Riding the Wave (Part One)
In December of 2017, I watched Hailey Kinsel and her horse, Sister, shatter my arena record at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. This was during Round Three of the barrel racing at the PRCA National Finals Rodeo. I was in the stands, surrounded by family and friends, when her winning time—13.11 seconds—flashed across the digital scoreboard.
Setting the record at the 2013 NFR was one of the proudest moments of my life. I was a rookie, and that year was by far the best of my career so far.
You might think watching my record fall—as a spectator—would be devastating, but, honestly, I was happy for Hailey. Records are meant to be broken, and her run was thrilling. I’m a barrel racer, and that was good barrel racing.
The year before, when Amberleigh Moore tied my NFR record, was a different story.
I was devastated then. Not so much about having to share the accomplishment. That was just the icing on the cake—or whatever’s the opposite of icing and cake—of my worst year ever, 2016.
The memory of it still makes me wince.
Like a lot of Texas girls, I grew up riding horses and rodeoing. I tied goats, competed in breakaway roping and ran barrels at the junior and high-school-rodeo levels. I went off to Texas A&M and competed in college rodeos.
In 2012, during my junior year, I bought a horse named Bo. He was trained as a barrel-racing horse, but he had never been to a rodeo. I started taking him to amateur rodeos around central Texas on weekends to see how he’d handle the bright lights and loud music. It was a slow process.
For one thing, Bo didn’t like bulls and bucking chutes. We’d start a barrel run in the alleyway, with bulls loaded up on either side, ready for the next event. A bull to the right would rattle his chute, and Bo would throw his ears up, snort and jump to the left. He’d sense a bull on the left and jump back to the right. And then he would freeze. All this was happening as they were calling my name.
After nearly a year of amateur rodeos, Bo was comfortable with the lights and noise and even the bulls. And he showed promise. My plan was not to rodeo that year. I was still a fulltime student. But, I was curious. How would Bo do against a higher caliber of horse and rider?
In 2013, I bought my Women’s Professional Rodeo Association card and started entering professional rodeos, working around my school schedule. I like to write everything down on paper—I’m old-school like that—and still have stacks of calendars from that year. They remind me how busy I was! One day I’d have an English 361 exam and the next day a pro rodeo, with a Finance quiz two days later.
And then I started winning.
I won the Fort Worth Rodeo in February. I didn’t just win. I set the arena record.
Two weeks later, I won the Dixie National Rodeo in Jackson, Mississippi. In April, I won Rodeo Corpus Christi. After that, I drove straight to the rodeo in Lufkin, Texas, and won that. You know when you get on a roll? That was 2013. It was going great. My horse was fresh. I’m a firm believer that if you have a fresh horse that hasn’t been hauled a lot, you have an advantage. I call them young and dumb, because they don’t know the ground might not hold them. They don’t know to safety-up. They go all out.
Until then, I had planned on graduating and getting a “real” job. But after Lufkin, I thought, Wow, Bo has what it takes for me to rodeo full-time.
By June, I had around $50,000 won and had climbed higher in the 2013 Pro Rodeo rankings. A thought began to creep into my head: I might make the National Finals Rodeo. But my practical, cautious nature wouldn’t let me admit it—until September 30, when the season ended, and I finished ninth out of fifteen.
Come December, I was headed to Las Vegas.
I was still in school that fall, wrapping up coursework so I could graduate in December. Heck, I still thought of myself as an all-around cowgirl rather than a pro barrel racer. I didn’t even have a backup horse.
I believe in having realistic expectations. Going into the NFR, I knew Bo’s weaknesses and strengths. That year, we probably hit more barrels than most ladies, but when we didn’t hit barrels, we won. I knew going into the finals that being clean ten nights in a row probably wasn’t gonna happen. Winning the average was not a goal. My goal was to win as much money as I could and not let a downed barrel the night before affect me.
I had another goal that I kept to myself—to break the arena record.
I didn’t tell people, because I didn’t want them to think I was arrogant or crazy, especially entering my first NFR as a rookie. But I knew Bo was good and that he’d like the setup at the Thomas & Mack. I figured the other girls would probably focus on trying to win the average. So I decided to run hard and fast and set the arena record. I thought we had a chance.
The only person I told was my Mom. She’s my number one supporter, my confidante.
“Okay,” she said, “you can do it,” which is what she says about everything. Go for it!
At the end of November, on the way out to Las Vegas, Mom and I stopped at Buckeye, Arizona, for a two-day barrel race—a local, amateur event meant to serve as a warm-up and confidence booster. On day one, as I readied Bo for the first run, I heard the announcer’s voice over the loudspeakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, this next girl stopped in on her way to the National Finals Rodeo! She’s one of the world’s top fifteen barrel racers, and you’re gonna be watching her on TV soon!”
Bo and I ran into the arena and knocked down two barrels.
On day two, I tipped two more barrels. Oh, great, I thought. Some confidence booster.
“Don’t worry about it, Taylor,” Mom said after the run. “You got those out of the way. Bo looks good. You’ll be fine.”
The Thomas & Mack Center, home of the NFR since 1985, is notorious as one of the tightest, fastest venues of the year. Add to that the pressure of competing against the world’s top barrel racers. In front of 18,000 spectators. On national television. In the second-to-last event each evening. For 10 days in a row.
Opening night, I don’t know how a person could get any more nervous than I was. I was trying to talk myself down. Come on! I thought, you’ve been rodeoing all year. You’re used to the pressure. Be calm. You got this!
Bo and I shot out of the tunnel toward the cloverleaf of barrels. We rounded barrel one and raced for barrel two. He dug in and cut. The barrel wobbled. Aiming for the third barrel, I heard the cheering shift to a collective groan, “Ohhhhh,” and knew the barrel was down.
Back in the tunnel, half a minute later, I thought, Whew, at least that first one’s out of the way.
The next night, Round Two, Bo and I tipped barrel number three.
I took a deep breath, and let it all roll off my back. After all, that’s how my entire season had gone. When I didn’t hit barrels, I won.
The third night, I didn’t hit any barrels. I won the round with 13.65 seconds.
I won Round Four with an even faster finish: 13.49.
In Round Five, I placed with 13.82 seconds. Back in the saddle.
The night of Round Six, as the rodeo crew was grooming the dirt and setting up the barrels, the PRCA made its Rookie of the Year announcements. I won for barrel racing. I knew I’d won—I was the only rookie NFR qualifier—but hearing my name called and marching into the arena to receive my Rookie buckle was thrilling. But I had to rush, since I was the sixth barrel racer up that night, and the rodeo organizers don’t let anybody or anything slow down the NFR. I turned and ran back to the alley, worried I wouldn’t have time to mount up and get my head right. When I got to Bo, the crowd was already cheering the third barrel racer.
One thing about Bo that’s pretty cool. He walks flat-footed up the alleyway. Some horses are fiery, really on-the-muscle by the time they enter the arena. Bo takes off only when I ask him to. He’s composed, confident. He seems to be saying, I’ll do my job whenever you’re ready.
As Bo flat-footed towards the tunnel opening, I squinted against the arena lights. When I kicked, Bo tore after the first barrel.
The crowd roared.
To be continued...
Life takes a turn for the worse in the second and final installment of Taylor's story, “Riding the Wave.” Read it here.