Kids, parents, grandparents, friends and even the family dog turn out to root for their favorite cowgirl at the family-friendly event of barrel racing. Laughter and slogans such as “Turn and burn, ” “That horse is all go and no whoa, ” and the kids’ favorite, “Impress your friends, scare your mom, ” echo about the arena. The aroma of hamburgers and hot dogs plucked straight off the grill and the sight of young’uns with newly minted, colorful Kool-Aid mustaches running wild are part of the exciting atmosphere. Then there’s a hush: a prayer thanks God for the beautiful day and asks that all participants be kept safe from harm. After warming up with a few practice runs, riders are ready to go.
Barrel racing is all about speed, and a corral’s worth of determination. Horse and rider run a cloverleaf pattern around three preset 55-gallon metal barrels. This simple course challenges the horse’s athletic ability and the horsemanship skills of the rider.
The sport has changed since it began more than 60 years ago as a women’s rodeo event. Veterinary advancements such as breeding, chiropractic sessions, joint supplements and magnets to help with muscle relaxation have resulted in bigger, smarter and faster horses, says barrel racer and instructor Lacy Childress.
Barrel racing has also become more profitable: big wins mean big prizes. Pensacola native Summer Huff, 16, is the 2011 National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA) Teen World Champion. She scored the fastest time out of more than 3, 000 runs during the week of that competition. Her total winnings on the circuit covered her showing costs, helped her buy her first car and a new horse, as well as supplemented her college fund.
The relationship between the horse and the rider
The Right Stuff
Many successful racers are simply born to run the barrels. Carli Hodges, 13, from Summerdale, is the 2011 NBHA Youth World Champion. Carli has been riding all her life. At age 3, she trained the family’s miniature horse to run barrels. Her brother Blake, 7, ran his first barrels on the same “mini, ” and now races Carli’s first barrel pony, Tomahawk.
What makes a good barrel horse? It takes speed, strength, agility and intelligence to “hug the barrels” without toppling them over: “Rock ’em; don’t knock ’em.” But what makes the most difference between a good barrel racing team and a champion team is the partnership of horse and rider. “Some riders are really aggressive and that’s great, ” Childress says. “But some horses need a quiet rider.”
The activity is a huge responsibility as well as time commitment. “It keeps kids out of trouble because they are always having to do something with their horses, ” Childress says. “They have to feed them twice a day, and on weekends they’ve got the races. They learn how to put in the work.”
To keep the footing safe and even, Skeet Davis, Alabama District 6 NBHA director, drags the ring after every 12 competitors.
The Heart of a Champion
Childress, who has been racing since she was 5, knows all about hard work and courage. She was first attracted to her barrel horse LS Wonder Boy by the way he walked. His stride was strong and sure, with a bit of a swagger. His eyes, beautiful coffee-colored pools of intelligence mingled with impish playfulness, captivated her. Their partnership led to the 2009 NBHA Open World Championship.
In October 2011, a week before Childress was to leave for the 2011 World Championship, she suffered a traumatic injury that should have ended her riding career. While working with a student’s horse, the horse reared and flipped over backwards. Childress’ foot was caught in her stirrup and she suffered multiple fractures, which resulted in surgeries and months of physical therapy.
Now, Childress, 24, is back in the saddle aboard her Wonder Boy and eager to get back into competition. Some call her crazy for riding again. Others realize that within her is a drive and passion for doing what she loves. And she’s been passing on that passion to others, teaching barrel racing for almost four years. She hopes her students walk away with the same sense of accomplishment that she derives from the sport. “It’s very rewarding to see the kids progress and how happy they are winning.” Success is even sweeter, she says, when you’ve trained the horse yourself. “It takes at least two years, ” she says. “But after the waiting, the fighting with the horse, and everything else you go through, just to win is worth it.”
For information on barrel racing lessons, contact Lacy Childress at 747-8204 or Nikki Nitteberg at the Summerdale Western Store at 107 state Highway 59 N., Summerdale. 989-7555.
Run: one complete ride around the cloverleaf pattern
Bumping a horse: a way to let the horse know when you are about to turn; the amount of bumps needed depends on the horse
Free runner: a horse that rides wide open
Pocket: the space 1 – 2 feet away from a barrel. When approaching the initial barrel, it’s important to keep your horse in your pocket so that it will have enough room to make the turn and head for the next barrel in a straight line.
text and photos by Foncie Bullard