Barrel racing is a cowgirl’s sport and a fan favorite at the rodeo
Bailey Garber and her horse, Shindig, race down the middle of the rodeo arena.
Shindig’s legs pump and his hooves pound the soft arena dirt in rapid synergy, propelling the assembly of human, horse and tack along course. Garber leans forward; wind-whipped hair, cross-shaped earrings and Shindig’s tail all trail behind.
The two are a team — Shindig moves, Garber steers.
Garber, 15, describes it as if the two are one body: “You’re their eyes; they’re your feet,” she said.
Garber, who lives in Santa Fe, is a barrel racer. And on a recent Sunday at the Galveston County Fairgrounds in Hitchcock, she was demonstrating a sport in which horse and rider attempt to complete a clover-leaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time.
Garber steers Shindig to the right. Shindig slows slightly to round the first barrel set out for him.
He picks up dirt again and reaches the second barrel, circling it, and then the third. When Garber and Shindig complete the triangular pattern, they fly back to the starting gates and slow to a trot.
Barrel racing, known for quick turns and high speeds, is a sport in which the winner can be determined by thousandths of a second and the relationship between the rider and horse is crucial. The International Barrel Racing Association describes the sport as one in which the horse’s athleticism and mental condition and the rider’s horsemanship are tested as they maneuver around the barrels at top speed.
In the early 1930s, speed or athleticism wasn’t as much of a factor in the results as the rider’s outfit and horsemanship, according to the association.
Barrel racing was an event for women, while the men participated in the athletic rodeo events such as roping and bull or bronco riding, according to the association. By 1948, a group of women formed the Girl’s Rodeo Association and in 1949 barrel racing became all about speed. While women can compete in most any rodeo event they like, barrel racing is predominantly a cowgirl’s sport and considered a fan favorite at most rodeos.
To participants, barrel racing is more than a sport — it’s an art form.
“There are certain skills that you need to have,” said Shelley Greer, 46, of Santa Fe. “It’s not just sitting up there and being along for the ride. You need to be an active participant.”
Olivia Robinson, a professional barrel racer who lives in League City, said the physical and emotional preparation can be intense.
“It’s really a big mental game,” Robinson, 21, said. “People think it’s easy to turn three barrels, but it’s not at all.”
Barrel racing is a team sport in that both the horse and the rider play an equal part, Greer said. The horse does the work to move around three barrels in a dirt-floored arena, and the rider needs to help them get through the obstacles without knocking the barrels over.
If a barrel falls to the floor, the rider’s time doesn’t count. And time matters, because the races are over in a matter of seconds. The difference between the fastest rider and the slowest rider is not vast. The quickest time at the 2016 National Finals Rodeo was 13.37 seconds.
Callie Apffel, 23, who lives in Dickinson, won the National Finals Rodeo in 2015 by being consistent in her times. She gives her horse half of the credit.
“Barrel horses, they’re pretty much our kids,” Apffel said. “We’re very attached to them and have a bond with them. In other sports, you have teammates; this horse is your teammate.”
Barrel racing requires a lot of trust — the rider has to trust that the horse will lead them safely, and the horse must trust the rider before it can comfortably follow commands.
“It can be a little nerve-racking sometimes because you’re on an animal that’s going so fast,” Apffel said. “It’s an adrenaline rush. Whenever you’re running barrels, you’re riding a 1,000-pound animal that has a mind of its own.”
Greer is a member of the Texas Senior Pro Rodeo Association. She competes against women and men who are ages 40 years and up — some of them older than 70.
Age hasn’t made the competitions any easier, she said.
“It feels like sometimes the older I get, really the tougher the competition gets,” Greer said. “The breeding of the horses gets better, the training gets better.”
The big competitions are generally only open to women, although men compete in more informal settings, the racers said.
Garber, Greer and Robinson plan to compete in the Galveston County Fair & Rodeo in April.
For the four racers, competitions aren’t everything. The women, each at different ages and points in their racing careers, attribute their love of the sport to their horses.
“Some people are scared of horses,” Garber said. “But the feeling, just being next to him and petting him, it’s just like I’m not scared at all.”
Now, Garber wants to continue her love of the sport by riding professionally.
If she does well enough to earn her “pro card” at age 18, making her eligible to participate in big rodeos and competitions, she’ll join a community of women who earn a living barrel racing.
Robinson, who began competing at professional rodeos last year, said she enjoys the experience more, even though it’s much more difficult.
“It’s a totally different ballgame,” Robinson said. “The rodeos are much more intense. The competition is much, much stiffer.”
But even while competing against a clock, there’s a sort of liberty that comes with barrel racing, Garber said.
“It’s just like I’m not scared of anything,” Garber said. “I feel free, you know what I mean? You just kind of go with the flow of whatever your horse is doing.”