Power and grace
Barrel racing a true display of teamwork between horse, rider
Horse and rider working together, pure power and grace.
The rider’s skill on full display, the horse’s power and athleticism apparent with every acceleration and every turn.
As Audra Penasa uses her reins to steer her horse, Jessie, into the turn and around the final barrel, it’s time to head for the finish, and that means getting up to top speed as quickly as possible.
Penasa gets low, close to the mane, and spurs the big horse. With lean muscles rippling, ears back, Jessie powers home in a full gallop.
A magnificent display of teamwork with that combination of power and grace working as one.
This event was a casual competition last month at the Surface Creek Riding Club arena in Cedaredge, and that meant most competitors wore ball caps instead of cowboy hats, which are mandatory for the big races. The competition, however, was still as heated as any.
A race against the clock, a race to be the fastest in a division.
Barrel racing is the women’s event of rodeo. Sure, some women will try other rodeo events, even occasionally climbing into the chute for bull riding, but it’s the barrels where women find their niche.
“The horsemanship is my favorite part,” Penasa said. “Anybody can go out there and run, but to have a good run, you have to connect with the horse and have the training. Lots of training.”
A good horse is key for this sport, and that takes years of training to get ready for fast runs in the barrel racing arena.
“It’s very important to have that connection, if you have the confidence in your horse, you’ll hold on and make a clean run and let the horse work,” said the 25-year-old Delta woman.
There’s fabulous camaraderie with the sport, with competitors cheering each other on, and complimenting a rider after clean, fast rides.
There’s also some close calls as the horse digs into the soft dirt of the arena, nearly falling as the team makes the tight turns.
Decades of experience
Arthene Robins steps on the side rail of her horse trailer to hoist herself up on her horse, John’s Gift of Life.
She hasn’t always needed that extra boost of height to climb on her barrel racing partner.
The two seem to be an ageless duo in this sport.
“Between the two of us, you do the addition,” she said laughing.
Robins is 75 and “John” is 22.
“I didn’t used to have to use a step to get on him,” she said with another laugh.
She let out a little groan as she pulled the saddle off after her day of racing. With another laugh, she confessed that’s that not as easy a chore as it used to be.
The day is filled with chores for these riders, before and after the races.
Loading and unloading horses from trailers, feeding and watering, grooming, and even a little minor doctoring on occasion, it’s a work-intense sport.
Robins’ saddle tells a story about her love of horses and the sport.
The Cedaredge woman didn’t start running barrels when she was young, but she always knew that she would be in the arena some day.
“When I was a kid, we didn’t have the money to buy a saddle, and we had to ride bareback, and I would see the girls ride in the rodeos,” she said, smiling at the memory. “I was hooked right then, I was 13, 14 years old and I was like, I want to do that.
“It was quite a few years before I got a saddle, and a horse, but once I did, we’ve been going strong ever since,” she said.
The saddle she used on this day had a special accomplishment burned into the leather: “2010, Open Colorado Champion.”
“He’s won me quite a few,” Robins said, before walking her longtime companion over for a nice cooling shower from a hose.
The ‘horse bug’
Penasa got an early start in the sport.
“Probably since I could breathe,” she said with a laugh.
Friends and family close by nodded and smiled.
“I just had the horse bug. At 10 or 11, I got a really good horse and that’s when it really hit me.”
Horses with good training around 4 years old are usually ready, and those quality horses can run into their 20s — like John’s Gift of Life.
The one thing that all riders know is these horse athletes need to be taken care of to keep them healthy.
“You always take care of them, anything you can do for them, you do,” Penasa said. “Chiropractor, feet, teeth — they get taken care of better than we do.”
Another woman who took awhile to get moving in the sport is Trudy Petersen of Clifton.
“We had horses when I was a kid but we didn’t do anything with them,” she said. “I always loved horses and just needed something to do with them.”
Enter barrel racing, which Petersen took up when she was in her early 30s.
Now 47, she smiles about how far she’s come in the sport.
Along with her husband, Rick Petersen, an accomplished steer wrestler, the two have immersed themselves into the rodeo competition culture.
On this day, Trudy had a rough run in the arena.
Riding Smart Little Corona, Petersen knocked over a barrel for a five-second penalty. But it wasn’t a day to focus on winning, it was a training day.
“That horse is 5 and he hasn’t really been anywhere,” she said. “When it’s a colt, (winning) doesn’t really matter.
“When you’re going for the win it’s one thing, but when you’re riding colts, you know they’re going to mess up.”
She then gave the horse some intense scratching on his rear end, which he loved.
She didn’t blame the young horse for the mistake in the arena.
“I’ll say, 90 percent of the time they mess us because you mess up,” she said.
Later, she took Smart Little Corona back out for a practice run. The run was quick and flawless.
“We fixed it, we got it fixed big-time,” Pertersen said.
From hobby to a job
Regardless of the horse, Petersen was a fast learner in the sport, and she credited long-time barrel race competitor and trainer Cheryl Harper of Palisade for helping her get up to speed.
Like most of the riders, the sport is a hobby with a little money to be won here and there, but it’s mainly an opportunity to compete, improve and ride.
For Petersen, the hobby turned into a career when she suddenly found herself out of a job.
After 23 years with a telephone/cable company, she found herself over a barrel when she was laid off only two years away from retirement.
She knew her love of horses would shape the next chapter of her life.
“I love training, I love horses and I bought three colts,” she said.
That was the start of her breeding and training business.
“I decided that I was going to try to make it a go,” she said.
She confessed that it can be difficult to make a connection with a horse, only to see it depart for other pastures.
“That’s how you make money, selling horses,” she said. “It was tough in the beginning, but if you look at it as your business, you know that’s your business, and you know that they are going to go away.”
From a competition perspective, there has to be a mental adjustment.
“What’s hard for me, is you’re winning, then you’re not winning anymore,” she said.
Robins wasn’t quite done in the arena after she hosed down John’s Gift of Life.
She saddled her 3-year-old horse, hoisted herself up and took off for the arena for some practice time.
“He still needs a lot of work before he’s ready, but he’ll get there,” she said, giving the young horse an encouraging pat on the neck.
Then the future barrel-racing team started off on a gentle trot.