There is something special about equestrians willing to ride a thousand-pound animal at 20-plus mph straight at a metal can. Hit it the right way and it can rip your kneecap off. Barrel racers are brave, resilient ‒ and a little crazy.
The heart and determination it takes to participate in this sport, and the unusual and wonderful volunteers who insist “the show goes on” have never been clearer than now.
As a collective, humanity has been going through some dark times. Almost everything was cancelled this summer. Camps, sports, travel, the majority of horse shows. But then a whisper started circulating through the barrel racing community.
The Ontario Barrel Racing Association was hosting an actual live show! They’d secured the Markham Fairgrounds for the weekend of July 10-12. Covid protocols would be in place. No bathrooms, social distancing, and sanitizers every where.
My family had never been to a three-day show, nor knew much about the OBRA. But our coach Diane Smullen of Bilby Ranch and our horse show family friends Yvette, Steve and Devin Towrie were going. All the cool kids were going to be there.
“Should we go? ” I asked my husband Luke.
We had purchased a used horse trailer before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and hadn’t had a chance to haul it anywhere yet.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Our daughter, Faith, is 11 years old, completely horse-crazy, and spends most of her time riding her pony, Catting Time. Cat is a fiery bay built like a drag racing car (all hind end.) We’d also just brought Cat home, after my friend Yvette found a new speed horse a few months ago and sold her to us. We had no idea how this fast and finicky horse would perform for our young daughter.
I ride a round red roan Quarter Horse mare. Sienna has a sleepy attitude and great fondness for treats. I bought her for trail riding and Western dressage. I don’t think either of us ever imagined we’d be tearing around dirt pens at breakneck speed.
Friday, July 10, 2020 we loaded our horses and threw our saddles on the trailer and drove down to the show. The sun was relentless and the mercury read almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We joined a multitude of impressive rigs waiting in line to enter the Markham Fairgrounds. There was a lone masked figure greeting every vehicle and collecting Covid screening forms. Her mouth may have been covered by a cotton shield, but you could tell Jennifer Richardson was grinning from ear-to-ear. Thick curly haired spilled down her back, and her green eyes sparkled. Not only did she make sure we were symptom-free, Richardson welcomed us to the club with warmth and enthusiasm. A bit of our anxiety was immediately quelled as she told our daughter about their special initiatives like scholarships and the volunteer program.
Richardson’s attitude is typical of every member of this wonderful club. All the volunteers are supportive, helpful, and ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice to make sure things run safely and smoothly.
The entire fairgrounds was the perfect example of “together yet apart.” Dust rose from the hooves of competitors warming up in the pens and cantering around the grounds. Horse trailers, many with living quarters, were parked a good distance from each other with horses munching on hay in portable pens. Cowboys and cowgirls tilted their hats at us as we joined the fray. Tractors were zooming around the riding pens, spraying water and harrowing the dirt. Our horses were excited to be ridden somewhere other than our backyard and were snorting and dancing.
Social distancing comes naturally on horseback, but everyone still called words of encouragement and excited hellos. Many of the riders knew each other, but new faces like ours were included in the camaraderie.
When the Jackpot started that night (the jackpot is a non-pointed run around the barrels before the official show starts the next day), the sun was setting quickly and thunder was rumbling in the background. Some rain would be a welcome break from the relentless heat, but I hoped we didn’t have to ride in a downpour. Volunteers were quick to keep the barrels set up and everyone moving efficiently in and out of the ring.
Katie Marshall is one of the volunteers and was our guide on that very first night. She is an animated woman with long hair, a ready laugh, and a friendly word for everyone.
She recognized Cat. “What a wonderful horse you’ve got there! Your daughter is going to learn so much from her.”
Because it was the first time many of these horses were off-property this summer, there was some bucking, rearing and general carrying-on in the warm-up pen. One rider was having some problems getting her horse into the pen; the gelding was snorting and backing up. Brody Marshall, a hardy volunteer with a distinctive beard, caught hold of the reins and was flung around, but held on gamely. He cajoled the horse into the chute, and got them safely on their way to the first barrel. It takes a certain kind of soul to grab the reins of a snorting, rearing dragon creature and direct all that strength and energy in the right direction!
When it was Faith’s turn to run, I could hardly breathe as she galloped out into the pen to turn her three barrels. Rain started to fall, and a light mist was cooling everything down.
Country music blared from the loudspeakers and the announcer enthusiastically welcomed her to the pen. The deep baritone rang out over the grounds. Both Ross Edwards and Craig Widdifield MC the shows and they have exceptional voices. Although we were new to the crowd, everyone cheered as she safely completed her race and even got the best time of her life.
Then it was my turn. Strangers and fellow competitors smiled at me as I walked in the rain towards the chute.
“Go on now!”
“You’ll do great.”
“Have a good ride!”
I’m more comfortable going slowly, but the kind words of the other riders buoyed me. With a deep breath, I released the reins and let Sienna run. We rounded the first barrel and I was almost knocked out of my saddle, but I got my bum back down in time to turn the second. Then we were careening towards the third, and the adrenaline in my system was exhilarating. I didn’t even notice the rain as we stretched out and ran back towards home. I ran a smoking 20-second pattern. (My daughter ran a 17-second pattern and won the rookie barrel division.) Maybe it was one of the slowest runs of the night, but it was a victory for me. We overcame fear and had fun.
Our family was thoroughly hooked. For the rest of the summer we attended the OBRA shows, and felt truly welcomed by this wonderful community. Tracy Lammin and Tina Spooner were so patient helping us understand how the pay-outs and order of go worked.
I, along with many of the competitors, were astonished and delighted in Paris, Ontario, when the Futurity race was paused when Blake Vonda got off his horse, down on one knee, and proposed to Betsy MacFarlane right in the middle of the pen. (She said yes.)
We watched our fellow riders experience personal bests, first runs, injuries, bravery, team work, and camaraderie. Our family made life-long friends and learned a new way of life. I don’t have the space to mention all of the wonderful volunteers who made sure everyone had a safe and enjoyable summer, but I thank them all and can’t wait to get to know more of them next season.
It’s inspirational to see a collective of people so dedicated to a sport. The volunteers are working twice as hard to meet every requirement to keep everyone safe during this unprecedented pandemic. And they are doing it all with constant smiles and words of encouragement for everyone.
Angelique Fawns is an agricultural journalist and writer of farm stories.
You can find her adventures here.