By Bill Richardson
Although he’s been involved with barrel horses for nearly 60 years, Bob Hess doesn’t consider himself a cowboy.
“When I think of a cowboy, I think of somebody who ropes cows and rides bulls, and that kind of thing,” said Hess, who owns a farm a few yards north of U.S. 50, just west of Wheatland. “I don’t think I could have ever roped a cow if I had to.”
Now 64 years old, Hess is no longer a competitive barrel racer. He’s still a first-rate trainer, though, an ambassador for the sport and is considered to be one of the top coaches in the United States.
A retired United Parcel Service driver, Hess recently returned from Shanghai, China where he coached the U.S. team at the International Barrel Horse Federation World Cup event, and served as a technical advisor for the competition. More international trips to promote the sport are scheduled for 2015.
“I wouldn’t say I love barrel racing,” said Hess, a National Barrel Horse Association Regional Executive. “But I like it an awful lot.”
The sport is simple in concept. A rider – males and females often compete together – leaves the starting line. He navigates around three barrels, placed in a “triangle” and hurries the horse back to the line. The horse and rider with the fastest time around the cloverleaf pattern are the winners.
Hess notes that it’s impossible for records to be kept for the sport, because each arena is different. Depending upon the distance between the barrels – and the distance from the barrels to the finish line – times for each venue vary.
It all started for Hess on the family farm in the St. Thomas area in southern Knox County. His father, Cletus, raised crops and was heavily involved with horses and cattle.
“We rode horses as soon as we were old enough to know what was going on,” Hess said. “There wasn’t much else to do.”
His first competition was at a horse show in Decker Chapel, in 1957.
“I was 7 years old,” he remembers. “My dad took my brother, Bob, and me to it, with two horses in a stock truck.”
Hess was just getting started in life, and in barrel racing. He attended elementary school in St. Thomas and graduated from Vincennes Central Catholic high School, which in 1970 became Vincennes Rivet.
He earned a degree in electrical engineering from an Evansville trade school, but was drafted into the U.S. Army upon graduation. Yet somehow he avoided being sent to Vietnam, which at the time “was going hot and heavy.”
Instead, Hess was sent to Georgia after basic training then finished his two-year stint in California.
All the while he kept barrel racing.
“I had a ’67 Camaro. It was a four-speed, and I put a trailer hitch on it so I could pull my horse,” he said. “I boarded the horse in Augusta (Georgia), and barrel raced all through Georgia and South Carolina when I was in the army. A lot of times half a dozen of my Army buddies went with me and we had a lot of fun.”
Hess landed the job with UPS after leaving the military, and eventually moved to the farm near Wheatland.
He estimates he’s competed on more than 300 horses, but there are three he calls favorites.
The first, Shakey Barone, was purchased from a man in Lawrence County, Illinois.
“That horse did me a lot of good,” says Hess.
Hess rode Shakey Barone to countless wins, including one at the American Quarter Horse Association World Championships in Oklahoma City.
Hess says the horse did all the work.
“He won,” Hess said. “I just kind of stayed out of his way.”
Hess eventually sold Shakey Barone, but the horse continued to do well.
“He was a good horse,” Hess said. “If we didn’t fall off, he’d take care of everything.”
In the late 1980s, Hess purchased Zanas Doc Bueno as a 3-year-old and had a lot of success “around here.”
Hess couldn’t make it to a Barrel Futurities of America event in Oklahoma City, so he turned Zanas Doc Bueno over to his friend, Bobby Stivers, a Kentucky native.
“I’d entered him, and Bobby took him out there,” Hess said. “He ran second in the average and we won a little over $20,000. We split the money.”
Stivers was also presented with a handsome belt buckle, which he mailed to Hess.
“I sent it back to him,” Hess said. “I said ‘Hey, you were the rider. You
A year later, Zanus Doc Bueno won the AQHA points championship as a 4-year old.
“He made me quite a bit of money,” said Hess. “I ended up selling him to somebody in Montana.”
Finally, there’s the story of Tiny Moon Joe, a horse that Hess purchased in a sheriff’s auction.
“Some people I knew in Tennessee had bought him, and the horse wasn’t doing exactly what they wanted it to do,” Hess said. “They ended up in a lawsuit with the guy that sold it to them.”
Hess kept his eye on Tiny Moon Joe.
“I was pretty sure I could make him better,” he said. “He came up at a sheriff’s auction in Westfield, Indiana, and I bought him.”
It wasn’t long before Hess and Tiny Moon Joe were teaming up for wins.
“It took a couple of weeks to get him to where he was working pretty good,” Hess said. “But I won some races on him, some of them that had more than 100 head of horses in them.”
He eventually sold Tiny Moon Joe, too, though the horse continued to win races on the national level.
Because of his work schedule, Hess often found himself rushing to get to shows. And more often than not, he had to rush home, too.
He recalls entering the AQHA World Championships one year in Oklahoma City.
“I only had two vacation days I could take off from UPS,” he said.
He worked Monday, drove to St. Louis and caught a flight to Oklahoma City, where his animal was awaiting.
He competed on Tuesday, qualified for the finals, then flew back to St. Louis and drove home that night.
He worked Wednesday and Thursday, then Thursday night drove to St. Louis and flew to Oklahoma City again.
On Friday he scored a third-place finish in the finals and caught a ride to the airport in St. Louis before driving on back to Wheatland. All of this happened after taking part the previous weekend in an event in Decatur, Alabama.
“I had to sleep fast,” Hess joked. “Sometimes it didn’t take me long to stay overnight.”
These days, when he’s not home training the three horses on his farm, Hess spends a lot of time on other continents.
Between 2011 and 2013 he spent 22 weeks in China. He’s been to Italy
11 times and has worked in Canada, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico, as well.
The plan is to spend a good portion of 2015 on foreign soil, too.
It’s been a great hobby and has provided some good supplemental income.
“I’ve paid for my habit,” he said. “It’s allowed me to build an indoor arena, have some nice vehicles and nice trailers. I made a little money, but I didn’t make a living.”
He’s certain that he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I don’t regret any of it,” he said. “Not a single thing.”