JoAnne Carollo’s determination and love of working cow horses has helped her make learning experiences of even the toughest situations.

It’s fitting that the brand marking JoAnne Carollo’s horses is a heart-J. The “heart” the Atascadero, Calif., horsewoman possesses and that’s instilled in the stellar cow horses owned and trained by her and her husband, Jim, speaks volumes to her dedication, tenacity and passion for the animals and the reined cow-horse sport.

JoAnne’s intense focus on producing, training, showing and selling top-notch horses is surpassed only by her devotion to providing the best lifestyle for her animals – physically, mentally, nutritionally and otherwise. That winning philosophy has led her to numerous industry accolades, including three National Reined Cow Horse Association World Championship Snaffle Bit Futurity nonprofessional titles, American Paint Horse Association and American Quarter Horse Association world championships and top honors from the Professional Team Penning Association and the World Championship Team Penning Association. She and Jim also own A Master Plan. The Paint Horse stallion’s dossier includes APHA and NRCHA awards, and National Reining Horse Association earnings.

But those admirable accomplishments didn’t come easily. JoAnne – like many other hard-working, self-made nonpros – hit bumps on the road to success, some bigger than others. She faced days when she wondered if all the work and sacrifice were worth missing a day on the ski slopes or putting aside her pencil-sketching talents. Regardless, JoAnne put her heart and soul into her horse endeavors, and continues to do so. She learned from the School of Hard Knocks, and in fact became the phenomenal horsewoman and intense competitor she is because of that education.

JoAnne Carollo is determined and has a love for working cow horses, which has helped her make learning experiences of tough situations.
JoAnne’s success with reined cow horses hasn’t come easily, and she appreciates everything she’s learned along the way. Photo by Jennifer Barron

Lesson Learned: Value all learning experiences.

After finishing high school in Torrence, Calif., JoAnne took a job on a racehorse farm in Atascadero in 1977. Even though she grew up riding, JoAnne’s duties at the ranch were far from glamorous, as one might guess.

“I cleaned stalls, doctored horses, brought in horses from the pastures,” JoAnne recalls. “I hated it. Like everyone else who came to work there, I wanted to waltz on the ranch, throw my leg over a horse and start riding. That didn’t happen.”

The ranch manager, Jim Monji, recognized JoAnne’s potential as a horsewoman, but knew she needed to learn the ropes.

“Years later he told me he made me do those things because he wanted me to learn every aspect of the horse industry,” she says. “He knew that’d benefit me down the road, and it definitely did. I can doctor and bandage any horse I need to. I can clean any stall. But when I was 16, I just wanted the glory.”

The experience also enhanced her work ethic, which continues to drive her to be the best.

Lesson Learned: Don’t give up.

In the early 1970s and late ’80s, JoAnne did day-work for ranchers in the Atascadero area and competed in team-penning events produced by PTA and WCTPA. She experienced great success, winning world titles from both organizations.

At a 1988 branding, someone noticed JoAnne and her horse, Docs Lucky Lynx, a 3-year-old Paint Horse gelding.

“Someone saw me riding Docs Lucky Lynx, sorting cows and turning around, and asked how old the horse was,” JoAnne recalls. “When they found out he was 3 years old, they asked if I was going to the Snaffle Bit Futurity. They told me my horse was broke enough to go and that I was cowgirl enough to go down the fence. They said I just needed a little help from a cutting trainer. I’d never even heard of a reined cow horse! I figured it couldn’t be much different from team penning, so it’d be a piece of cake.”

After riding with cutting-horse trainer John Holman for 60 days, JoAnne headed to Reno, Nev., for her first Snaffle Bit Futurity, confident that she could show her horse.

JoAnne made it through the preliminary herd work, and was set for the next element of the competition: reined work, The pattern began with three rundowns to sliding stops, and then called for a back-up before beginning the circles. Once in the arena, she was so concerned about making turns in the correct direction, she neglected to think about the back-up. In forgetting that element, she and Docs Lucky Lynx received a no-score, which crushed her chances of advancing to the finals.

“I was so disappointed in myself that I cried for 2 days,” she remembers. “I was so mad at myself. My horse was really good. He did everything I asked – and that’s my primary goal whenever I show. I felt like I let him down and was so disappointed in myself. But I said, ‘I’ll be back.”

From that day forward, the determined horsewoman knew she wouldn’t ever miss the prestigious event, and she intended to win it.

Lesson Learned: Carefully consider horse purchases.

On a high from competing in her first Snaffle Bit Futurity, JoAnne returned to California, ready to find her next futurity mount. She started her quest at a cutting horse sale.

“I got there late and was inexperienced, so I didn’t preview the horses,” she says. “I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, but I bought two horses I could afford. One of them ended up with a problem I couldn’t resolve. The other horse had laminitis and the sellers took it back.”

That left JoAnne without a suitable mount for the 1989 Snaffle Bit Futurity. She admits that the situation caused her frustration, but she managed to find positive outcomes.

“It allowed me to learn more about the sport and get some more experience,” she says.

Perhaps the most important thing learned from the experience was how she’d sell the horses produced at Carollo Ranch in the future.

“We won’t sell a horse without being totally honest,” she says. “Jim says I tell potential buyers everything I don’t like about a horse. But I want that person to know everything – what I like and don’t like about it. There are no surprises for anyone involved.”

While at the 1989 futurity sale, JoAnne and Jim spotted Decka Bar Duty.

“He was the talk of the sale, so I figured he’d sell out of our price range,” she says.

The sorrel Quarter Horse gelding ended up priced within their budget, and they headed back to California with the futurity prospect in-tow to begin preparation for the 1990 futurity.

Lesson Learned: Never stop showing.

At the 1989 Snaffle Bit Futurity, JoAnne competed in the nonprofessional hackamore class aboard Docs Lucky Lynx. During the reined work, JoAnne recalls that the horse just didn’t feel right and wasn’t following her lead. When completing her spins, JoAnne decided to school her horse and overspun a full turn, leaving her with a no-score for going off pattern.

“My temper got to me,” she says. “I didn’t want my horse to think he could get away with that in the show pen.

“I had taken a couple of lessons from Les Vogt, and he got after me for schooling my horse in the show pen,” she continues. “He told me that no matter how bad things might feel in the show pen, I had to keep showing. He said most of the time what feels like a major bobble looks pretty minor from the outside.”

JoAnne’s fence run added salt to the wound. She drew a tough cow and made a solid performance down the fence that, no matter the penalties she would’ve incurred for a misstep in the reined work, could’ve placed her in the top portion of her class.

Lesson Learned: Rushing doesn’t produce results.

Accustomed to training horses during day-work on ranches, JoAnne had never prepared a horse on a finite timeline. With only a year to train Decka Bar Duty, she admits she got a little excited.

“When I was doing day-work, I didn’t have any real goal; I didn’t need to push my horses,” she says. “But then I had futurity fever, and felt like I had to see things happening or I’d fall behind. It made me push my horse a little harder than I should have.

“Then I got stuck,” she says. “My horse wasn’t turning real well in one direction, and I started having problems cutting a cow. I really didn’t know what I was doing, anyway. That’s when a friend introduced me to Ron Ralls.”

Now based in Lindsay, Texas, and the 2003 NRCHA World’s Greatest Horseman, Ralls helped JoAnne get back on track. Competing in only her second Snaffle Bit Futurity, JoAnne earned the reserve nonprofessional championship.

“I don’t remember anything about the finals,” she laughs. “Neither Ron nor I could believe it – I missed winning the title by a half point!”

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Ralls comments. “She was still a little rough around the edges at that point, but she showed her horse a lot better than I expected her to be able to show him.”

The reserve title set JoAnne on a path to phenomenal success. In 1997, she won her first Snaffle Bit Futurity with Nicilena. Two years later, Roosters Chicaroo, now a standout broodmare in Jim and JoAnne’s breeding program, took her to the winning title. And in 2001, JoAnne rode Plan To Win, a Paint Horse gelding sired by A Master Plan, to yet another Snaffle Bit Futurity victory.

JoAnne Carollo is determined and has a love for working cow horses, which has helped her make learning experiences of tough situations.
Jim and JoAnne take great pride in the A Master Plan offspring they raise and train. Photo by Jennifer Barron.

Lesson Learned: Learn from the best to be the best.

Upper-echelon competition requires finesse, skills and mental toughness only the best in the field possess. JoAnne recognizes this and values learning from riders at the tops of their games.

JoAnne rode with Ralls for 5 years and admits that some of the most important things she learned from him didn’t click until much later in her career.

“I really credit him for being patient with me and putting up with my sometimes-argumentative personality,” she laughs. “I wanted to get it all so badly that I’d be in tears. Ron’s patience and influence were very positive for me. There were things he taught me that I didn’t understand until recently. And he taught me to go down the fence, which some people say is my best event. I won two (Snaffle Bit Futurity titles) with my fence scores.”

“She doesn’t lack confidence,” Ralls says. “She works very hard and goes after it.

“A lot of times a nonpro rider absorbs the information, but doesn’t use it at the time,” he continues. “As time goes on – a few months or years later – all the pieces start to come together and make sense. The light comes on, and it falls into place. Sometimes it just has to be that way.

JoAnne also appreciates cutting-horse trainer Scott Weis for refining her expertise in the cutting pen. After winning the 2001 Snaffle Bit Futurity with Plan To Win, JoAnne took the horse to the Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Association Futurity. She spent two weeks before the show working with Weis.

“Just sitting in a corner and watching him ride 30 horses is priceless,” she says. “The experience you get just by being around it, seeing it, watching it, is priceless.”

Weis holds JoAnne’s skills in high regard, too.

“JoAnne is dedicated, positive and she takes it all to the 10th level,” he raves. “She’s a complete horsewoman, and she’s a self-made horsewoman. She could be a reiner, a cutter, a snaffle bitter or even a jumper. Not only is she a superb athlete, she’s so in tune with her horses

“She could just ride strong enough to make the finals, but she rides to win,” he continues. “She really works on producing better horses, training them better and riding them better. She doesn’t sit back on her laurels; she continues to raise the bar.”

Lesson Learned: Ride out the hard times.

JoAnne can’t remember if raising horses was part of her plan early in her horse career. But when Mike and Susie Torgerson gave Jim and JoAnne Docs Lucky Lynx’s dam. A Paint Horse named My Flashy Lady, and she foaled A Master Plan, the couple began to seriously consider entering the breeding industry. JoAnne’s high regard for Docs Lucky Lynx gave her confidence A Master Plan would experience great success.

A Master Plan, a 1992 bay tobiano Paint Horse stallion sired by Quarter Horse Master Remedy, proved to be a remarkable performer. He finished third in the nonpro division of the 1995 Snaffle Bit Futurity, has won three APHA world championships, earned the 1997 APHA All-Around Champion title and holds Superiors in working cow horse and reining. So JoAnne and Jim took a leap and decided to stand him for breeding.

Regardless of those success stories, the breeding side of the horse industry wasn’t easy for the couple in the beginning. Although they’ve experienced success with A Master Plan and his get, like most stallions, it’s taken him a while to make an impression on horse buyers and breeders.

“Everyone told us it’d take a long time to prove a stallion,” JoAnne says. “Not only that, it takes a lot of money! There were times when I wanted to give up. I knew people would have fun riding (horses sired by A Master Plan), but the phone wasn’t ringing! But I had to realize it takes a while for people to believe in a breeding program. It was hard when people weren’t calling to buy the horses, and we had 12 of them to ride every day. I had to remember we weren’t doing this for the money, but for the love of the sport.

“Now I’m excited, because people are buying the horses,” she beams. A Master Plan’s offspring can be found in cow-horse, cutting, reining and roping pens. And Jim and JoAnne eagerly anticipate the day a nonpro or open rider experiences a big win in a major aged event on an A Master Plan-sired horse.

Lesson Learned: Keep luck in perspective.

JoAnne considers herself extremely fortunate to have won the Snaffle Bit Futu-rity three times – a record she shares with fellow nonpros Kathy Wilson and Jody Gearhart. Obviously JoAnne’s skills played an enormous role in those victories, and a little luck helped her along the way, too.

“The year I won on Plan To Win, everything went my way,” she says. “I had good cattle, good draws; everything was a dream and just happened. I couldn’t do anything wrong!

“But I’ve been on horses just as good as him in the past, like his sister One Hot Plan at the (2003) Snaffle Bit Futurity, where everything went wrong” she continues. “The whole (2003) futurity was very rough. I doubted my self and my training. Plan To Win was so sick that he was in intensive care at a veterinary hospital and couldn’t be shown (in the bridle class.) I didn’t even know if he’d live. I could only trot One Hot Plan up until the futurity due to a sore suspensory ligament, and she was really green on cattle because our cattle situation throughout the year wasn’t very good – there were times we didn’t even have cattle to work or they were very difficult. I had to remind myself that those things were out of my control and focus on the positive.”

JoAnne forced herself to block negative thoughts and managed to make the nonpro finals on both One Hot Plan and Smart Little Bugsy. She made it through the show by reminding herself that it was quite an accomplishment to ride in the finals after all she and her horses had overcome that year.

“It occurred to me that I’ve been very lucky over the years, says the 44-year-old with a smile. “It’s inevitable when you’ve had a lot of success that there’ll be times when things don’t go your way. I look at how hard it is to win the Snaffle Bit more than once. I know the odds are against me to win it a fourth time. But I’ll keep working to do it. I can’t imagine not competing at the Snaffle Bit. There are people showing in it who are a lot older than I am. I look at them and think, ‘I could be doing this for another 20 years!’”

Lesson Learned: Mental preparation is as important as training.

“The first time I walked in the arena at the 1988 Snaffle Bit Futurity, I was a nervous wreck,” JoAnne confides. “No lie: My spurs were jingling because I was shaking so badly. It took me 4 or 5 years of showing to get past those nerves and quit shaking every time I competed.”

With the help of books offering mental-focus and preparation tips, JoAnne trained herself to calmly enter the show pen and compete with confidence.

“Now I walk in the pen like it’s our arena at home,” she says. “I feel totally calm. When I’m at a show, I stay in a zone of mental concentration the whole time. Of course, I still get butterflies or a little anxious, but I don’t get tense throughout my entire body.”

JoAnne believes mental preparation is just as important as preparing the horse. Before entering the show pen, she takes a mental inventory of her body. She focuses on each body part and pays careful attention to tense areas. If a muscle is tense, JoAnne consciously relaxes it. Deep, long breaths help calm any additional nerves.

“I used to go in the arena keyed-up and almost ready to fight, which works for a lot of people,” she relates. “Now I concentrate on keeping my body soft and relaxed, but being mentally tough. I approach a cow as though its already beaten me and I’m going to make it go where I want it to go. I’m not a passive rider, but I’m not the most aggressive rider, either.”

As intense a competitor as JoAnne is, it might seem she’s all work and no play. That’s hardly the case. Even in the most competitive situations, JoAnne is a cheerleader for her fellow non-pros and a happy, bubbly character, always looking for a laugh.

“I love to joke around,” she smiles. “I can be a motor mouth, and I try to make everyone laugh. But I still try to stay mentally focused.”

Lesson Learned: Don’t merely go through the motions.

JoAnne points out that she never wanted to be an open horse trainer – the pressures of meeting owner expectations never appealed to her.

“I’m a worrier,” she says. “Just having other people’s cattle here to practice with makes me worry. I can’t imagine how much I’d worry with other people’s horses in training!”

However, she’s dedicated to being the best rider she can be. To do so, Carollo has learned to totally focus on her horse during every ride, whether it’s one that could win her a big paycheck or during a training session at home.

“Some years back, I might’ve been riding and going through the motions of what I’d learned, but I didn’t really understand what I was doing or why I was doing it. I’d ride around and think about everything else I had to do – laundry, pay bills, cook dinner.

“Now I try to totally put myself into a zone where I concentrate on the horse 100 percent, she continues. “I enjoy riding at that high level. Once in a while I take a dressage lesson from Ellen Eckstein, an Olympic-level dressage rider. It sharpens my awareness and puts me in the zone where I can concentrate on my body and the horse 100 percent.”

Lesson Learned: Being the best requires total dedication.

“Anybody who’s really great at what they do gives 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to be at the top,” JoAnne states. “If I didn’t do that, I’d get left in the dust by the riders who commit that time. When we haul a few horses to a show or to another barn to ride, I think about the horses sitting at home, not being ridden and start to feel like I’m falling behind.”

JoAnne enjoys activities outside the horse world – particularly snow skiing and golf – but she says both hobbies are on the back burner.

“If we don’t spend that time training our horses, we can’t show them or sell them,” she relates. “Also, I love to snow ski, but if I got hurt I’d be totally out of commission. I couldn’t train the horses that need to be sold or those I use to compete, and that’s my income.”

Standing right beside JoAnne in her commitment to success is her husband. Jim began riding team-penning horses in 1987 and cow horses in 1992. He’s won year-end titles and nonpro bridle classes and now prepares his own futurity mounts. He also recently began competing in National Cutting Horse Association events with a mare sired by A Master Plan.

“We’re side-by-side 100 percent,” JoAnne says smiling. “He’s out at the barn every day, doing the same things I do. He’s priceless in terms of support. We can’t imagine doing anything else. We wake up in the morning and can hardly wait to go out and ride our horses.”

Well, maybe not every morning. JoAnne admits to one element that can sabotage her commitment.

“I’m a big wimp about the cold,” she grins. “I’ll sit in the house and drink coffee, looking out at the barn and the horses. I don’t get out there early enough, so then I get mad at myself because I can’t get all the horses ridden. It’s frustrating because I’m not being mentally tough!”

Lesson Learned: There’s always something to work toward.

After the extensive success JoAnne has experienced in the show pen and in the breeding barn, where can she possibly go in the future? She says she still has things to work toward.

“It’d be a highlight to watch one of our horses be very successful — even win the futurity — with someone else riding,” she says. “It’d say so much about our breeding program.”

But don’t think JoAnne’s show career takes a backseat to the couple’s breeding endeavors. She plans on staying at the top of her competitive game.

“I’ve already won the nonpro futurity more times than I ever imagined I could possibly win it,” she grins. “It’d be great to win it one more time and have the record for the most wins to myself – at least for a little while. I’ve made the open finals, and I’d like to place a little higher.

“I’d also like to have success in the cutting and reining pens,’ she offers. “I’ve ind shown at the NRHA and NCHA Futurities, and it’d be really fun to win those. It’s just hard because I’m so focused on the reined cow horses.

“But, if I have it in my mind to do it, I know I can work hard enough to give it a shot.”

This article was originally published in the March 2004 issue of Western Horseman.

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