By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Suddenly, you find yourself in a rodeo arena wearing a plaid Wrangler pearl-snap shirt, clinging so firmly to the back of a horse that you develop a blister on the inside of your left knee. But this is no dream.
I was about to be set loose in a real, live barrel-racing competition after just two horseback-riding lessons. I wasn't having a come-to-Jesus moment. I was having a come-to-Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Muhammad, Krishna, Shiva, L. Ron--hell, whoever would have me--moment.
A month ago, I had no idea there was an entire women's rodeo sport involving riding as fast as possible in circles around barrels. I may be from Mansfield, but my East Texas-bred parents had had enough country livin' by the time I arrived. It was Springsteen, shopping and German compact cars for me growing up. My equine interests stopped at My Little Pony, of which I had approximately 210 as a child. You can call it spoiled; I call it animal rescue.
My ignorance wouldn't last long. Texas is the barrel-racing capital of the known universe, with girls as young as 4 and 5 being strapped onto the backs of horses and shoved into rodeo rings. At my ripe age, I was going to have to get a crash course in the sport.
Luckily I found Stacy Short, a pretty, 40-something Burleson woman. She had a horse named Splash and a ranch on which to teach me the finer points of making U-turns at breakneck speed atop a 1,000-pound animal. See, it's all about speed. Three barrels are set up in a triangle, and horse and rider loop around each one before sprinting to the finish.
Barrel racing as we know it has been around since the late '40s, when the Women's Professional Rodeo Association first got started up in San Angelo. Until then, women had two very important jobs in the rodeo: sit in the stands and look pretty or enter the rodeo beauty contest and look pretty.
But some ladies didn't like being paraded around as beauty queens for goat-ropin' cowboys who likely smelled of day-old wet hay, the precursor to what we now call Preferred Stock cologne. The first all-women's rodeo was held in Amarillo in 1947, and the next year, a group of women in San Angelo formed the Girls' Rodeo Association, riding rainbow-colored Lisa Frank ponies until they changed the name to the Women's Professional Rodeo Association in 1981. Barrel racing is their flagship sport.
The first time I ventured out to Stacy's ranch, the 45-minute drive took 20 minutes longer than it should have. She had told me to look for a little white farmhouse. That's like telling someone to head to Capitol Hill and talk to that guy wearing a suit.
Stacy introduced me to Splash, a cream-colored mare with brown splotches, who happily grazed the fields for a good two years before I showed up on the planet 22 years ago. If Splash were human, we'd bond over bad junior-high fashion decisions involving wide-legged Jnco jeans. But in horse years, she's catching up with my grandmother. I'd soon learn, however, that her old age had very little impact on her ability to sprint at ludicrous speed.
"So, do you ride a lot?" Stacy asked me, throwing a saddle atop her own horse. Asking me this question is much like asking Dubya if he often heads down to the Mexican border and hauls a load of day laborers over to the States.
We started with walking in big circles around Stacy's barrel-racing ring. Raised out west, Stacy started barrel racing at age 7 and was a cheerleader at Odessa Permian High School. She's been rodeoing professionally nearly her whole life, even while working for American Airlines for 17 years.
"I'd come home, take off the heels, hose and dress and put on the boots and jeans," she told me. Today, she works on her ranch full-time, training barrel horses and hauling her own animals to rodeos across the country, where she barrel races for many thousands of dollars in prizes.
But the good money, it seems, is in the horses themselves. Stacy says she built her house with a horse she trained and sold for $56,000. It seemed like a crazy number to me, too, before I checked out barrel horse classifieds online. Some of them could be traded for luxury cars. You can blame it on spoiled little girls, my personal favorite scapegoat for just about everything.
"A girl will tell her daddy, 'I want to barrel race,'" Stacy explained, "and then it's just, 'Name your price.'" If horses, ranches and rodeoin' is in your blood, a good-looking barrel horse is better than a Ford Mustang. After I learned to trot and then lope around the barrels, I started to get it. Driving 80 mph in a sports car is pretty fun, but the rush of blowing through a clover-leaf pattern at a brisk pace with the wind in your hair is far more rewarding.
Of course, most barrel racers would laugh at my idea of a "brisk pace," since they tear around the barrels at around 30 mph, finishing a run in anywhere from 14 to 18 seconds. Me? I do best at a slow trot.
"Next week, we'll get you in a real barrel race, how about that?" Stacy asked me as I dismounted. She assured me I could take all the time I wanted ooching around the barrels. Especially if I want to get shown up by some 8-year-olds from Burleson, which is pretty much what happened at the twice-weekly exhibition barrel races at the Rendon Indoor Arena.
My mom, wearing her Birkenstocks, and my dad, clad in his usual boat shoes, sat in the stands to watch my very first public barrel race. I felt like a kindergartner at her first ballet recital. I even had my special outfit: a $4 little boys' Wrangler shirt from Thrift Town and the brown cowboy boots I pair more frequently with denim miniskirts than with saddles.
Stacy rode with me into the alley, the starting chute for the horses, and when they called my name, Splash and I were off and walking. Most times, winning times will be just hundredths of a second ahead of losing times. I was only an eensy-weensy 45 seconds behind the best time.
On my last run, I imagined I was in a teen movie about barrel racing, starring me as the city girl who moved to the country after her parents' troubled divorce. There would be an inspirational--yet face-rocking--Southern Rock-tinged number by Nickelback in the background as I rounded the third barrel. This time, I whittled my time down to 43 seconds.
I met Stacy back in the warm-up pen. Whenever I wanted, she said, I could come by and learn how to do it with real speed.
I've just got to get my daddy to buy me a pony for Christmas.