Most of us have experienced the thrill of riding a roller coaster. We begin by anxiously waiting in line anticipating the excitement of the park attraction. When it’s our turn, we slide into the cockpit-like seat and get locked in with a padded lap bar, implicitly warning us of the impending danger. Finally, the car jolts forward and we begin the slow, rhythmic incline until we reach the crest of the hill and begin accelerating downward. With white knuckles we hold on for a harrowing 45 seconds as we traverse hills, valleys, and turns until the tracks lead us back to where we started….and it’s over.
Henry County is home to a group of students who regularly enjoy a wildly different kind of thrill-ride called barrel racing. Known as Team Lunsford, this band of friends can be found most weekends in dusty arenas throughout our state, masterfully riding their horses at full speed through a cloverleaf barrel pattern. Gwyneth “Gwenie” Brannon, age 13, one of the younger members of the team, has been riding for three years. She admits that the excitement of the race, which includes both fast turning and amazing acceleration, is certainly thrilling. But she quickly adds she receives even greater satisfaction from knowing she and her horse, Freckles, compete with excellence. Through hard work, she has achieved great success, winning multiple awards, including two saddles within the last year.
For the inexperienced rider, the fearful idea of barrel racing begins as you cautiously approach a 1,200 pound mass of toned muscle blowing and nodding its head. The small, metal bit in its mouth rattles as the beast shuffles its feet from side to side. As you ease closer, your senses are filled with the aroma of worn leather, horse sweat, and hay. The animal turns its head and examines you with its large, black eyes. Then, its nose thrusts toward you, with nostrils flaring, as it sizes you up – just as you have been eyeing him.
Next, after firmly grabbing the rein with your left hand, you stretch your left boot up to a stirrup, which is hanging down on the left side of the horse. The stirrup is attached to the saddle by a large, leather flap. The seat of the saddle is a wooden shank, called a tree, covered with leather, with a matching stirrup on the opposite side of the horse. The saddle has an oversized horn that serves to assist as you mount the horse and stay on during the fury of the ride. As your right leg swings over the back of the saddle, it searches for its home in the other stirrup. There is no seat belt or head rest. Your balance, the stirrups, and your ability to hold on, keep you on the horse…if you’re lucky.
For the young but seasoned riders on Team Lunsford, the ride begins much differently. As each one approaches his or her horse, you can hear them quietly call out to their horse, using names like Scout, Dipper, Sugar Baby, and Jessie. Without exception, like a sheep knows the sound of the shepherd’s voice, the horse turns its head toward them, perking its ears, eager to listen to its rider. As each rider moves closer, the horse lowers its head, hoping for a gentle rub between the eyes.
Once mounted and in the arena, it’s easy to see the horse and rider know each other and are working together to beat the clock. Emily Hanson, age 11, loves to spend time with her horse, Dipper. She brags that he is 22 years old and still going strong. The countless hours the two of them have spent training together allow them to perform like a well-oiled machine.
Competition barrel racing is not for the weak at heart. For most of us who don’t ride regularly, the experience can even be dangerous. The quicker the horse and rider complete the course, the more successful they are. Achieving the best score requires a horse with quick acceleration and efficient turning ability – and a rider who can stay on the horse during these athletic moves. Surprisingly, some advanced riders can complete the entire course in as few as 14 seconds.
During a barrel racing competition, the horse and mounted rider begin from a standstill. When they are ready, they burst toward the first barrel at full gallop. After circling the barrel, the horse accelerates toward the second one. Even if the acceleration of the horse doesn’t throw the rider off its back, the turn of the horse around the obstacle can leave the unprepared rider on the ground. After rounding the third barrel, the horse and rider race out of the course at full speed.
Allison Lunsford, team coach and stable owner, says not all good barrel horses are the same. She explains, “Some horses love turning and save time by hustling around the barrel. Other horses love running and therefore have an advantage between the barrels and at the exit.”
With great horse and rider pairs, a bond develops between them. Allison shares, “These riders spend hours each week with their horses at our barn in Jenkinsburg.” For a team member, each riding day begins by grooming his or her horse and cleaning its feet, all of the time calming the horse with words of comfort and familiarity. Getting to know the horse and establishing a trust relationship, helps the rider and horse compete as top performers. She credits the team’s success to the riders’ steadfast commitment.
One of the riders, Cassidy Johnson, states that she works her horse, Little Paint, at least three times per week, for two hours each day, plus longer hours on show days. Cassidy has been riding for eight years. Allison confides that Cassidy has a gift with horses: “She speaks their language.” When asked about her favorite part of riding, Cassidy acknowledges the fun of the riding, but reserves her highest adoration for the satisfaction of coaxing from her horse its full potential. Her commitment and gift have paid off, as she is one of the premiere barrel racers in the state of Georgia.
Allison explains that the team’s barrel racing horses are athletes. And like all successful competitors, conditioning is crucial. She boasts that even in the toughest weather conditions, her riders faithfully make their way to the barn and saddle-up their horses, giving them a workout and sharpening their fundamentals. During the most recent break from school, Eli Jones, age 12, spent most of the days at the barn. Even during the bitter cold, he rode his horse, Scout, providing needed exercise and training.
Barrel racing produces more than a strong friendship between horse and rider. The team members have also developed a strong bond with each other. They share the good times and the bad. Shelby Callison, a 17 year old who has been riding for five years, recounts that the common interest the team members have in horses has provided a strong foundation for great friendships. She particularly likes the shows, where they are able to gather in the barn area and talk while waiting for their turn in the arena.
Kevin Callison, Shelby’s father, is excited about barrel racing because of the impact it is having on his daughter’s life. Besides learning about commitment and responsibility, she is making great friends. For him, the thrill of barrel racing is seeing his daughter excel in important life skills, a delight that is sure to last longer than a mere 45 seconds.