In a flurry of hooves and hats, the best barrel racers and horses flocked to Ponoka for the Alberta Barrel Racing Association (ABRA) Finals, Aug. 21 to 25.
During 13-hour race days 901 barrel racers whipped themselves through the tight cloverleaf pattern in hopes of taking home a piece of the $134,900 prize pot and 11 saddles up for grabs.
This is the second year the finals have been held in Ponoka at the Calnash Ag Event Centre and president Lana Bohnet loves the flow the new location lends to the competition.
With the larger arena, a holding pen can accommodate up to five riders on deck. “Usually you can’t see anything until you’re coming down the alley,” Bohnet explained. “They can see, ‘Oh, there’s a barrel down in the arena I have to wait.’ It helps everybody.”
Between the 13 ABRA districts close to 150 volunteers, including the 20 board members, were brought on to make sure the finals ran smoothly.
“There’s good ground, good horses, good riders and good co-operation,” said Bohnet.
While the number of competitors is close to last year’s competition, 50 more youth racers attended this year. “We’re thrilled about getting more youth,” said Bohnet.
Charley Willoughby, 14, of Camrose and Shaylene Lawson, 9, of Halkirk, competed in the youth division.
Willoughby’s been attending the ARBA finals since her days in the pee wee division and she’s been riding her whole life. “I went to a rodeo the day after I was born.”
Her mother is a barrel racer and her father competes in roping events.
Lawson’s stepfather is also a roper and this was her first year riding in the finals.
Her biggest fear came from the speeds the horse can get up to and how quickly they can stumble — and the other competitors. “How fast they can run and this is only my first year.”
But getting to work with the horses and her excitement for the sport keeps Lawson in the saddle.
“It’s the adrenaline rush you get before you run,” explained Willoughby.
Despite her nerves, Lawson saw her run improve over the course of the finals. During her first run she found her horse wanting to turn before it had reached the far side of the barrel. “I just really had to use my inside foot and hand to keep him off of it.”
Willoughby felt both her runs went well but once she lost her stirrup and had to neck rein her horse through the rest of the pattern.
Although she has been attending the ABRA finals for years, Willoughby also gets nervous. “I just don’t want to screw up,” she said, which to her means not running to the best of her ability.
Both girls compete year-round throughout Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.