Jul 30, 2017 - By Scott Akanewich, Sports EditorThe National Barrel Horse Association will be running in Riverton every Wednesday night beginning in August.
Coming soon to a rodeo arena near you, the sound of thundering hoofs and the sight of dirt flying beneath them, all while man and animal race against the clock.
Or, to be more precise -- woman.
The National Barrel Horse Association's Wyoming District No. 1 will hold events at the Fremont County Fairgrounds every Wednesday night beginning Aug. 9.
According to local organizer Carol Lee, what the organization provides is a level playing field on which riders of all levels can display their horsemanship skills in a fair, competitive environment.
"The NBHA paved the way for riders of all skill levels to compete in a divisional format in the early 1990s and now is the largest barrel racing organization in the world," said Lee. "The divisional format allows all competitors, from beginners to professionals, a chance to compete, learn and succeed, while encouraging them to improve their skills and work toward the higher divisions."
NBHA members can compete at district, state, national and world-championship levels, earning money and prizes at the different levels.
Lee and husband Dan Lee are the engine which makes the local events a reality, but they can't bring everything to fruition without proper resources, which is where the community come into play, she said.
"Dan and I donate our time to produce a non-profit series that relies solely on the sponsorship and donations of our local community," said Lee. "We encourage families to become involved in the sport by offering three classes of competition -- open, youth and senior."
As a result, the local events can provide a springboard to higher level events for aspiring riders, as well as a training ground for the more experienced, said Lee.
"You often will find members competing in the local NBHA races that also compete at the top pro rodeos," she said. "They may not be riding their top horses, but seasoning a young horse for the futurities or rodeo trail by building their confidence up with the safer ground conditions."
Speaking of which, something one will see at an NBHA event is the presence of a tractor in the arena, which smooths out the surface of the arena after every five runs, which is a critical component, said Lee.
"Ground conditions are very important for the safety of the horse and riders," she said. "Which is why we rake every five runs to ensure a fair run to everyone."
Something else one notices upon arriving at an NBHA event is the absence of all the usual riding regalia, which is by design, she said.
"We like the riding environment to be casual," said Lee. "So, there's no dress code."
Despite the casual atmosphere, make no mistake, it's still very much a competition with proper incentives to drive the riders to excel, said Lee.
"By holding these NHBA races, members have an opportunity to compete divisionally against other riders of the same ability," she said."Our members who compete at the pro level, those who train and compete in futurities and the members who compete at the jackpot level are still going to compete against their own experience levels, allowing everyone an opportunity to win money at the race and earn year-end awards."
In fact, the format with different classes of competition provides more riders with an opportunity the bring home a paycheck for their efforts, said Lee.
"We pay three to four places in each of the four divisions depending on the number of members," she said. "In a rodeo format, only the top few will pull a check."
Walking through the dusty maze of horse trailers in the staging area, one can see first-hand the hard work, dedication and desire it takes to be a barrel racer. Only seconds are actually spent in the crucible of competition, compared to the countless hours riders spend with their respective animals ranging in everything from caring for them to building rapport, all far from the lights of the arena, said Lee.
"There's a lot involved in the sport of barrel racing," she said. "As you walk around the parking area, you'll witness the emotional bond and trust between horse and rider.It's so rewarding to watch the progress of these members from the first race of the season to the last, when we present awards."
However, as with any sport, youth participation is the foundation on which the future will be built, said Lee.
"Dan and I want to encourage the community's youth to become involved in this sport, as they are truly our future," she said. "It's amazing to see the youth who have competed at local NBHA races go on to achieve success at the high school and college levels."
Future is now
One such rider is Lander's Lacy Eckhardt, who participated in the season's first event on July 19 and is on her way to Casper College on a rodeo scholarship in the fall after having competed at the high-school level. She's been involved with the sport since she was 3 years old.
Eckhardt sat in the staging area on her 4-year-old mare named Soxy while explaining the origin of her love for rodeo.
"My whole family's always been involved in rodeo," said Eckhardt, who will compete for the Thunderbirds in barrel racing, pole bending and breakaway roping. "So, it was natural for me."
Eckhardt said the bond which must be built between human and animal in order to be successful is absolutely critical.
"A lot of it definitely depends on training horses from the beginning," she said. "It's really like anything else as far as spending the time to develop that kind of trust and relationship."
Eckhardt placed first in the 1D youth division on this day, completed her winning run on Soxy in a time of 18.657 seconds, then followed that up with another victory in the 2D class on Rojo in 19.704.
Dessirae Willow won the 3D youth competition on Dani in 21.035.
In the senior division, winners included Brenda Walker on Ka Ching (1D class, 17.876), Marla Ross on Chex (2D, 19.065) and Laurie Alexander on Irma (3D).
In the open division, winners were Shyla Nicholas on Boots (1D, 17.538), Jerrie Slagle (2D, 18.014), Brenda Walker on Ellie (3D, 18.460) and Missy Givens on Horse No. 1 (4D, 19.556).
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