James and Marlene Eddleman-MCrae and won $63,141. The 1989 NFR saw Celie and Bugsy take three go round wins, claiming the 3rd, 4th, and 5th rounds.
Celie's daughter Mary-Cecelia (now Mary-Cecelia Tharp) was only 11 when her mother passed away. There's no doubt Celie would be proud of the horsewoman her daughter has become. Now a mother herself, Mary-Cecelia enjoys training her own horses and qualified for the WPRA Mountain States Circuit Finals in 2015. She also finished in the top 15 in that circuit in 2014. Keeping up with the same bloodlines that have worked for her family for decades, "Cece" as her close friends know her, qualified for her circuit finals on a horse named Hanks Lively Bug (Letta Hank Do It - Miss Live Bug, Bugs Alive In 75).
"Our life just revolved around horses and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way," Tharp said. "I remember falling asleep in the booth at diners after rodeos and barrel races and futurities. Those are some great memories." As intimidating as Celie could be to others, Tharp remembers another side. "I mean she had ice-water in her veins for sure," Tharp said, "but I also remember being late all the time because not only did we have to get the horses loaded up and ready to go but we'd have to get the dogs ready and wait on them too."
"She was so fun. I remember we had a lot of fun. But, she was also a stickler for the rules. I was only allowed to ride in cowboy boots and she'd always ask me if I had my boots before we left. One time I forgot my boots and we got to the barrel race and all I had on were tennis shoes, so I wasn't allowed to ride. I remember [the late] Deb Mohon's husband Bubba offering to let me use some extra boots he had but mom wouldn't go for it. She said, 'Nope. That's the rule. She has to ride in her boots and she forgot them so she's not riding.' I wasn't happy then but it's funny now," Tharp laughed.
Celie knew the importance of having fun but she also knew the importance of letting her daughter develop a feel for a good horse at a young age. "I think I was 9 and I was dying to enter the junior class at the BFA (Barrel Futurities of America) in Oklahoma City, where mom was entered in the futurity. So mom relented and let me run Ima Etta Too (Flit Bar - Slash J Harletta, Harlan) and it was this big thing. We worked for months to get ready for my run at OKC. So we get to OKC and I'm just so excited, I wanted a new over and under so bad. So mom bought me a brand new over and under before my run. Then, during my run I end up pulling Etta up because I was too focused on using my new over and under. When I heard my time and came out I realized what I had done and I was so worried mom would be mad. She walked up to me laughing and said 'I should know better than to buy you new stuff before a run!'"
Tharp was not only blessed to ride talent like the futurity stand-out Ima Etta Too, who is a full sister to Firewater Flit, but also got to take the reins of her mom's NFR qualifier I Got Bugs. "Bugsy was very special and I knew it from the time I was a little girl. She let me exercise him and I think I was in the first grade. Well, we got to going a little too fast in the arena and he just took off. I was yelling and making it worse like kids can do and I couldn't get him stopped. Someone finally stepped out in front of us so he would stop and I fell off. I'll never forget that!" Tharp laughed. That someone was Dena Kirkpatrick.
"When mom got sick she gave us strict instructions that Bugsy was never to leave our place. After she passed, I ran Bugsy. It took a while for us to get together but because of him I knew how a good horse needed to feel," Tharp said. "He was just a monster. He was huge and he loved his job. He was one of those neat horses who backed off a little when I was older and started running him so I could get with him. He was so powerful to the first barrel...wow! There was just nothing else like running Bugsy." Bugsy really taught Tharp what it felt like to win as well as lose. "I remember one time we had a bad run and my dad said to me, 'If that had been your mom on Bugsy and they would've had a bad run, Bugsy's head would be on the ground right now.' It's like Bugsy knew, and every horse my mom had trained knew, what exactly was expected of them and they were always trying to please her."
1989 was not only the year Celie qualified for her last NFR and saw her best showing there, but also the year Celie began her final five-year fight with breast cancer. "Celie was such an influential mentor in the barrel racing world. She just demanded respect without having to ask for it," Hurley said. "She loved Mary-Cecelia so much. She was so proud to be a mother," Hurley said. "And she loved animals. I remember seeing dead possums in the road and Celie would say 'Aww poor possum,' as we drove by. At one point, they had peacocks that would roost on top of the horse stalls, so her horses were always desensitized to things like that," Hurley laughed.
Celie's Influence Today
Celie fought her battle but in the end succumbed too young to breast cancer on January 18, 1994 just five days before her 45th birthday. Leaving her legacy as a mother, friend, horsewoman, trainer, and breeder, there is no question the barrel racing industry is better off having had Celie Whitcomb Ray's influence. Through her great mare, Slash J Harletta, Celie's influence is still felt today. Two of Harletta's colts are still major players in the barrel horse industry - Firewater Flit and Letta Hank Do It. Their offspring continue to win and shape the barrel racing landscape by offering horses specifically bred to run barrels.
This revolutionary change in the industry can be felt from the record breaking runs at the 2017 National Finals Rodeo. In the 3rd round of the 2017 NFR Kassie Mowry piloted Firewatermakemehappy (Firewaterontherocks - Junior Country Girl, Deep Note JR) to an arena record of 13.36 (which was broken a minute later by Hailey Kinsel and DM Sissy Hayday, running a 13.11). Firewatermakemehappy is a grandson of Firewater Flit by one of his best performing and producing offspring, Firewaterontherocks. Firewatermakemehappy possesses that cross that Celie saw so much success with - his granddam was a daughter of Bugs Alive in 75.
Celie's presence is still felt at the NFR. Hurley's saddle line, Epic Saddlery, donates a saddle to a NFR barrel racing qualifier each year in memory of Celie Whitcomb Ray.
"Celie really loved a challenge," Kelly Conrado remembered. "Whether it was a challenging horse or challenging situation," he paused, "you know, I think she was at her best in a challenge."
I would like to extend my deepest heartfelt thanks to Libby Hurley-Fogg, Mary Cecelia-Tharp, Kelly Conrado, Vickie Adams, Dena Kirkpatrick, and Kenneth Springer for sharing their time and memories of Celie with me.
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