I first met Hailey Kinsel back in 2018 when she agreed to let me interview and photograph her for a cover feature for the December 2018 issue of COWGIRL. I remember traveling from Arizona to the outskirts of Cotulla, Texas, where the budding superstar barrel racer lived with her parents. I was at once struck by her calmness and confidence as she contemplated her approach to the forthcoming National Finals Rodeo later that year. I was also impressed with the big yellow horse she calls Sister.
Hailey and Sister came out on top with the world championship title at that 2018 NFR, making it the first win in a triumphant escapade to three consecutive world championship wins. She is now poised to make it four in a row, going into the 2021 event ranked number one with more than $100,000 in earnings.
I caught up with Hailey just after she finished competing in the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo to talk about her road to victory and the impending 2021 NFR. That same calmness and confidence pervaded our conversation. Hailey Kinsel is everything you would expect from a disciplined and consummate professional athlete with the added layers of kindness, calm, and perseverance.
KA: Hi Hailey! How are you doing?
HK: I’m great, I’m feeling good. I’m wrapping up my summer trip. I’m probably going to be home in the next couple of weeks. Thanks to my awesome horse, she’s allowed me to be able to do that. We’ve had a great summer and can close off a little earlier.
KA: Your first-time win in Cheyenne. What was that like?
HK: Cheyenne’s such a cool rodeo, just because of the history of it being around for so long. The nostalgia of running at the ‘Daddy of ‘Em All’ and all the great horses that have won there. The horses that do well there really embody the toughness and the grit. It’s such a strange setup. It’s a weird arena. The ground is really strange as well as a feel that a lot of horses don’t just love. It also changes a lot throughout the course of the couple of weeks, due to the changing weather and other things that they do. We start out in a slack before anything happens and then by the end of the week, they’ve had concerts with stages and thousands of people in there. So with those changing factors, you need a horse that can be very responsive and very adaptable.
Thankfully, my horse is very much that. I’ve always wanted to give Cheyenne a good chance, and this is my year to do it. Normally, the first round of Cheyenne is either the day after or right around that shootout round in Calgary, where it pays a hundred thousand dollars. With that kind of money up there, I just told myself anytime I made the final four round at Calgary, I was going to turn out at Cheyenne and not ask her to drive 17 hours and jump out and make another run in Cheyenne. So I’ve turned it out the last couple of years due to having so much success in Calgary.
Then of course, last year, both those rodeos canceled. So this year with the restrictions on Calgary, I chose to go to Cheyenne instead and give that a good chance and Sis said, “No problem. How about this one?”
KA: Cowboy Christmas was good to you. How did that shake out?
HK: It was really fun. I didn’t enter a ton of rodeos. I tried to really just focus on Sis and go to the rodeos I wanted to run her at. If I wanted to give her a day off, I could get on a backup horse, but I really didn’t drive out of the way for any rodeos that weren’t specifically for her. At least that was my intention when I entered. So, that means a few less rodeos than some might try and make. I focused on where I could get the best draws because this year with so many entries, the draws really do matter. I had some good draws and went to five rodeos over the week of the 4th of July. The only one I didn’t have success at was Oakley, Utah, and she just overturned the first barrel and I pulled up. I won a rodeo and placed second at two others, and they were the largest one-headers of the week. So with that much money up for us, I got to go and make one run on her for a lot of money and put all my eggs in the Sis basket on those big rodeos and it worked out.
KA: Is everything going according to plan at this point?
HK: I would say so. I definitely had a big plans for the summer when it came to going to Reno and Cheyenne for the first time in four years. Knowing that those aren’t rodeos I’m normally super comfortable at, same with St. Paul, I’d never been to St. Paul and just having to ask myself to be a little more confident in my horse and my own abilities to show up in a new place and still be able to win, since we weren’t able to go back to all of our normal comfort zone rodeos. So, it worked out pretty well, I would say definitely according to plan.
KA: What does success look like between now and NFR?
HK: Before the summer started, my goal was to be in the top 15 and give myself a good chance to make the NFR. Now that we can check that off and know we have a confident spot at the NFR in December, I want to go into the finals giving myself a chance to win the World. I just want to be in striking distance. Of course, with the NFR paying so much, you have to have a good finals. No matter what kind of leads you go in with, you still have to do well there. So, my focus now becomes how do I start to think about preparing her for a wonderful December and having her absolutely spot-on ready for the Thomas & Mack?
I’m really grateful for her ability to put me in a good position the last four years in a row. Now I’m going into that really comfortable spot where I can back off a little bit at the end of the year mark around September and just focus on preparing her for the Thomas & Mack. That’s when that preparation starts. A lot of people are having to stay out a little longer and go to the Northwest and have a lot of things they have to do just to try and make the NFR. I’m lucky to not have to be in that position. So we can just shift our focus to December.
KA: Having to navigate a minefield of restrictions and canceled events, and this colossal move of the NFR to Globe Field in 2020, what is the last 12 months or the last year been like for you?
HK: It was a very rocky, questionable year. You had to get really comfortable being uncomfortable and comfortable with the unknown. For one thing, when we first started out in the summer, there was still talk that there would not be an NFR at all, anywhere. I went into the summer either first or second. I was high up in the world standings. I’d had a really great winter before everything canceled. So going into the summer, I looked at it from an efficiency standpoint of, I have a great horse and I should go and run her at some rodeos because that’s what we love to do and that’s what we do for a living.
However, I do need to make money. And so I wasn’t going to go broke trying to make the NFR because there was a small chance that we wouldn’t have an NFR to make. Keeping that in mind, that was what we looked at going into the summer. Then there’s talk of an NFR and you’re looking at your world standings like, “Hey, I’m in a good spot. No problem.” Just be comfortable going in, in that striking position.
Then of course, when they decided to go to Globe Life Field in Arlington, we’d heard all sorts of thoughts about where it might be. I can’t say for sure that I ever was worried about my horse in any setup. I remember thinking about all the different possibilities and just thinking, “Yeah, she’ll be great wherever.” I knew I would have a chance wherever we went, because that’s the kind of horse she is.
KA: You’ve had three consecutive titles. What would a fourth time in a row win mean to you?
HK: It would be amazing. I mean, it’s of course a goal when I get to be in this position in a good spot going into finals, to come away with the win. It’s one of those things that you have to remind yourself, it’s not the beginning or the end to win the gold buckle. It’s just part of it and if it happens, that’s wonderful and, if not, we’re still going to be content. It gives me something to be excited about, something to put in your best effort for. When you have a big goal in front of you, it’s only a better driving force to get better and to reach those heights. I do think she is more than capable of another one.
KA: How has Sister evolved in the last four years of heightened competition?
HK: She’s evolved a lot. She’s actually changed so much over the years. I would say only improved. We can’t really say faster or slower, but improved as a whole, as a horse. She has matured a lot. She’s gotten a lot stouter than the first time people saw us run when she was six at the American or even the Thomas & Mack in December, when we ran the 13.11 and 13.17, she was a lot smaller of a horse. She’s gotten really stout, filled out. So to me, she feels a lot stronger to ride. She feels like riding a four-wheeler nowadays.
She’s very, very gritty. In all these years of rodeoing, she’s never once fallen down. She may slip, but she’ll pin her ears and try harder. She’s never had a major injury in all of her years of life in competing. That speaks a lot for her own self-preservation, but also her soundness and just how she’s built. She’s just a really well-built horse. So some things like that, we’re happy to keep constant. She stayed good minded. She stayed very spooky, that hasn’t changed. We have to see an arena before we perform in it, or she will snort all the way to the barrel. So, for her to go on and continue to perform at this level is awesome to me because it’s not like she just goes in completely blind and ignoring all the stuff. She sees every bit of it and notices every bit of it and performs in spite of it.
KA: How have you evolved over the last four years?
HK: Well, I would say I hope I’ve gotten wiser over time. I know I’ve worked on my own patience and my own ability to be uncomfortable and be okay with that. When you’re in a winning position, things feel very in control. When you’re not having the best of luck, whether you’re not drawing well, or you’re waiting for better rodeos to roll around and you’re sitting at home watching everyone else go and chip away, but you know it’s not in your game plan, you have to learn to be comfortable. That’s something I’ve worked on over the years and feel like I’m getting better at. It comes heavily with a trust in God, as well as a trust in your horse and your own abilities of what you can do at some point when it’s your time to go. Just working on those little things, at the patience to wait for the rodeos that you know your horse will excel at, as opposed to try and get her every single one, thinking that you need to get an edge.
KA: Your family. How are they feeling about all of this great success?
HK: They’ve been mostly just above all else, supportive and helpful in all ways. They’ve been that constant. I can say, I hope I haven’t changed as a person due to success, but I know they haven’t. That’s something that we’ve all learned and we’ve all grown through these experiences. But I know, I can say for a fact, they are still the same kind and humble people that they’ve always been. That helps me stay focused on the kind of person I want to be.
KA: Did you miss the Thomas & Mack? Are you looking forward to going back there?
HK: Absolutely. Vegas is its own animal and it really feels like the NFR. I did love Arlington and would not complain if it went back to Arlington one bit. Closer to home for me, closer for family and all, as well as my horse tends to excel any pattern, any building. But with that said, I do think that the NFR has a Vegas feel about it and Vegas feels like the NFR when you’re there. You know why you’re there, and a round win feels like round win at the finals and it just has its own feel to it. I’m excited for those who will get to experience it this year that maybe didn’t get to last year if their first finals was in Arlington. I hope that those get a chance to go to Vegas as well.
Vegas does present more obstacles as a barrel racer. The alleyway is a lot more dangerous and without a drag. I would be disappointed if they continue that tradition, but we’ll just have to wait and see and do our best to convince them to do that halfway drag, because that was the biggest bonus we took away from Arlington, for sure.
KA: Any thoughts going into 2022?
HK: I really don’t look that far ahead other than I’m excited about the colts I have coming up. I’m excited about the young horses that I have. I’m currently building myself a house. Maybe I should say Sister’s building it, which is really exciting. Sister is 10 and has never had any issues at any time. So, that’s really awesome that I can probably count on her being around and us doing this thing for a while. Hopefully that includes next year and we’ll just play it by ear until then.