Around the barrel: Slack at Cheyenne Frontier Days gives intimate look at barrel racing
July 27, 2016
Barrel racing is an extremely popular event. The only event that generates more boisterous enthusiasm is Mutton Bustin'.
Everyone loves to see a running horse, and the incredible equine athletes generate a tremendous amount of speed between barrels. When they get to a barrel, they turn without seeming to slow down and head off in a new direction. Go fast, turn clean, fastest time wins – simple, right?
Of course, it is not that simple. Riders spend years training. Barrel racers start very young. They learn to be comfortable at top speed by constantly increasing the speed at which they run the pattern until the fear is gone and everything seems normal.
Horses have to be trained also. Over and over they run the pattern, starting slowly and building speed as they progress. Horses are a prey animal, so almost anything can startle them. Riders take them to town to condition them to the overwhelming assault on their senses that comes with a rodeo.
Lainie Whitmire described what it is like to bring a horse to Cheyenne Frontier Days, which has a huge outdoor arena.
"You come to the rodeo and there are so many variables," she said. "You have the crowd, the music, the cannons going off and the flags, and all of these different distractions that the horses do not experience. It takes a great amount of time to season the horse to go to a rodeo, especially one like Cheyenne. This is a nerve wracking rodeo even for a horse that's seasoned."
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The sheer size of the Cheyenne arena can be upsetting to a horse.
"The wide open arena has a big impact. There are no walls for them to gauge their turn off of. The walls help them to rate and set. In Cheyenne, there is nothing to help them," Whitmire said. "Even for a rider, this arena is intimidating, because it is so far from the alley where you start to where your first barrel is. As a rider, it is hard for us to gauge when we should cue our horse, sit down, say whoa and change our body position from running as fast as we can to a point where we should sit down, collect our horse and let our horse turn the barrel."
Slack, the name for overflow rodeo events which happen before the highlighted rodeo performance, is a wonderful time to watch barrel racing. Slack does not feature the limited number of riders that you see during the performance. You watch the hundreds of entrants that must be winnowed down to the best of the best so that the entire rodeo can fit into a reasonable time frame. Slack is a free chance for viewers to see all timed events, and it's a much more relaxed time and you can really appreciate the athletic ability of horse and rider. ❖