A foundation of genetics, horsemanship are driving forces of Walz horses
April 5, 2018
A kaleidoscope of skills from jumping, halter, western riding and reining are the secret ingredients in Sonya Walz's barrel horse training and breeding program in Ainsworth, Neb. From northwest South Dakota, Sonya showed horses until making the switch to rodeo in high school.
"In high school I was the rodeo person who went to the horse shows," Walz said. "I became a breakaway roper who did the other events. I absolutely love to rope. We rope on all of our barrel horses because it teaches them to use themselves and helps keep them happy."
Prior to diving into her dream of Walz Performance Horses, Walz was an academic adviser for the University of South Dakota. Her husband Jim sells crop insurance, they each have their own businesses today but are essential to each other's success.
"One horse was never enough for me, I had always wanted to have a horse business to promote," Walz said. "Luckily, I have the type of husband that just told me to go for it about 10 years ago. I wanted to continue helping kids, but I wanted to do my own thing with it. He has his crop insurance, but he is a huge part of the horses too. Without him, I would not be able to keep living my dream every day."
“I love the kids that want to do better, they are very teachable. I like to teach the fundamentals and the thinking part of barrel racing. People tend to forget how much the horsemanship plays into a good barrel pattern. I like to help people better themselves as horsemen, not just to make a good run.”
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Walz now has two studs, 10 broodmares, and a herd of recipient mares for her embryo transfer program. She works her prospects, finished horses and several outside client horses daily. But one of the most rewarding parts of her business are the kids she helps.
"I love the kids that want to do better, they are very teachable," Walz said. "I like to teach the fundamentals and the thinking part of barrel racing. People tend to forget how much the horsemanship plays into a good barrel pattern. I like to help people better themselves as horsemen, not just to make a good run."
Her current stud, Ima Firefighter, was the second horse Walz trained on barrels. She was taking advice from everyone who gave it, leading her to a crossroads in her barrel career. Knowing Lisa Lockhart "for as long as she can remember," Sonya sought her advice.
"Through Lisa, I realized that minor changes make the biggest difference," Walz said. "I decided that I wanted to train barrel horses, not just run them, after feeling the improvement I was capable of accomplishing."
Walz is a student of life, taking every opportunity possible to learn. From refresher classes in reproduction to riding with accomplished trainers and asking questions, she loves to learn.
"I think it is important to know a lot, but also to continue learning," Walz said. "I do not mind telling someone I do not know the answer. That is essentially how I have learned everything so far, I am never afraid to ask questions. There is a big difference between asking a question and asking the right ones though."
Self-described as a "multi-starter," Walz always has several irons in the fire. However, she has the energy and personality to run her business efficiently. She believes there is no point in doing something if you do not intend to do it correctly and with a fiery passion.
"Both Sonya and Jim are busy all the time. Sonya bounces off the walls, she is always doing something," said Lacey Kenner, the Walz's do-it-all assistant. "She loves to learn but also translates that into teaching. If someone is willing to learn, she will take all the time in the world to teach them. And she is really good at it too."
Kenner is a Jack of all trades at Walz Performance Horses and First Crop Insurance, helping Sonya with everything from breeding and cleaning to working horses and traveling.
"Sonya takes pride in everything, she wants to do her best with everything she touches: from her advertising to the appearance of the place," Kenner said. "She knows how to be a professional and everything follows suit. She works 24/7, horses and family are her life."
Sonya and Jim are raising two horse crazy girls: Kieley, 12, and Kinsey, 9. Both run barrels and are learning the ropes of the performance horse business. "The fact that they both love horses and want to be involved, makes my heart swell," Sonya said. "They travel with me all over and compete a lot. The joke always is whether or not my girls are going to beat me at the barrel race."
Taking after their mom on the jumping side of things, the girls can be found making up their own jumping patterns in the pasture next to the arena. Sometimes in their English saddles and other times bareback, a true testament to the foundation of their horsemanship established by their mother.
"A lot of people can ride, but not many can do it well," Walz said. "I think one of the most important things to teach kids is how to ride properly: how to sit, leads, hands, all of it. Not only is it safer for them, but now I can trust Kieley to help me work horses."
The girls' role in the success of the business is continuously evolving as they get older, one of their favorite roles is naming the babies. With a buckskin stud, the number of babies named Spirit is too many to count, Walz joked.
"Brain power is very important to me in a stud," Walz said. "My kids don't handle the studs, but I also cannot keep my eye on them constantly. I have to know that my children are safe. Intelligence and temperament not only help ensure safety, they lead to trainable offspring.
For Walz, Backdraft, registered as Ima Firefighter, a 14-year-old AQHA buckskin stallion, is Walz Performance Horses. He is her once-in-a-lifetime horse.
"He is what started the business really and his babies are what we sell," Walz said. "He is the type of horse that you know is incredible the moment you step in his stall. He is strong, but so sweet and kind."
After a pelvic fracture in July 2016 that should have been fatal, Ima Firefighter has made a full recovery. He is back to being "king of the castle," with offspring winning at all levels: futurity, derby, 1D and WPRA. "With top riders like Taylor Langdon and Taylor Hildreth riding his colts, people are going to recognize Backdraft and the accomplishments of his offspring," Kenner said. "We have people stop by the house all the time just to take a look at the studs, because they have heard about them and just want to see for themselves."
After losing their second stud to plural pneumonia, Walz set out on a long search for the perfect compliment to Ima Firefighter. First Moon Medley, a son of First Moonflash, brings the racing side of barrel horse genetics to Walz's program.
"I am super excited about him, he brings a lot to the table," Walz said. "He wants to please and is very trainable. Both studs are very different, so I have something for everyone.
Sonya's trademarks are honesty and excellent customer service, while always giving 110 percent.
"Whether I am riding your horse, selling you mine or breeding your mare, I try to be honest in a polite way," Walz said. "This ensures that my passion and belief in myself and my products carries over to help others become successful."
—Hall is a freelance writer from Platteville, Colo., when she's not writing she is riding her horse in the mountains. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.