January 24, 2013
For the first time in four years I am faced with the prospect of training a barrel horse. For those of you who are non-rodeo types, barrel racing is supposed to look like this:
Yeah, it is as much fun as it looks. Like the most awesome carnival ride you’ve ever been on, except there are no rails and the car has a will of its own.
A really good barrel horse has to have three things: speed, agility, and a rock solid mind (which is not the same thing as rock-headed). Of those, the third is the most important, and the hardest to find. You’re asking for both top speed and fingertip control on changing ground conditions, with hundreds of distractions like flags and banners, crowds and loud music, shouting rodeo announcers, other horses. It can take years to learn whether a horse really has the mettle to compete, and most barrel racers will go through a pasture-ful that almost made it only to short circuit when the pressure is cranked up.
In a host of infuriating, depressing ways it is very much like dating. You meet. You get to know each other. You go out for a few…dates. (Go ahead, make the cheap joke about riding and working up a lather. You know you want to.) Some horses you cross off the list immediately. Too clumsy. Too slow. Too flighty. Not interested. Some seem like a good fit at the beginning, but after a few weeks you realize it’s not going to work out. Those are disappointing, but you shrug it off as part of the process.
The real heart-breakers are the ones I call Mr. Sometimes. (Yeah, I know there are girl horses, too. Change it to Ms. if it suits you.) You suffer through a month of misery–blown turns, knocked down barrels, failure to finish–and just when you’ve had it, you’re ready to throw up your hands and walk away, he has a moment of perfection. The two of you are in sync, and it’s all so damn effortless and intoxicating and you think, “I’ve got it! Finally. If I move exactly like this, and wear that color, and say these things, he’ll love and cherish me forever.”
Oh, wait, we were talking about horses.
So you go on, milking enough encouragement from your fleeting success to endure more misery, days and weeks that are more bad than good, convinced there’s a magic formula, a secret key that will turn Mr. Sometimes into Mr. All the Time. Except one day you wake up and realize you’ve traded three years of your life for a dozen shining moments and there is no magic bullet, although there have been plenty of times it was probably good you didn’t own a gun.
Luckily, my barrel racing stint is temporary. I only have to get this mare in shape so a local girl can try her out. If it happens to be a good match, awesome. If not, the mare can go back to happily lounging around the pasture. And me? Heh. Anybody wanna rope some calves?
Kari Lynn Dell – Montana for Real