Frontier Days showcases ongoing boom in female-dominated barrel racing
August 19, 2013
Somewhere along its evolutionary line, rodeo became an all-male sport.
It was not because there were no women competitors, because there were, just as there are women competing today in the Woman's Professional Rodeo Association.
Things just kind of worked out that way.
Overall, the number of rodeos for the WPRA is limited, but membership in the barrel racing division has exploded.
Just as rodeo evolved to a male dominated sport, barrel racing evolved to be a female-dominated event.
Equine clubs in the eastern U.S. have mixed genders in barrel racing and in the West, boys compete in junior classes.
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When it comes to professional barrel racing, it is females only.
Barrel racing is immensely popular today.
Cheyenne Frontier Days had almost 300 riders competing in a day-long slack to determine who advanced to the performances.
At the end of slack, all but 107 went home without ever competing at a performance before rodeo fans.
The fortunate 107 were further diminished at each performance until only 12 remained to compete at the final performance for the coveted Cheyenne Frontier Days Buckle.
Lainie Whitmire from northern Colorado's Table Mountain Ranch was one of the talented few that advanced to the performance round and graciously took time to share some insights about barrel racing.
Barrel racing is a team sport of rider and horse, and it takes a special horse to do it.
"You want them to be athletic, and have plenty of speed," said Lainie Whitmire. "But it needs to be short speed, not necessarily a horse that is going to win on the track, but the horse that is first out of the gate. You need that quick burst of speed. The main thing that they have to have — and they don't have to be running bred to have this — they have to have quick athleticism. An athletic horse is going to get you a long way. You want a horse that is quick, honest, and will go out there and work every time. A lot of it is just try. They have to try for you."
A horse starts its barrel racing career as a 4-year-old in the Futurity division, then they go on to the 5- and 6-year-old Derby division before they will start their pro rodeo careers.
The rodeo environment can be intimidating to a young horse.
"You come to the rodeo and there are so many variables, including the weather, that can affect the ground," Whitmire said. "Then 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 in the Futurity world. So 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 for a horse that's seasoned. Even for an old veteran horse, there is a lot going on for them to be able to concentrate."
The sheer size of the Cheyenne arena can be upsetting to a horse.
"The wide open arena has a big impact," Whitmire added. "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. 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. Even 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."
A lot of people that are not barrel racers think that, once trained, the horse does most of the work and the rider is more or less just a passenger.
Nothing could be farther from reality.
The rider is an active and critical part of the team.
The horse knows its job, and, besides all the things that the rider must do, the one thing that she must not do is get in the way of the horse.
"What we try to do is stay in the middle of the horse and go with them," Whitmire said. "If you are stepping one way or the other you are throwing your horse's balance off. When you turn that first barrel, you have to be leaving that first barrel with the horse. You have to pull yourself up with your saddle horn or you will be behind the horse, and you have got to release that horse's head at the right time, or you are hindering him going to the next barrel."
Barrel racers at every level have a tremendous financial investment in their horses.
But the relationship between horse and rider goes far deeper than that.
Whitmire summed it up when she said, "Our horses are an extension of our family. I hope that the people that watch rodeos realize that we love our horses. You spend a lot of time with your horses. They go everywhere with us — they are like family. It bothers me to some extent, when I see some of the animal rights groups saying things about rodeo or the way that we treat our animals. We love these animals. If anything happens to one of these horses, it's like it happened to a member of our family." ❖