We stumbled across the Barrel Race on a lazy Saturday afternoon drive in our new neighborhood. A strong tradition of horsemanship permeates life here, we frequently share the road with riders. According to our neighbor, Spanish Rodeo’s used to dominate the summers, its not unusual to see someone decked out in a traditional sombrero and spurs seated on a magnificent horse.
Today’s specimens were not so flashy, they were the local kids. We spotted them competing as we were filing up at a gas station up the hill from a feed and tack store. The corral below was surrounded by scattered groups of parents and family members. Aged 8-17, the kids were prequalifying for county competitions that might lead to state and perhaps even a national title.
It was the kind of event you imagine happening in the country on a sunny summers day. Chattering people in lawn chairs with coolers filled with diet drinks and hydrogenated snacks laughed and squirted on sunscreen in the July heat. Everybody knew everybody but us, still they offered us chairs and struck up a conversation as if we were a long lost relatives. Of course it doesn’t hurt if you have a cute toddler who some day soon might want horse riding lessons.
“Here sweetie, take the whole pack of Cheeze-Its. He can have these right? We took over the feed store a while back and we love teaching kids.”
She was the essence of Grandmother, in a crazy flowered sun hat and a deeply worn drug store chair, she made everyone feel at home in a way only country elders seem to be able to do. We were at one end of a straggly line of grandparents, parents, siblings and miscellaneous relations. Their school for training kids was sponsoring this competition, it was definitely a family affair. Two women sat at a table with an ancient sound system that looked like it was made from rusted tin cans reading off names from a spiral note pad.
“Next from our 8-10 age group is Jimmy Hernandez.” The kids wore disheveled jeans and t-shirts with odd assortments of helmets atop their heads. The horses were equally mismatched, some fit their riders well while others looked like last minute prom dates.
Most of the kids put on a good show. Starting from one end of the corral they’d urge their horse into a full run and loop around three barrels. The clock started as soon as they passed two posts at one end of the corral. First they’d cut inside looping to the right, then rush towards us and cut left around another barrel, then down to the far end for one more loop before heading all the way back to where they started.
“That was Jimmy at twenty-three seconds!” We all applauded, cheers rose up from somewhere down the row – that’s how we knew where Jimmy’s family was. Our son was equally fascinated by his new Cheeze-Its providing friend as he was by the show in the ring. I was enjoying feeling at home in a place that often felt like an odd fit to me.
Some of the riders couldn’t even finish the course – I’m sure that’s better than I could have done. They’d bounce up and down on an unfamiliar mount, trying to get their new friend around a barrel before the time ran out and they were guided back. Everyone cheered in support because they were our kids, they were a part of our community.
I missed it – the significance of the emcee announcing her name. I only realized it had been met by silence when I thought about it afterward. All the parents had been waiting for it. I knew someone special had entered the ring when the scream rang out: “HEEEYYYYYaaaahhhhhhhh!” It pierced the dusty sunny day like a gunshot, a battle cry sounding out from the starting area. A warrior just arrived.
She couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen years old, my wife thinks she was ten. Her shoulder length straw blond hair was barely pulled back like a dusty handful of dried weeds, a short-sleeved western shirt tucked into her jeans finished off with old cowboy boots. Her mouth was wide open as she passed through the posts and pulled her horse into the first turn.
As she gripped the reins I saw steel sinew streaming down from her shoulders connecting her to a gray speckled pony that was built of the same material. There was not an ounce of flesh between them – probably the lightest, stringy-est competitors that day. In motion they were beyond beautiful. As they whipped forward they merged, becoming a terrifying two-headed centaur that would would surely achieve its goal or die trying.
“AAAAAHHHHhhhhhhhhheeeEEEAAasy Easy EASY!” Her scream slipped into words as she rounded the first barrel. They wrapped around that barrel like strapping tape before exploding forward. They were heading straight for us – I looked in the horses eyes and I knew she wanted to ride as hard and as fast as her rider did. They had the same look – it was as if they both knew the forces moving through them would likely tear them apart, but they didn’t care. In this moment they were one being, doing what they were born to do.
Both of their lips were curled as they rode down upon us. “AAAAHHHHH-EEEAAAAaassssyy!” the scream became words again as they whipped around the second barrel – it didn’t move, though they would have made a ring all the way around if horses sweat paint. They were already focused on the final turn before we realized they weren’t going to fly through the fence and run us down. I understood then that she was holding her horse back as she made her pass around the barrels so she wouldn’t break her legs. She was moving so fast, wanted so badly to succeed she would have blown herself to pieces if her rider wasn’t there to temper her effort.
They headed away from us, a straw pony tail and a horses tail dissolving into a wall of dust their hooves kicked up. Another flawless turn and the scream doubled as they started back to the other side of the finish line. Now she let everything out, they were all sweat and dust and wailing light as they burned back across the ring.
“Seventeen seconds!” The crowd gasped and cheered. Everybody but us knew it was coming, no rider from any age group would touch that time. I don’t think her scream ever broke, I don’t think she ever took a breath. My wife and I looked at each other with our mouths open. We’d just been schooled by a tiny girl and her soul mate, they taught us that horsemanship could be an act of supreme athletic achievement.
The real show was over. We watched a few more riders, thanked Grandma for the food and conversation and walked back to our car. I had not seen a true warrior spirit for so long yet it was so plain to see in the partnership of this girl and horse. There was nothing extra to them, they were unified in their purpose. Everything was offered up fearlessly.
Epilogue – 7 years later.
Our boy Tadg has started to ride in that same arena. He’s 8 and has a great love of the horse he gets to ride: Tobo, a magnificent animal. Perhaps thats why he’s a little timid about riding too fast, too much horse for him. With time I’m sure he’ll feel good about hitting a fast gallop, there’s no rush.
He’s also got a three year old sister now, Truly Rose Flynn. The two of them wrestle – she is beyond fierce, as ready with a roar as she is with hysterical laughter. She’s too young to ride yet, but she can hardly wait. Every time we watch Tadg and Tobo she’s always begging. At first she had to ride Tobo, she’s reluctantly scaled down again and again until she found the smallest pony, just her size. I can already feel it in her, that warrior scream just waiting to come out. She was made for the kind of freedom only a horse can provide.