We’re talking about the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and why barrel racers are flocking to its historic gates for the Ruby Buckle race and more.
If you drive down I-35, just south of downtown Guthrie, Oklahoma, and follow the winding country roads, you’ll come upon a sprawling campus of barns, arenas, and greenery that is seemingly hidden out in the middle of nowhere. That beautiful oasis is home of the Lazy E Ranch and Arena, a facility that has won over the love of some of the top barrel racers in the world.
In 1984, construction of “the E” was completed just in time to host the National Finals of Steer Roping in conjunction with the National Finals Rodeo down the road in Oklahoma City. The NFR moved the following year to Las Vegas, but the NFSR stayed rooted at the E. For the next few decades, the E came to be known in the rodeo industry as a home of high-dollar roping and cowboy events.
The E has remained a popular destination for rodeos such as the National Little Britches Finals, which it gained in 2016, and the International Finals Rodeo, which moved to the E in 2020.
Oklahoma barrel racers have known about the perks of running at the Lazy E for years, as they had hosted a slew of smaller productions, but in the past several years, the venue has gained explosive popularity after hosting events like the Barrel Futurities of America (BFA) World Championship, Lance Graves International race, and the Pink and Ruby Buckle races. Hosting major barrel racing events fits the ranch like a glove since the E stands multiple Pink and Ruby Buckle stallions.
With the upcoming Ruby Buckle Race scheduled for the last week of April, the question resurfaces: What is it about this arena and ranch that has such a firm hold on the rodeo industry, and why have barrel racers staked a claim at the E with some of their highest-paying races in the history of the sport?
1. Location, Location, Location
“People said the E won’t be able to get big events because it’s so far off the interstate and out in the country,” said Dan Wall, General Manager and Vice President of the Lazy E. “But it’s a good thing we’re four miles off the interstate. The Lazy E offers a privately owned, single, gated entrance to the property; a lake; and a safe, family-friendly environment. We just started promoting and selling that. If you’re going to spend five days or a week living in your trailer, would you rather do it downtown? Or, would you rather go camp on grass, close to your stall where you can cook out, fish and trail ride?”
The staff at the E take pride in making their facility a destination. The town of Guthrie sits nearly centered in the continental United States, making it accessible for contestants from both coasts. Just watch out for the futurity trainers during the BFA events—Brian Wheeler, Jason Willis, and Ty Marks were involved in a bet during the 2021 event and had to jump in the E’s lake after the $uper $takes.
2. Size Matters
“We have 584 regular stalls, but we fit up to 1200 for the BFA. The other events have 800-900, so we bring in temporary infrastructure for those. We have almost 800 RV hookups—usually we use 300-400 for the bigger events,” said Jessica Johnson, Director of Events at the Lazy E.
With 10 acres alone dedicated to RV spots, barrel racers can take advantage of the sprawling campus at the E to have some space and privacy, even during some of the nation’s biggest events.
The ability to handle growth was at the forefront of Lance Robinson’s—owner of the Pink and Ruby Buckle incentives—concerns when picking a home for his events.
“As our numbers grow, we need a facility that can handle that growth. They handle the volume of contestants in a really good way,” Robinson said. “There’s plenty of room and you aren’t crammed together. You’ve got elbow room. Physically, it’s a great facility.”
The E is a smart location for barrel races like the Ruby Buckle, which already boasts 620 pre-entries in the April Open, and 307 in the Futurity pre-draw. Not only is there space at the E, there is also a large, covered warm-up pen with consistent footing and plenty of grass for walking horses and allowing them to unwind between runs. This is a welcome sight for can chasers who are accustomed to concrete jungle-style arenas set within city limit confines.
The arena itself is even big at the E. Barrel racers can get the best of both worlds by allowing their horses to stretch out on a unique pattern, while staying dry and comfortable inside.
“A lot of producers choose to set the arena for a standard pattern. Standard patterns are really common out in the Northwest, but not so much in the central or Eastern parts of the country. We can run a standard pattern inside, still have a warm-up area, and space for vendors on the floor,” said Johnson.
3. The Dirt
Another reason that the E attracts many barrel racers isn’t just the impressive size of the arena, it is what’s below their horse’s feet.
“We’re unique in that we’re 100 percent dirt. We do not have a concrete base. We had a primarily clay-based ground and we’ve slowly added sand throughout the years. We started by adding a lot of sand, and now just add subtle amounts when we need it,” said Johnson.
The Lazy E Arena is proud of the fact that it is just that–a permanent arena with nothing but dirt as far down as you can dig. This means that the dirt can be worked as deep as needed without fear of hitting a hard pan or concrete. Leland Smith has been working the Lazy E arena dirt since 2006 and knows how to make it appropriate for barrel racers of all skill levels, and horses of all experience levels.
“That’s what’s so cool about the E. It’s such versatile ground that you can do any event there. For those futurity horses, you want it to really hold them because they don’t have their foot placement perfected. There’s a lot of clay, and what we call river bottom sand—the red stuff—that helps it hold together well. On the standard pattern, horses get to running so hard and get their motor going–it’s pretty unreal that their ground holds up as well as it does. It just seems to hold everybody,” Smith said.
It isn’t just tradition and guesswork that goes into the soil. The E staff sends their dirt to Kaiser labs at multiple times annually to make sure that the science is supporting their ground efforts to create a safe and even playing field, no matter the event. The staff also ensures that the arena is cared for throughout each week, whereas many facilities pack their arenas and let the ground sit idle between events.
4. Keepin’ it cool
Not only does the Lazy E Arena boast an all-dirt foundation and impressive dimensions, but it is also climate controlled. This means that no matter what Oklahoma weather is thrown at contestants, the ground can stay moist and protected from the outside elements. It also means that contestants don’t have to stress about their hands freezing up in windy Oklahoma winters or sweating through their western shirts on hot days.
Not only is it more comfortable on the riders and horses, but the climate-controlled building means that the ground in the arena has less chance of drying out too quickly and its consistency remains even.
“It’s so important to keep that ground consistent so that your first horse has the same opportunity to be fast as your last horse of the day,” Smith said. “With the climate control, your ground holds moisture so much better and doesn’t dry out. The Lazy E also has fans in there, so you can control how much moisture is coming out there, too.”
5. Private Party
One of the reasons that Lazy E’s popularity has surged in the last several years and had the ability to host massive events like the National High School Finals Rodeo was its ability to operate independently from rigid city and state guidelines. The E hosted the first rodeo event after the 2020 COVID-19 shutdowns, a PBR special that was televised without a live audience, in April 2020 to prove that they could safely produce events while keeping their full-time staff employed through a dark time in world history. In a 2020 interview, General Manager Dan Wall made the following statement.
“It’s nothing to take lightly when we’re talking about the impact this pandemic has had on people’s lives and the economy. But when we handle our sanitation and cleaning properly and give people the chance to social distance, we feel comfortable we can go forward and meet every local, state and federal requirement. We take a 7,200-capacity building and scale it down to 2,000 people to allow for a six-foot radius around an individual. Campers can spread out over 134 acres. All of that puts us in a situation, combined with state and local government support, to get back to work and life as close to normal as possible.”
During 2020, the E became known as a kind of saving grace for cowboys and cowgirls. The venue represented the epitome of a facility that dedicated themselves to protecting their guests, employees, and the public, without stripping away rodeo athletes’ ability to make a living.
“There aren’t many private facilities who can do what they do,” Robinson said. “They don’t have city, county, or state government involved in their leadership, so they can do what they think is best. “
6. Dream Team
“The Lazy E team is relatable. We all live and breathe the industry. We’re competitors, we’re producers, we care. That’s what sets us apart,” said Johnson.
Those in charge at the E don’t wear suits or heels to work, but rather keep their cowboy hats and boots on in their daily lives as well as in their career lives. On staff there are barrel racers, ropers, mounted shooters, and cow horse representatives on the team, and they are all passionate about using their event knowledge to provide a top-tier experience for athletes and spectators.
“The people are over-the-top good at the Lazy E, from the grounds to the top. They’ll ask 25 times a day, ‘What do you need? What can we do to help you?’ They’re service oriented and act like our events are their events.” Robinson said.