I got the text message last week.
“Do you want to run barrels after you’re done judging the hunter show?” My friend Amy wrote.
I was traveling back to my old stomping grounds of the Crawford County fairgrounds to judge her Denim and Dust Hunter Schooling Show, a part of their Weekend Extravaganza. Hunters on Saturday, Poles, Barrels and Keyhole Saturday night, and all of the normal 4-H classes Sunday.
Amy knew me well, having watched me grow up under the tutelage of her mother Rose from the age of 4 on. She knew that although I had been strictly Eventing for almost a decade, that I had the eye to score the Hunter rounds. That even if my background screamed jumping tables and dropping down banks, I would be fair but tough. And maybe more important, that although my largest claim to fame was in winning a dressage competition, there was nothing more I loved than swinging onto my Billy Cook at the end of a long day.
So I immediately responded with a capitalized YES and didn’t ask any other questions.
I arrived at the judges booth of the Fairgrounds bright and early Saturday morning. I took my seat and surveyed the arena. The jumps were set beautifully, with a rated show feel.
And for the next 8 hours, I scored everything from crossrails to a Derby. It was such a fun experience, watching the next generation of Amy’s and Carleigh’s while sitting next to my own Amy. She announced, I judged, and we heckled each other back and forward all while giggling over the realization of how old we had become and how far we have come.
And then I changed gears. I took off my khakis and donned some jeans. Unlaced my Merril’s and found my Rod Patrick’s. And I replaced my sun hat with a Stetson.
It was barrels time.
I met my mount and immediately giggled. Beemer was only about 15hh, and looked miniature compared to my thoroughbreds. She had a look on her face that said “don’t even try to snuggle woman” and an ass that screamed V8. Her glossy bay coat rippled over striated muscles, demonstrating hours of time logged in the gym. She was fit, and she was ready.
I swung her rope halter on and led her to the trailer to be tacked. The infinitesimal differences in routine immediately gave me flashbacks to Wyoming.
A rope halter instead of glistening leather and brass straps adorned her face. A 30 pound saddle was swung on her back, along with a large leverage bit connecting a severe twisted wire. No mounting block was offered, and for the first time in years I was forced to reach for a horn, possibly popping a hamstring (and the seam of my jeans) in the process.
And then I was on.
I meandered around the tiny warm up area, trying to remember how to neck rein left and right. Glancing around to see if Beemers owners were watching. Petrified of messing her up, I slowly urged her into a posting jog, and then softly sat before asking her to lope. I expected a willing and eager horse, albeit with some possibly high octane energy, but instead felt a sluggish and somewhat bitter mount beneath me.
Her back rounded underneath my seat, and I felt the inner workings of a futuristic buck. I immediately pulled back on the reins and begged her to halt, not wanting to risk coming off. And I stared over at her owners, trying to use ESP for some assistance without causing a scene.
Her “mom” waved me over and asked if I wanted to take her into a nearby field, with the option of kicking her forward that I didn’t have in the tiny warm up arena. I breathed out a yes, and we regrouped.
She told me that Beemer was a really good mare, but offered some advice. She said as I was approaching the barrel, I needed to bend Beemers head towards the inside, while using my inside leg to maneuver her shoulder around the obstacle. To keep my eyes up and fixate on the next barrel, and as I “candy caned” around the first, to switch to my outside aids to straighten her through the turn and gallop off.
I was told that before I approached the second barrel, I would need to sit up and “check her” and the repeat the process to the other direction. She asked me to go out into a large circle and practice that–the bending and lateral work I would use in the arena.
And I realized something. Barrel racing is a lot like dressage.
Ok, I get what you’re thinking. What? But hear me out.
They might have different terminology, different tack, and a different scoring system. One might have more screaming and less golf clapping. And one might have a much shorter test, with a better chance of winning some money.
But they are so similar.
I had a comprehension of what she was asking me to do, because I do something so similar before asking Nixon for a trot or canter lengthening. Shoulder in through the corner, and then a few strides of haunches in before asking him to straighten and lengthen across the diagonal.
Just like in barrel racing, you ask for every ounce of contained forward motion that you are willing to risk across that straight line. And then it’s another shifting of the rib cage, increments of shoulder fore and the maneuvering of the haunches. A half halt being just a different term to describe the “check” that we hear screaming from the rails of a barrel pattern.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I still went into the arena slightly petrified. I didn’t want to make an ass of myself, letting the kids see their “judge” fall off during a barrel pattern. I wanted to prove to the owners of Beemer that they weren’t crazy for letting me ride their horse. And most importantly, I wanted to give Beemer the ride she deserved.
But as I circled to the right, I realized that I was prepared. I had cross trained for years. My dressage lessons would come out, I was sure of it.
And off we went. Straight. Shoulder fore right. Haunches in left. And straighten. Forward. Shoulder fore left. Haunches in right. And straighten. Half halt. HALF HALT. Shoulder fore left. Haunches in right. And straighten. And with that straightness ask for the run – go for the 9, not the 6!!!!
We got home clean and with a time of 19.2, putting us firmly in the middle of the 2D group, which left me with a huge smile. I didn’t win, but I also didn’t suck.
I heard my friends and Beemer’s owners hooting and hollering as I patted Beemer on the neck and swung off to give her a hug.
Such a good horse. A great barrel mare, and maybe even possibly a great dressage mare.
Because that’s what I learned this weekend. That’s all barrel racing is. A dressage test around some cans. Something that maybe all of us “English” riders need to experience. To cross train. To recalibrate. To experience something new. To keep your brain and your body fresh and excited for the next ride.
And me, well it’s something I would love to do again.