The Youree-Ward Family From Addington, Oklahoma, has shaped the sport of the barrel racing and futurity industries for three generations.
This article first appeared in the Diamond & Dirt Barrel Horse Classic program in 2014. It has been updated.
Dale Youree led his 3-year-old gelding around the makeshift auction ring for the calcutta of the 1971 Texas Barrel Racing Association Futurity.
Quick Juan wasn’t the handsomest of horses and had stepped on himself during practice earlier. Dale had used tape to protect the laceration on the gelding’s front heel.
Between the gelding’s looks and the bandage, they looked like long shots to win the futurity. So with no one bidding, Dale bought himself.
They were the best of the 40 entries that frigid November weekend at the Jack Taylor Arena in Blum, Texas, just south of Cleburne, and they took home the top prize from the $5,315 purse.
“I never will forget that,” said Dale’s daughter Renee Ward. “I was at my grandparent’s house. He walked in with a grin on his face and laid 17 $100 bills on the counter. It wasn’t what he won in the futurity; it was from the calcutta. He said, ‘Look here, Sister. We’re going to start riding these futurity colts.’”
That win was the beginning of three generations of futurity championships, passing from Dale to his son-in-law James Ward to granddaughters Janae Massey, Kylie Weast and Cassie Ambrose.
Dale and Florence Youree didn’t set out to be pioneers in the barrel racing industry; it just happened that way.
Dale grew up riding his father’s racehorses, but always wanted to be a calf roper. World Champion Clyde Burk gave Dale a saddle that he’d won at Madison Square Garden and took him under his wing.
“He was a good roper,” recalled Florence. “He’d always catch, but then would have a little trouble. The calves were really big back then.”
Although the two had met before, the turning point in their relationship came when a tenacious young Florence walked up and asked Dale if she could ride his horse at a rodeo—even though he had another girl with him at the time.
“I had gone to a rodeo, and I wanted to ride in the grand entry. So, I asked him if I could ride his horse. It just went from there,” she laughed. The two were married on February18, 1950.
Florence had ridden all her life, working cattle with her father on their ranch. She started barrel racing as a teenager on ranch horses. As she and her sister Sherry (Johnson) refined their skills and became more competitive, people started to take notice.
“I had this palomino Billy Van horse, named Chubby,” Florence explained. “I trained him, and my sister and I both ran him. We made two runs a night. We weren’t smart enough to know you weren’t supposed to do that, but we did. And we won. He was just a natural, but people went to asking us if we’d train their horse or their kid.”
Dale, who was working for Florence’s father on the ranch at the time, thought it would be a great way to make more money, so they started taking in horses to train. Although he occasionally climbed aboard when Florence was having trouble with a barrel horse, Dale hadn’t yet hung up his rope – he never really did – and hired out as a barrel horse trainer. It wasn’t until Florence had a talented, but lethal shoulder-dropping gelding that Dale made the crossover.
“If I didn’t hit a barrel, I could win a barrel race,” said Florence. “We were at North Platte at the rodeo and Beverly Nutter gave Dale an English riding book. He said, ‘Florence, if this will work on an English horse, it’ll work on a barrel horse.’ That’s when he started using inside rein to flex one away from a barrel to keep them from shouldering. After that it became a challenge to him.”
In the 1960s, the Yourees held some of the first barrel racing clinics and camps.
“We charged $100 a week, and fed them and their horses and taught them,” Florence remembered. Their house was once the boys’ dormitory and the girls stayed in a remodeled schoolhouse. “You could send your kid up here for a month for $400. We did make money, but not a whole lot though it did send us customers for years.”
World Champions like Missy Long and Jackie Jo Perrin rode with the Yourees as did such great trainers as Martha (Tompkins) Jordan, who came back and helped teach at the camp.
Changing The Game
In the 1970s, the Yourees started dabbling in a new type of barrel race that was popping up across the country—futurities. The events were limited to horses ages 4-and-under, making their first competition runs. Winning the 1971 TBRA Futurity was a game changer for the family.
“We thought we’d never see another poor day,” laughed Florence. She too competed in futurities until an accident at Trader’s Village in Grand Prairie, Texas, ended her career.
“I used to train horses and do everything just like he did,” she said. “I had gone over early that morning to a plowed up piece of ground to tune my horse. I started back up the hill and my horse started prancing. I snatched him and he slipped on the wet grass and flipped over on me.”
No one knew how badly she was injured until she and Dale had gone to New Orleans to see a specialist a few weeks later.
“I got to hurting so bad,” she recalled. “They took me to the hospital, and I had a broken vertebra and a crushed vertebra. They did surgery on me right there. That doctor told me, ‘You can’t ride anymore. If this happens again, it could kill you.’ It put a fear in me that I never had before.”
With her competitive career over and with her husband, and later son-in-law, developing championship techniques in this growing facet of the barrel racing industry, Florence would change the game outside of it.
Florence was one of the founding members of the Barrel Futurities of America.
“We formed it down at Trader’s Village. Sue Sistruck was president. I was vice-president and Pat Hutter was the secretary,” said Florence, chuckling about her and Pat’s continued involvement. Florence eventually became president and Pat was the secretary until Carol Arnold took over. “Bless her heart, she hung tough. She’s like me. She’s a goer. She doesn’t want to miss a thing. I was visiting with her the other day, and she said, ‘I guess, we’d have to pay them to let us work now!’”
On September 22, 1983, the up-start association was created to bring continuity to the futurity industry. With more and more events being held across the country, the BFA’s goal was to standardize the format.
“We wanted to have set rules and guidelines so everyone would know how to run a futurity,” said Florence. “Plus, we wanted contestants to know what to expect when they got there—how to pay their fees, what the payout would be and all of that.”
It was a natural fit for Florence, who served in the Girls Rodeo Association—the precursor to today’s Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. She was instrumental in bringing the professional barrel race to the Fort Worth Stock Show and having the barrels included in the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City.
Once the NFR moved to Las Vegas, she offered a BFA event to the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce to fill the void.
“To me that was the ultimate—to have a futurity that big with that much added money,” said Florence of the World Championship Barrel Racing Futurity. It was first held in December 1986. “It gave everyone a goal to work for in the whole association. When I first went to Oklahoma City (with the idea), they were going to add $100,000. Then they backed down to $50,000 and we were going to give a truck. Then they said, ‘How about a trailer?’ Of course, I was begging and I agreed to whatever they wanted to do.”
Today, the BFA’s World Championships, now held in Guthrie, Oklahoma at the Lazy E, is still one of the richest barrel racing events in the country, paying out $1 million.
“I marvel at the things I’ve done with absolutely no education,” mused Florence. “I guess the ‘want to’ was just there.”
The Yourees’ daughter never knew anything different than training and competing. A talented horsewoman herself, Renee won state and national titles in high school before moving on to college, where she met and married James Ward, an all-around hand and collegiate champion.
After making the National Finals Rodeo in 1985, Renee sold her rodeo horse and stayed closer to home with her daughter Janae, who was 3 at the time.
“I still rodeoed some but not like I once did,” said Renee. “I had a little girl and I just felt better at home. I didn’t love the road like some do. I spent my time raising kids and getting her used to her horses and moving her up. That’s what I’ve done all my life—three girls!”
Although she still rode and trained, Renee’s job was training and tuning her three daughters for junior rodeo competition. It was James, instead, that ended up following his father-in-law into the futurity game.
“I was going to go to the NFR several times,” laughed James. “Bareback riding and bull riding is what I had planned on doing. Training barrel horses never crossed my mind.”
When a bronc at a pro rodeo in Red Lodge, Montana, bucked him off, breaking his neck, James was forced to reevaluate his goals and found another calling as a champion barrel horse trainer.
“After I got over my broke neck, I started working with Dale,” he said. “He got me to riding colts and then he got me taking them around the barrels. He’d tell me what to do and when to do it. It wound up being a job.”
In the mid-1980s, partially due to events like the BFA World Championships, the barrel futurity had also changed to where it was possible to make a living training winning futurity horses. Those horses became even more valuable if they were able to continue their winning ways.
Though his personal NFR dreams were over, James made horses that turned that dream into reality for several barrel racers, including his wife and oldest daughter. The first futurity horse James trained, Vaneagles Lil Dude, carried Renee to the NFR, even though an injury forced her to ride Patti Hoffman’s Killian Pacific.
Later on, James sent Janae to the NFR twice with his former futurity champion Cole And Cole, although she ended up riding Jud Little’s Dynas Plain Special in 2003 when Cole was injured.
“When I was training one, especially when we owned it, in my mind, I was training it for one of my kids,” James said. “That’s what I was training for more than the futurities. I knew they were going to futurities, but they were going to have to be good enough for my girls.”
Now, James has left the training side up to the girls, and they may have had an easier time of it than he and Dale had.
The game has changed a little bit, James noted, in that his daughters are training horses with better bloodlines. Unlike the ranch-bred horses they started with, Dale and James turned to ex-racehorses as the sport turned to more speed for a competitive edge. Now, the popular lines are often a marriage between the two.
The March Of Time
“As my husband and dad got older, they quit going to the futurities,” said Renee. “We sat for a little while. The girls were in college. I thought they needed to go through that as a part of growing up. It wasn’t a stipulation, but they knew it was important to me. Yet, here we are, sitting on this old clay hill, training horses.”
After winning the 2003 WPRA World Championship, Janae rodeoed for Jud Little for another year before going to work for Halliburton for four years.
“I worked behind a desk in a cubicle,” said Janae, whose daughter Chazli is continuing the family tradition as a champion barrel racer. “It made me realize how much I did love the horses.”
Although they ride for different owners, all three girls are training barrel horses at the family home place.
The entire family meets at the Youree house every morning for breakfast.
“That’s our family time,” said Janae. “That’s where we sit down at the table and talk, and generally we’re talking about horses. You could ask any of us and that’s one part of the day that none of us would dare miss.”
All three girls know what a blessing it is training with a family of champions.
“The biggest benefit is another set of eyes,” said Kylie, who took the family-raised mare Hell On The Red to the 2019 NFR. “Because of the knowledge we have as a group and as a family, we can sit there and say, ‘I think you’re doing this…’ or ‘I think you should try this…’. You get a different perspective and I think that’s the best thing you could ask for over here.”
They’re also not afraid to horse swap.
“I can put Janae or Kylie or my mom, or even my grandpa, on a horse, if I’m having trouble,” said Cassie. “This is my comfort zone. There’s no other place I’d rather be training.”
In spite of all their collective knowledge, Dale has always encouraged the girls to never stop learning and honing their craft.
“He taught us to never quit learning,” said Cassie, who worked at a bank for a year before turning to training barrel horses. “He’s sat us down many a time and asked us, ‘Did you read this?’ or ‘Did you watch this?’ ‘I think we need to try this.’ We try to incorporate other things that we see into our program and see if they’ll work for us.”
Still, the best advice comes from the hill.
“It’s complete family involvement,” said Janae. “We’re not lacking help. My mom is usually horseback. She rides with us every day. My dad, all it takes is us asking, and he’ll go to a jackpot with us and watch.
“When it warms up, Florence Youree is still in charge of the camera. She’s filmed me my entire life, and even at 80, she’ll come to the jackpots in the summer and film. That’s what we do, we all go to the jackpot, she films, we come home and all sit in the living room and watch film on what we did that worked or didn’t work on colts.
“My grandfather can sit on his porch and watch where we ride. Now that we all have cell phones, you’ll be riding and you’ll get a call on your phone. You better stop and answer it. He’ll say, ‘Sister, I believe…’ He’ll tell us what he’d be trying or he’d be doing. That’s the best gift. I wish I could record those phone calls and save them. I know one day I’m going to wish I got that call.”
Sadly, that day came on January 27, 2022, when the great Dale Youree passed away at age 93. He and Florence were a few weeks shy of celebrating their 72nd wedding anniversary.