By: Joyce Whitis
James Barton stood at the pasture fence watching the handsome sorrel grazing the lush green coastal grass. The three-year-old filly had been a wedding gift from his wife, Emily, EMS Lethal Weapon. She was beautiful to look at and had the breeding to make a champion roping horse, but so far James had had little success with her training. She just didn’t seem to understand that she could run, and yet he felt that everything about her was an indicator of a great roping horse. If she would just run, he thought to himself. Training her had been fun, she was a quick learner, but she just wouldn’t run after a calf released from a chute. James was patient, and he kept up the training, hoping to one day see his horse do what he knew she was capable of.
The next day James had Mia as they called her, in the training pen, the calf was released and suddenly, as if a light had just snapped on in her head, Mia ran after the calf as if her life depended upon it! That moment was the beginning of a successful career as a roping horse so that she won the junior tie-down roping event at the Fort Worth Stock Show in 2001, just a year later.
James and Emily were gratified to witness the transformation in Mia. It was as if she had finally said, “I get it! I can run.”
James had been successful with his training program, which gave him the confidence to launch a career into something that he loved. He and Emily named the business Barton Performance Horses and went to work.
James is a Scottsdale, Arizona native and as a calf roper was recruited by Bob Doty to come to Tarleton State University in Stephenville and join the TSU Rodeo Team. James attended TSU on an academic scholarship and there he met Emily Houston competing in cutting horse events. As a college student, Emily was listed several times on the AQHA Honor Roll that is published yearly. In addition, this “horse woman” has been a multi-time AQHA non-pro division finalist at all NCHA and ACHT events. James and Emily are a perfect fit for each other.
James and Emily graduated in 1999 and were married soon afterward. They settled down on a small tract on the edge of Stephenville and began their life together. James took a job as a stockbroker, but in 2002 his skill in training roping horses attracted enough clients that he gave up the regular job and began working full time doing what he loved – training roping horses.
After about eight years the Bartons had outgrown the 20 acres where they had their operation. Tommy Houston, Emily’s dad, invited the couple to move to his ranch near Bluff Dale. They built a home on the ranch and the barns, pens, and an arena that James needed for his horse training operation. Their children attend school at the local facility where James is President of the school board, and Emily helps with activities that include the extras parents provide for students at the small “country” school with Exceptional ranking.
James is quick to say that his business is definitely a family affair and that Emily and the kids, Robby and Lauren, also get a chance to help around the ranch. Robby, 10, ropes and Lauren, 9, likes cutting.
“There is always something that needs doing,” James said. “We have a great crew here to help with the many different parts that make a whole operation. I appreciate my family being involved in the business that we all love.”
James usually has up to 25 outside horses in training on the ranch. He competes on these horses at jackpot ropings and AQHA World Championship Shows in Oklahoma City. “I usually spend a 12-hour day in the saddle,” he said. “Beginning at 6 a.m. horses on this ranch are working horses and they put in time here as ranch horses, performing the usual jobs that cowboys and cow horses have been doing for more than a century. So when we train a horse for rodeo competition, that animal knows what his job is because he has experienced it. We think the horses are smarter for that knowledge and understand that what they are doing is a real job.”
Barton Performance Horses usually has several horses for sale. Some are trained as pleasure mounts as well as performance horses. In the past few years, as his reputation has grown with each success, James has managed horses for some of the top rodeo performers, as well as trained and sold horses to several cowboys qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo.
Marty Yates, 20-year-old 2-time qualifier at the NFR, rides Chicken in tie-down roping events, a horse that the cowboy bought from Barton Performance Horses.
“I originally bought the horse (Chicken) for Lauren, but soon saw that the horse had a lot of ability and could be successful in the arena” James said. Marty came over with his aunt, JJ Hampton, who was looking for a breakaway horse. Marty took a look at Chicken and really liked the horse. I worked with him, and the more I saw what he could do, the better he got. So Marty got Chicken, and the pair is a great fit. Marty and Chicken went to their first Finals in Las Vegas in 2014, and Chicken was chosen AQHA Reserve Roping Horse of the Year.”
Several of the horses that James has trained have been owned and ridden by PRCA cowboys. This includes champions Trevor Brazile, Tuf Cooper, Matt Shizowa, Ryan Watkins, and Marty Yates. James has an individual training program for each horse in an effort to fit the horse to the individual’s roping style. He also takes successful horses and works them to “sharpen them up.” His training includes regular ranch work as well as spending time in the arena.
“We like for horses to like what they do,” James said. “They need to have a great attitude to do the job well and we want them to enjoy it. Breeding is so important and that the horse has the bone and the muscle as well as a ‘good mind.’ Speed is important of course, and so is a natural stop. Trust is so important between horse and rider. There is a bond when they are working that brings about championships.
“I am doing exactly what I love to do. I am so fortunate to have a wife and a partner that also loves what we do. We are true partners in everything and share every success whether it is horses, or our children. I feel truly blessed to be able to live life the way I have always dreamed.”
The past few years, come early December, James Barton grabs a suitcase and heads out to Las Vegas. It’s time for the National Finals Rodeo and a celebration of the top 15 money-winning cowboys and barrel-racing cowgirls in the world. They compete in ten rounds of their chosen event for ten thrill-packed days with the winners taking away gold buckles and pockets full of folding money. Fans surround their heroes and collect autographs and hugs, then drive or fly home knowing that they have seen the best professional cowboys, cowgirls, and the best horses compete.
Families and friends surround the competitors and shower them with good wishes and congratulations and the highly trained horses do not go home without recognition. Most horse trainers will have three or so horses ridden at the NFR in a lifetime. James had five at the 2014 and three at the 2015 NFR competition. The man that talks “horse language” will be at the Finals too. He won’t be competing in the arena, but he will be there to talk to the horses in between rounds, the horses that he has trained to shake off the noise of the crowd and carry its rider around the arena in a thrilling victory lap.
During the ten-day run in Las Vegas, James “tweaks” the roping horses that he has trained to keep them at the top of their game with daily workouts and runs in the practice arena. Every rodeo performer whose partner in the arena is a horse, knows the importance of that animal and the necessity of a solid performance every time out of the box. James is there to keep the horses he has trained reliable. He is part of the team that makes a winner.
Marty Yates of Stephenville was 3rd in the World in tie-down calf roping going in to the 2015 Finals. He was riding Chicken, trained by James Barton and sold to Marty. Chicken is part of Marty’s family, impossible to label with a dollar value.
Tuf Cooper went to the 2015 NFR leading the tie-down race with earnings of more than $130,000. He too rode a horse, Topaz, trained by James Barton.
Matt Shiozawa, ranked 8th in tie down roping rides Chuck, another horse trained by Barton.
Barton talks about the horses he knows as if they were children and he the teacher. “A horse needs a good attitude so that he can work with the owner/rider. We want to make the learning experience fun so that the horse feels good about himself. We want the horse to learn and at the same time make him enjoy learning. To enjoy the lessons learned, the horse needs to trust the rider.
“Top roping horses must be fast and they need a big natural stop. A horse and rider build a common trust and a bond forms between them. They each do their job because they love doing it. “
James graduated Tarleton State University with a degree in Economics, Physics and Mathematics, and he has the job he loves. He’s enjoying showing horses, and his wife, Emily likes cutting. They both love living on the huge Houston Ranch, owned by Emily’s father, with their children. Barton Performance Horses is a very successful business, conveniently located in the area known as the Cowboy Capital of the World. With continued success in the arenas of the world, it is highly unlikely that James Barton will ever run out of clients.
Photography by Landi Whitefield and KC Montgomery Photography