Cowgirls sure to shine on Finals Rodeo barrels
The full-chested horse charges at full speed, turning at seemingly-impossible angles as it brushes against an obstacle that could tip over as the half-ton animal and its rider pirouette in a breath-taking cloud of dust, racing against the clock — and tough competition.
Welcome to the barrel racing arena, a sport that is equivalent to an all-women jousting tournament (without the heavy armor and spears) and in recent years has caught on in popularity. It is a true Western original.
It will also be a featured event at this year’s Colorado Pro Rodeo Association Finals Rodeo Sept. 14, 15 and 16 at the Mesa County Fairgrounds. The event is sponsored locally by the Mesa County Sheriff’s Posse, which has been active in the Grand Valley for more than half a century.
Barrel racing began in small-town rodeos and gatherings of ranch hands, perhaps after the turn of the century. While the cowboys roped, branded and got bucked off bulls and horses, the cowgirls showed off their skills, too, racing around obstacles in what would eventually become the now-familiar cloverleaf pattern.
In 1981, the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association was formed to encourage women throughout the country to hone their training techniques, set standards and help with events that showcase their talents.
Speeds in barrel racing may exceed 25 mph, and tipping a barrel over results in a five-second penalty. Also, racers can be disqualified for running an incorrect pattern.
Training, agility, expertise and a big-hearted horse can make all the difference between a 15-second race or a 17-second race.
Margie Ward of Eagle has been barrel racing for much of her life — “Since she was about 4,” says husband, Gary, a retired policeman. The two share this equine passion equally: “I drive her and her horses all over the place so that she can compete,” he said. Last week, he was especially excited about a young horse they have and how well it did at a Cortez rodeo.
Ward races three horses, Bucky, 7, Sky, 12, and Fitz, 19. The youngster, Bucky, is “really starting to come on,” Margie said, echoing her husband’s pride.
Ward will be among the barrel-racing contestants in this year’s CPRA Finals Rodeo in Grand Junction. This is her eighth consecutive year in the rodeo.
Quarter horses dominate the sport of barrel racing.
“Probably 95 percent of them are quarter horses,” Ward said. “These are big, athletic horses. They have big hearts and enjoy what they do,” she added.
Saddles are specific to barrel-racing, and must fit the racer and horse properly.
Training varies with the horses’ abilities and passion.
“Bucky has had about three years of training, but some horses take to it after only a year. It has to be fun for them ... they have to really put their heart into it,” she said.
Barrel racing is more than a hobby or even a passion. It’s a lifestyle. Ward said she and her husband spend “thousands” of dollars each year on their horses and the competition circuit.
Ward works as the community service officer for the Eagle Police Department. She also gives barrel-racing lessons to young riders. She has noticed in the past year an upsurge in the number of younger contestants.
“They are tough girls — they have three or four horses and those horses are very competitive.”