Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
Aspen, CO, Colorado
If anything, it seemed like a family reunion as I pulled into the Eagle County Fairgrounds. An outwardly endless line of horse trailers framed the parking area between the state-of-the-art indoor arena and the river, and no sooner had I backed into a choice spot, a couple of Woody Creek cow dogs gave me a big, wet-tongue welcome.
There are some good-looking women in my family, but even more than that, there are some talented horsewomen in that same family (Julie, Tye, Belinda, Lauren), and those were the ones I had come to witness. Sanctioned barrel racing is strictly for women now (doing a cross pattern around three barrels set up in a triangle outline in an arena), but don’t believe that just because it’s limited to women, it isn’t rough enough or doesn’t require guts to compete. To the contrary, it may be that the women barred men from competition simply because they didn’t want to see good men get hurt.
In the end, it’s about who goes around the barrels the fastest, and to get there requires not only skill but timing, coordination, speed, agility and a deep understanding between rider and horse. If it takes 4,000 repetitions to learn a piano or violin concerto by rote, it might take the running of 8,000 or 10,000 barrels to make a good, experienced team, horse and rider together.
Visualize one particular team: They come down the alleyway, horse at a calm trot, rider getting the lay of the land. As they enter the arena, they take a slow, familiarizing jog around to the left, circling back to the center with an appearance of nonchalance, but with the anticipatory surge of energy clearly palpable. Then, almost in slow motion, the horse instinctively drops his inside shoulder and heads for the first barrel at the same instant the rider’s outside leg slaps stirrup leather and spur against latigo and hide, and just like launching into a steep, powder-filled chute, the dance begins. In about the time it takes to blink (two jumps and one grunt), the horse is moving at top speed between 45 and 50 mph. Speed is important, but so is control.
There were approximately 50 competitors the day I showed up, accompanied by kids of various sizes, but very few men, with the exception of those attached to the above-mentioned women and my cousin Wylie, who ran the arena entry gate. Thoughtfully, there were three male inmates from the Eagle County jail released to move the barrels out of the way when it was time to groom the pattern (similar to side-slipping a race course), and the unintentional upshot was that the three “barrel tenders” were in uniform and visible at all times, gray-and-white stripes being the color of the day.
It’s not a sport you can buy your way into, not like some. Give an intermediate barrel racer a $50,000 horse, and before long, you’ll have an intermediate barrel racer with a spoiled horse. Horses and girls, both, start at the bottom and work their way up. Some women are better at getting a horse to perform than others, and sometimes a good horse takes up a lot of slack in his rider, but one thing about it, there are no “gimmes” once the stopwatch is activated.
My daughter’s horse, Primo, a light-colored palomino, is coming on strong for his first season as a barrel racer. His full potential is as yet unknown, but he has smoothness, a way of leaning into his turns around the barrels that suggests he might turn out to be a good one.
It’s easy for us to talk about a “run” – how fast it was and what could be done better, but it’s more difficult to know what the horse thinks about it all. Last Sunday, Lauren and Primo turned in what might have been their best performance of the season, and as they crossed the finish line, Primo let out with an unmistakable whinny, a nicker that said, “Right on!” I concur.
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