Tough, agile rodeo barrel racers… and Boba

Written By Michael Cranny

“My chances were marginal at best.”

I’d been dragooned into participating in a charity rodeo in Vanderhoof. A fundraiser for the hospital or some other worthy cause, backing out wasn’t possible. The rodeo was popular. It provided locals with some darned good entertainment. Participants were disqualified if they had any cowboying or rodeo experience.

At the centre of cow country in the central interior, Vanderhoof is the land of author Rich Hobson’s The Rancher Takes a Wife, so a charity rodeo was a natural. The organizers gave me a choice of events – barrel racing or wild cow milking. 

Wild cows are fresh off the range and they’ve never been milked. Two ‘wranglers’ have to catch the cow and hold onto her as she’s bucking and butting, while a third fills a soda bottle with milk.

I’d been warned about the casualty rate. So I did what any moderately aware city slicker would do – I borrowed a horse and read up on barrel racing. 

Barrel ambling with Boba

Barrel racing takes speed and control. Riders must complete a cloverleaf circuit around three barrels set about 30 feet apart in the fastest time possible. Seventeen seconds or less is a very good finish. Explosive quickness and agility in the horse is essential. Knocking over a barrel or varying from the route means disqualification.

My chances were marginal at best.

Boba looked fast, but I might have been quicker.

My mount was Boba. Compact and muscular like a good cutting horse, he looked fast, but I might have been quicker off the mark than he was.

Instead of bursting from the starting line, Boba ambled pleasantly around the barrels, hauled up near the finish line, arched his neck like a champion, gave his job-well-done whinny, and posed for photos. 

We placed dead last. 

I was, however, in one piece. The wild cow milkers, not so much. 

Rodeo racers are ‘real deal’

Rodeo, with its history and athleticism, appeals to a certain type of person. Unlike me, they’re the real deal. Usually, they’ve grown up on farms and ranches. All have that self-reliant toughness that so many northerners share. 

Amber Teed and her mount at full gallop. [Photo Bernie Hudyma]

A real barrel racer, like Amber Teed, would have seen through old Boba in a second. A competitor since high school, Teed knows her horses. A winning animal, she told me, needs to be fast, agile, and smart. Unlike, I guess, Boba. 

Champion racers seem to prefer American Quarter horses, which are the result of years of breeding Thoroughbreds with ‘ranch horses’ of various breeds, Teed said. They are compact, muscular, intelligent animals, with the power to perform well in short course races. They get their name from the quarter mile, which they can run very fast. 

Anything involving horses is expensive, and barrel racing is no exception. Quarter horse speed doesn’t come cheap. A top animal can fetch US$50,000 or more, according to Teed. One animal isn’t enough for pro racing. Most competitors have several, with one primary mount. 

Quarter horses are the barrel racer’s favourite. [Photo Michael Cranny]

In addition to competing, Teed – now a grandmother and mentor to other barrel racers – also breeds, trains, and sells her own horses. In all, Teed maintains 10 horses.

Barrel racers have that self-reliant toughness that so many northerners share. 

The money she earns competing only covers some of her costs, while raising and selling them can be profitable. So, to stay in business, competitors like Teed must not only win purses, but also get heavily involved in the business of racing. 

Some racers earn over $100,000 a year, but most earn much less. Instead, they raise money in other ways, often closely related to horses or ranching. 

A racer’s chance of winning money improved with the implementation of the 4D system. This rewards the top riders in four divisions, based on time, allowing more competitors to place ‘in the money’ and recoup at least some of their costs. The 4D system also helps grade horses, important for sales. 

Larger rodeo competitions are invariably far away, so serious racing almost always involves expensive and time-consuming travel. Teed is on the road most weekends from April to October, trailering her mount from her home outside Vanderhoof to events in southern B.C., Alberta, or the United States. Most also have entry fees, which makes rodeo a sport competitors have to pay to enter.

Commitment and love of sport

I’m amazed at the commitment of barrel racers like Teed, who invest a great deal of time and money in order to participate in a sport they clearly love. 

Nechako ranch country where Amber Teed raises her horses. [Photo Michael Cranny]

Besides her work with horses, Teed has degrees in geography and First Nations studies and is a registered massage therapist. She is also a Pathways implementation coordinator with the Saik’uz First Nation. No time for vacations, she spends the three coldest months of winter in southern California to prevent slack time for her horses. Otherwise, she’d have to spend weeks getting her mounts back into racing condition each spring. 

Talking to Teed takes me back to my own barrel race. I’d always assumed that Boba was not only slow, but a little dense. Maybe I misjudged the old boy. On the few trail rides we’d taken together, he purposely moved so close to trees I had to lift my leg out of the way to avoid being scraped off and dumped. 

That’s clever. And a bit nasty. 

Also, I’d seen him gallop more than once across his pasture, so he could run when he wanted to. Maybe Boba saved my bacon in that race, going easy on a rider that had to look up barrel racing in a book. So, I raise my borrowed Stetson to you, Boba, wherever you are.