. . .and it’s not just for women
You may be tough enough to wear pink, but are you strong enough to watch a rodeo?
Some people don’t like what they see as the brutal treatment of rodeo animals. Calves are roped, tackled and thrown to the ground; bulls and horses are launched in a bucking frenzy across dust-choked arenas.
In the past decade, rodeo associations have taken the well-being of their animals seriously, and abuse is no longer an issue. But if you’re still feeling a little worried about the whites of those calves’ eyes, here’s a rodeo event to make you relax, as it is one that both animal and rider clearly enjoy: barrel racing.
There’s a long tradition in sports of women getting tired of waiting for men to give them a chance and taking matters into their own hands. The wives of cattle ranchers were no different from, or no less impatient than, our more contemporary female soccer and rugby players. While cowboys turned their everyday labor into occasions for competition—roping steers, breaking truculent broncs—cowgirls decided to make up their own game. They set up oil barrels in a triangle pattern and raced their horses at top speed around them, the winner being the cowgirl and cowhorse that completed the pattern the fastest.
The sport that emerged is now the subject of several national organizations, and is the single women’s-only category in professional rodeo events.
Participants agree that the key to barrel racing is the relationship between rider and horse. Speed and agility matter, but total coordination between rider and mount is critical. Quarter horses are preferred in barrel racing, as they are in ranching, for their speed and their ability to stop and turn on a dime. They leave the chute at a full run and make three tight turns in a cloverleaf pattern around the barrels. If a horse knocks over a barrel, five seconds are added as penalty. The horse has to be adroit at changing leads, and at backing up—shifting his weight from his forelegs to his back legs to make the turns without going nose-first into the dirt. He has to be fast, and he has to be willing.
The willingness is what makes racing barrels the most heartening of all rodeo events to watch. More often than not the rider and horse have been working together for years, and a hands-on relationship has developed that makes communication almost intuitive. Watch the rider talking to her mount as he digs into one turn and stretches out for the next one.
Even better, watch the horse, which quite possibly is having more fun than his rider. Ears are pricked, eyes are bright, and every rippling muscle shows the effort this baby is making to please his rider and strut his stuff. There are some show-offs that will snort repeatedly as they gallop; and there are those that will suddenly decide they want nothing to do with this stupid barrel stuff. They’ll look glum, drag a leg, barely break a gallop. They are, after all, only human, as any horse person will tell you.
Another reason to check out the barrel racing is because this year, something out of the ordinary will be happening. The Watershed Barrel Racing event is open to anyone living within the Gunnison watershed boundaries, including Gunnison, Crested Butte and Lake City.
You might be tough enough to wear pink, but Scott Dougherty is even tougher than that. At 23 years old and a descendent of the Vader ranching family, he’s the only adult male entered in the traditionally all-female barrel racing event.
Speaking by phone from his day job at Standard Oil, Scott claims to have been talked into entering by his sister, Kayla. “I was persuaded,” he says, diplomatically. Bribed? “Forced,” he clarifies.
He’ll be riding Paco, his dad’s sorrel quarter horse, which he recently rode to victory at a college barrel racing event. He beat his sister’s time in the same event. To get even, Kayla insisted that Scott enter Paco in the Watershed event.
Asked if he would wear a dress to compete, Scott said absolutely not. He does have a strategy for winning, which he described, drily, as “taking two right turns and a left,” and believes that his tighter turns at the college rodeo helped him beat Kayla. Also, he says, he has a better relationship with Paco.
“Paco can get a little hot-headed with Kayla up,” Scott explains. “She pisses him off. I calm him down.”
What is the most challenging aspect of barrel racing? “Nerves.”
Perhaps Scott’s friends could persuade—or force—him to view his gender-bending entry in the barrel racing as a clever way to meet the chicks, and be the only rooster in that particular henhouse.
Unfortunately, Scott will have a rival in the form of Alec Button, 12 years old, another surprise male entry. As most of the barrel racing competitors this year are in their teens or younger, Alec could have a distinct advantage over his elder—if not in the actual racing, then perhaps in the pre-race socializing.
On Thursday through Saturday nights, fans can check out professional barrel racers competing for national rank and hard cash. Among them will be last year’s champion, Janet Baughman, a Gunnison native whose uncle taught chemistry at Gunnison High School, and Leigh Ann Billingsley, the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association all-around champion of 2006. Also competing is Renee Cain, a Louisiana native based part-time in Gunnison.
These women professionals have been racing for years and are well worth watching. That is, if you can keep your eyes off the other pros, the four-legged contestants on their toes in the chute, poised to fly.