WOODSTOWN - All the way in the back of a stable that houses about 40 horses are Lynne Winkers' favorites, two brown ones named Curtis and Jock.

Curtis, the retired horse with whom Winkers won most of her estimated $75,000 in career prize money at rodeos, looks longingly at a visitor in hopes of getting a cookie. Jock, the younger horse whom Winkers only recently started riding competitively, extends his nose to be petted, too.

Winkers, one of the region's top barrel racers for several decades, will ride Jock for a second year in a row at the Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo from March 30-April 1. Preparing for that and other rodeos this summer is nearly a full-time job for Winkers.

"It takes time, energy and a big, big commitment, not only to yourself and your health but to your equine partner," Winkers, who declined to give her age, said during an interview last week at the Woodstown farm where she lives with her husband, John.

"It's a partnership. It's two of you. It's not just one.

"It's like a dance partner. I can be the best dancer in the world, and go to dance, and you're like, 'Uh, I can't dance.' It's something that you have to learn together, and it takes years."

A 'one in a million' horse

Barrel racing, the main women's event in rodeos, consists of horses running one at a time in a clover pattern around three barrels. Winning times are usually in the 14- to 17-second range.

But Winkers rarely practices on an actual course. She stays in shape herself by swimming every day, and she keeps Jock sharp just by riding him every day, getting him used to the movements that will be necessary to make sharp cuts around the barrels.

The goal is to get to a point where they are almost moving as one during competition.

"When you ask your horse to stop, all you have to do is sit in your seat, change the angle of your hips, and say, 'Whoa,' and your horse should stop if your horse is in tune with you," she said. "But you see so many of the old westerns, where they're riding and" - she pauses to gesture wildly - "that's a bunch of crap."

Curtis, 32, is "one-in-a-million," Lynne said. A cheap purchase from owners who didn't take good care of him, Curtis loved to win.

One time, at a rodeo in East Stroudsburg, Pa., Curtis fell going around the first barrel.

"He was so (ticked) off, he jumped up and ran so hard, he finished second," Winkers said.

Curtis won a lot. Lynne and husband John, who was a bareback rider until about five years ago, completed a ring around the entire top part of the wall in their trophy room with championship belt buckles they won at rodeos throughout the northeast.

John, 51, stopped bareback riding after one too many broken bones. He still works as a pickup rider occasionally, helping rodeo cowboys off the horses at the end of their rides, but he said he doesn't miss competing at all.

"Last year in Atlantic City, I was watching the rodeo, and I was sittin' there watching the bareback horses and going, 'Man, I had to be nuts,' " John said.

But he gets his fill of competition by watching his wife race.

"Just watching her ride, it's like I'm riding the horse with her," he said.

John also contributes to the effort. A horseshoer by trade, he started shoeing Curtis in 2003.

"I told (Lynne) I could get her two-tenths (of a second better)," he said. "I got her three."

But Curtis is rarely ridden anymore. That job now falls on Jock.

The biggest challenge of riding a young horse, Lynne says, is when they get distracted by the crowd, whether it's someone eating popcorn in the front row or a young child with a balloon yelling.

But Jock, 6, loves rodeos, and Lynne's goal is to make him a winner.

"Jock thinks they all come to see him," she said. "There's nothing else going on at a rodeo except Jock. He thinks it's the Jock show.

"Each time he makes a competitive run, he gets quicker and quicker and quicker and sharper."

Lynne and Jock finished four spots out of the money at last year's Atlantic City Boardwalk Rodeo. This year, she wants to win.

That is, after all, why she races.

"Everybody likes the winning aspect," she said. "If they tell you they just do it for the thrill, they're lying to you."

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