Mary Burger is making history –again.
The Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) barrel racer set a new record for regular season earnings as of Aug. 8 with nearly two months left before the season ends on Sept. 30. She surpassed the record of $184,567 set by Lindsay Sears in 2008.
She and her buckskin gelding SadiesFamousLastWords that she calls Mo have won more money than any other rodeo contestant in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association or the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association. In fact, she leads the race for this year’s number one back number by nearly $30,000 and it is unlikely that any other rodeo contestant will be able to unseat her on the last leg of the season.
In 2006 she set a record as being the oldest world champion in the WPRA and was the second oldest in the history of rodeo at 58. In 1953, 59-year-old Ike Rude won the steer roping world championship. This year Mary will enter the NFR as the oldest qualifier at 68 years young. She just celebrated a birthday last month. The previous record for oldest qualifier was set by June Holeman in 2005 who was 62-years-old.
Mary’s journey to becoming one of the most respected and admired barrel racing trainer and competitor in the industry started when she was a youngster. She grew up in Indiana and as a child she was diagnosed with Perthes disease, a rare condition where there is disruption of blood flow to the ball of the femur. Because of this Mary had difficulty walking, so her father bought her a pony. She took to that pony like a duck takes to water and they were soon a fixture at every 4-H horse show in the area.
Mary’s horse show career continued after 4-H. She started showing at AQHA shows where she also excelled winning nine world championships. Along the way, she met and married her husband Kerry who is a well-respected farrier. They had two boys and in the 1980s moved to Pauls Valley, Okla., where they still live today.
Training horses all along the way, Mary’s love for speed and talent found her some winners on the futurity circuit. It wasn’t long until she was adding rodeos to her resume. The horse that she won her first WPRA title on was a sorrel gelding named Rare Fred who was 12 years old at the time. While Mary trained and rode Fred, he was actually owned by Ron Martin from California.
When she found Mo, again as a two-year-old, the decision made to buy him was quick and definitive and this time the registration papers went to Mary. Mary was 62 at the time and was too busy with other horses and projects so she sent him out for 30 days of his initial training. From then on it has been all Mary and Mo.
To say that this horse is turning into a phenomenal barrel racing athlete is an understatement. Their success this year is unsurpassed with huge wins at a big indoor rodeo (Houston) and an even bigger outdoor rodeo (Calgary, Alberta) and a lot of checks in between. At just seven years old, Mo hasn’t even hit his prime and for those of us that watch this duo, it’s hard to imagine them getting even better.
“The sky is the limit with him,” Mary said. “As an eight or nine-year-old, he should be a little more solid and more mature. He started running even harder last spring and summer. I don’t think he even knew that he could run harder. He just covers the ground so easily.”
Mary’s confidence in Mo and in all of the horses that she has ridden comes from hours spent in the saddle and spending time with the horses so she knows their characteristics backward and forward. She starts them all in pole bending to teach them basic skills and get a handle on them, and focuses on control. As they progress, she teaches them the barrel pattern. That pattern is set up in an open field with no fence around it.
“I want them to pick out a barrel without a wall,” she explained. “It seems like you can train them outside and come inside and it’s not quite as big of a transition.”
With that in mind, I wondered how this dynamic duo was going to prepare for the small arena and close walls at the Thomas and Mack Center. It’s safe to say that Mary won’t be putting up panels to mimic the NFR like many of the timed event contestants do.
She, Mo and her husband Kerry are back in Pauls Valley and staying close to home until the NFR. She will be riding Mo and going to a few rodeos to keep him tuned up, but he is getting a good rest after a busy spring and summer. They may make the two-hour trip south to run at the Cowtown Coliseum in Fort Worth just to get him in the swing of smaller pens again. It all depends on Mo and how he is feeling.
Knowing how a horse is feeling and figuring out what is best for them to keep them performing and how to prepare them is a gift. Mary’s relationship with Mo is built on trust and confidence.
“He knows what his job is and he loves it,” she said. “He and I are both kind of confident when we come down the alley. He knows he’s going to run the barrel pattern and his mind set is pretty much the same no matter what. I’ve got him to where he really listens to me. If I say whoa he knows we’re not going to go. I talk to him until I get him where I want him, and then he knows when we are ready to go.”
When Mary purchased Mo, he was still a stallion and was unbroken. She knew that he had talent but never expected this kind of success. She took her time with him preparing him for the rigors of the rodeo arena hoping she would get to compete at the NFR again. She told me that Mo is seven going on two and that he has a very playful attitude.
The buckskin gelding is full of himself and when they are in the warm up pen, he is known to do some prancing, dancing and maybe even throw in a little buck or two. She works to get him to keep all four feet on the ground and focus on the task at hand.
“He’s a happy horse,” she said. “He thinks life is full of cherries.”
That attitude will serve them well as they make 10 consecutive runs in Las Vegas. Adding new ground at the Thomas and Mack Center will make it better for all of the barrel racers. “With the money and prestige that goes with the NFR, I’m very excited,” she added.
When Mary and Mo enter this year’s NFR, she will be wearing the Number 1 back number having won the most money during the regular season of all rodeo contestants. In fact, she has a nearly $30,000 lead over saddle bronc rider Jacobs Crawley. Mary has won $187,527 with the season nearing the end.
There are a lot of people that are excited to see them run in Las Vegas. Mary and Kerry have two sons Todd and Joey. Joey is married to P.J. Burger who has been Mary’s traveling partner. Joey and P.J. have a daughter Kaden who is nine and is starting to compete in National Little Britches Rodeo Association. It’s not surprising that one of Kaden’s favorite things to do is come ride with “Meemaw.”
It’s likely that all of these family members will be watching the NFR from the edge of their seats in the Thomas and Mack. Mary’s four siblings didn’t take to horses like she did, but they will be glued to the television for those 10 nights in December cheering on their sister. While a gold buckle isn’t the first thing on Mary’s mind, her family, friends and fans are hoping she leaves with a second one.
“I don’t really think about it,” she said of winning a world title. “I try to win money every time we come through the alleyway. Those things don’t pressure me. I want to do good and whatever happens happens. I’m just tickled with anything I get.”
If it all goes well, Mary and Kerry will have major decisions to make about how to use their money after a successful NFR. Kerry’s big splurge so far this year has been a Polaris Ranger. He is five months older than Mary and even though he has cut back, he still stays busy as a farrier. He will be on hand making sure that Mo’s feet are well taken care of in Las Vegas.
Mary’s story is far from finished and with her success this year, she has inspired many people. There is not even the thought of retirement for the Burgers and they are already making plans for next year. Always humble, Mary doesn’t often think about that.
“Hearing it is believing it,” she said. “If I inspire someone to get up off the sofa and do something that’s wonderful.”
So what keeps her inspired?
“I just do what I love to do,” she said.