World renowned barrel horse trainer and competitor Lance Graves hails from Hartshorne, a small town in Oklahoma. From humble beginnings Graves rose to win some 28 World and International Championship barrel racing titles enroute to nearly two million in lifetime earnings. Graves and his team, known as LG and Company, also host and produce the annual Lance Graves International Championship Barrel Race each Valentines week at the iconic Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla.
“I began barrel racing at a young age. It’s an amazing sport, fun and excitement the entire family can enjoy. I have dedicated my life to the promotion and advancement of the sport. A big part of that has been to introduce our event to new people of different disciplines,” Graves explained.
Graves has won championships in almost every barrel racing and breed organization in existence. He even parlayed his love of barrel racing into an Extreme Mustang Makeover Slot Barrel Racing Championship in Alvarado, Texas, with Mustang Sally and was third in America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred Makeover barrel race with rescued claimer Rodeo Buckle for the Retired Racehorse Project in Lexington, Ky. So, where would a man like Graves go next to promote barrel racing and reach new audiences? Enter Wilburton, Oklahoma’s Mark Ward, a highly decorated National Championship Chuckwagon Racer and long-time friend of Graves.
“Some girls had posted on social media, joking they thought LG could win a barrel race even if he was riding a mule. So, I just told him I had a couple of mules if he wanted to try out the theory,” says Ward.
Mark is not your everyday muleskinner. He, along with his wife Bobbi, and father-in-law Bobby Dean Hill, and brother-in-law Travis Hill, along with the Oklahoma Gang, have hosted the What About Bob chuck wagon races for the last nine years at the Ward Ranch just outside of Wilburton. “Bobbi has ridden with Lance for years, and been all over the country barrel racing with him. Lance is the kind of guy that is always up for a challenge and we all thought it would be fun to try a team of my former championship chuck wagon racing mules and see what could be done with them in the barrel pen,” Ward commented.
Wards team included It’s Hawk Two, a 2005 model and her younger sister, Eye Hawk Three, born a year later. Purchased in 2008, the team began their chuck wagon racing career in late 2009, but it was 2010 that proved to be their banner year. The team won 14 races and were the ACRRA Champions, the MCRA Champions, and the 2010-2011 team of the year. Eye Hawk Three sustained an injury and she and her sister were turned out and What About Bob continued racing with their other teams.
Ward said, “I thought they would be the perfect pair to attempt to cross over into barrel racing. They are granddaughters of noted AQHA race horse sire, Mr. Eye Opener. I knew they could run a little bit and had quite a bit of life experience. I hoped that would give Lance a head start, but the only problem was they had been a driving team and hadn’t been used under saddle. We had 45 days of riding put on them and then sent them to Lance to do his thing. It didn’t take long until things started shaping up and they began learning a second career.”
“It’s easy for me to respect a talented athlete of any kind. I knew these mules were already champions in their first discipline. As a trainer this is exactly how I approached them; with the respect a champion deserves. I felt a connection early on with Two, the older and smaller of the sisters. She is smart and I think I amuse her,” Graves laughed. “For whatever reason, Two is always interested in what I have to say. She has allowed me to teach her the skills she needs to be able to maneuver the barrel racing and pole bending patterns at a high rate of speed. I called Mark and told him I felt like the younger sister, Three was the bigger, stronger athlete, but it was Two that wanted to be my partner and wanted to please me. I told Mark to find us a barrel race and let’s see what we had.”
The race they found to debut their team was the 2016 Donkey and Mule Congress in Tulsa, Okla.
“We really had no idea what to expect when we entered; it was their first show and anything could happen. We had to give them the opportunity to start somewhere,” said Ward.
Younger sister Three drew first in the running order and her performance was anything but desirable. Three was terrified! She turned the first barrel, spooked, ducked left, and headed back out the gate,” laughed Graves. “Fortunately big sister Two was last in the draw and we had a few minutes to get ourselves together. Two was pretty unsure of herself, but she has a lot of trust in me. When they called her in I asked her for her best effort and she gave it.”
Lance and Its Hawk Two won the Championship by daylight and her second career was off and running! Literally! The team had a long break due to both the Ward chuck wagon racing schedule and Lance’s racing commitments at Remington Park. It was actually a year later at the 2017 Donkey and Mule Congress before they made their next appearance.
“We had some time before this show, so we introduced pole bending to our girl’s schedule. Two won dual championships in both Open Barrel Racing and Open Pole Bending, while Three stepped up for reserve in both events,” stated Graves.
“Both mules worked great at Tulsa. This time we didn’t want to give them another break, so we began looking for other shows to enter and compete. That is when we found their next competition, the Fort Worth Stock Show,” said Ward.
The mules didn’t disappoint in Texas either. Its Hawk Two won Open Barrel Racing and Pole Bending Championship, while Eye Hawk Three won reserve championship titles in both events.
From there the team traveled south to the Houston Livestock Show for what would be the best (and worst) show yet for the MW/LG group.
“I train and ride AQHA race horses. While schooling a filly in the starting gates she flipped over backwards and stepped on my head and back when she was getting up. Luckily, I was wearing my helmet and safety vest. The filly broke my T8-T9-T10 and T-11 ribs. I had seven days to get ready for Houston. Mark and Bobbi are friends, not just clients. Bobbi told me to rest and recover and she would just scratch the mules. I declined and told them I had a week to rest and I would be fine to race them both,” Graves explained.
“The show started out successfully with Two winning Open Barrel Racing, and Three chasing close behind. But, I was really feeling the four broken ribs after I made the first two barrel runs, said Graves.
“I was up on Three first in the draw of the pole bending. She made a decent run, but was really hitting the ground hard with her front feet when she was turning. She really jarred my ribs and I was really in a lot of pain. I had about 15 minutes before Two would compete, as she was last in the draw. I knew Two was going to give me her all and I owed it to her to give her the best I had in me. So, I cinched up the body brace I was wearing, and when they called my name I sent her,” Graves related.
Two and LG won Open Pole Bending Championship and posted their personal best time ever. As a bonus, the pair was named HLSSR Mule and Gymkhana All Around Speed Champion.
“We feel like their career as speed event mules is just beginning. I’m so fortunate to be able to compete and train for a living, and blessed to have great friends like Mark and Bobbi Ward to enjoy these great animals with me. Our next event was the PtHa Long Ear World Championship show June 21, where both mules competed in Open Barrel Racing and Open Pole Bending,” Graves said.
The Ward team of Its Hawk Two and Eye Hawk Three competed at the above show in Tulsa. Lance and Two held the line to remain undefeated in the mule competition by gathering dual World Championships in both Open Barrel Racing and Open Pole Bending.
“I’m so proud of Two! She was really focused and laid down super nice runs. One thing I always count on her to do for me is to go FAST and she really ran when I asked her,” stated Graves. Three also had a great show and won two Reserve World Championship titles. Ward commented, “We always have a great time when we are all together with the mules. The fact they win a little is just icing on the cake for us. We really appreciate the PtHa for including the Long Ear Registry in their world championship show. We can’t wait until next year!”
Graves said, “We are happy to have had the opportunity to compete with many great cowboys and cowgirls at the shows. None of this could be possible without our amazing sponsors…Best Ever Saddle Pads, Sooner Exiss Trailers, Cowgirl Tuff-B Jeans, Zesterra and Bluebonnet Feeds.”