Teri Schulte didn’t go to bed as early as she usually does – for ten consecutive days in December.
That’s because the Center, North Dakota woman was watching barrel racing at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) on television.
She was watching for a dark bay stallion, a horse ridden by Wenda Johnson, as Johnson’s second horse.
That bay, Smoken French Winner, got his start on Schulte’s farm.
After thirty years of breeding and raising horses, ‘Smoke’, as he’s known, was the cross that Schulte had wanted for a long time.
“I really, really liked Smoke N Sparks,” she said of Smoke’s sire, known for his racing and barrel racing progeny.
She had found the baby by Smoke N Sparks at Gerald and Iva Korell’s in Riverton, Wyoming. His daddy had been crossed with a daughter of Frenchman’s Guy, “another bloodline that I absolutely love,” she said. “He was three months old when I found him, and I was like, ‘that’s my horse.’”
Once he was weaned, he came to North Dakota, where Schulte raised him. She let him “be a horse” she said, noting her philosophy is to not run horses until they’re five years old, to allow their bodies to fully mature.
When he was four years old, she sent him to Amanda Welsh. Welsh started him on the barrels, with instructions from Schulte that Welsh couldn’t put any speed on him, or compete on him, until he was five.
While he was at Schulte’s, he was in the pasture breeding mares. “I knew he was a good horse,” she said. “I wanted to see what kind of babies he threw.” If his colts were “knotheads,” as Schulte said, she’d have had him gelded. His colts turned out to be smart, fast, athletic, and very versatile.
When Welsh became pregnant with her first child, the horse went back to Schulte, and after Welsh’s daughter was born, she took him back.
Smoke already showed promise with Welsh; she futuritied him as a late five-year-old, and together they took second at the 2D at the 2014 Colorado Classic.
Several cowgirls looked to ride him, but they didn’t work out. Schulte says Smoke isn’t easy to ride. “He’s extremely powerful, fast, and hard turning, and he can prove to make it difficult to stay in the saddle.”
So, she said she kept him home, riding him, and breeding him.
Then she advertised him, and a woman in Missouri purchased him, who stood him for a couple of years.
Then Christian Shipley, his current owner, bought him. Shipley rode him at barrel races across the region, and the horse began to garner attention.
In November, it was announced that Wenda Johnson, Pawhuska, Okla., would take Smoke to Las Vegas as her second horse for the Wrangler NFR.
Johnson’s main horse, Macgyver Moonflash, a.k.a ‘Mac’, died in late July, so she relied on her gelding Steal Money, ‘Mo’, for the rest of the rodeo season.
Schulte said she figured Smoke would have a chance to run barrels in Las Vegas, so that Johnson could give Mo a break. She says Smoke is very intelligent with an independent spirit and he works best with riders who are quiet, and that includes Welsh and Johnson.
Schulte added that he runs best in a hackamore. “He doesn’t like having a bit in his face. If you start cranking on his face, he’ll fight back. It’s better to not have a bit in his mouth. He just wants people to hang on and don’t fall off,” she said. “You have to stay out of his way.”
He also doesn’t like to be rated. “When he goes in to run, he doesn’t want you pulling on his face or mouth.”
He has his own set of idiosyncrasies according to Schulte. “He can be real particular about stuff,” she said. There were days she hand-fed him, because that’s what he preferred, and he was picky about his feed.
Schulte said she remembers a story about Smoke, when he was at Welsh’s house. The family had cattle, and when the cows came in to drink from the tank, he hated that. “It was his water, and how dare they,” Schulte laughed. “He’d run over there and lay his ears back.”
She also remembers seeing him standing at the back of Welsh’s trailer, which was brushed aluminum plating. “He’d stand there and look at himself in the mirror. He was pretty proud of himself.”
Johnson had a chance to ride Smoke before the Wrangler NFR, winning the open rodeo in Ft. Worth, Texas on November 17, then winning it the second night with an even faster run.
The arena at Cowtown Coliseum in Ft. Worth is small, similar to the Thomas and Mack Arena for the NFR, so it bodes well for the bay.
Schulte says she has loved horses ever since she was a young girl, tagging along with her granddad. She started with race horses via a world finals pro rodeo steer wrestling neighbor, who had race horses.
She has an affinity for the “old race horse breeding.” “To me, you can’t find any better breeding than that,” she said, noting she loves Three Ohs, “anything Three Bars,” Azure Te, Ole Man, Old Tom Cat, King Fritz, Coys Bonanza, Alamitos Bar, “the old running bloods.”
“That was one of the things I liked about Smoke, was he came out of great running bred stuff. Smoke N Sparks was a son of Dash for Perks.” She’s now raising Smoke’s daughters. “I think people are going to start realizing just how nice they are. If he gets a chance to run at the National Finals, people are going to see just how good of a horse he is. He has that ability.”
She said she’s proud to have a horse among the best in the world at the Wrangler National Finals.
“I really wanted to get a horse that could make it, that had what it took to get to the NFR. That was what I wanted to do. And I guess I eventually made it happen.”
Johnson rode Smoke in rounds number seven and eight at the 2023 Wrangler NFR, turning in a time of 13.96 seconds in round seven and 13.82 in round eight.
Ruth Nicolaus is a longtime writer and advocate for the western way of life, traveling the country covering rodeos and the horses and athletes that make the sport. She hangs her hat in Nebraska.