Riding the Wave (Part Two)

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

My best and worst years as a barrel racer. So far.

by Taylor Jacob


This is the second and final part of “Riding the Wave.” If you have not done so already, please start with Part One.


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.

The first barrel is your money barrel. It sets up your whole run. That night during Round Six of the National Finals Rodeo, I knew I finished barrel number one in the right spot. The crowd roared louder.

Bo rounded the second barrel without wasting a step. And we were close—so close I felt the barrel rock.

You never want to look back. You listen for that collective groan. All I heard was cheering.

As we rounded the last barrel and headed for home, the cheering grew deafening. Bo was really running. I could feel his acceleration in the way his belly dropped. He just gets low and runs, smooth and fast. The feeling is subtle, yet powerful. Words can never fully describe it.

I was pushing him, kicking and slashing left and right with the over-and-under tied to my saddle horn, hollering “Haah! Haah! Haah!” until my lungs hurt.

At the Thomas & Mack, as soon as you cross the finish line, you’re back in the tunnel and out of view of the scoreboard. But, again, the roar of the crowd told me all I needed to know.

The previous record was 13.46. My time was 13.37, a difference of nine-one-hundredths of a second, a high bar at the Thomas & Mack.

I felt elated.

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

Back in the tunnel, somebody told me to hurry over and mount the victory-lap horse. I still needed to untighten Bo and give him a pat on the back—you know, share the moment with him. Besides, there were still nine barrel racers to go. I dreaded the thought of being on the victory-lap horse and having somebody beat my time and pull me off.

I told the guy in charge of the victory lap, “I’m not getting on yet. The round isn’t over.”

“Oh, come on,” he said, “You just set the arena record.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to jinx myself.”

With five racers left, the guy said, “After she goes, get on.”

I waited.

“You better get on now!” he said, when there were only three racers to go.

“Don’t worry," I said. "When I win, I’ll be right behind the flag girl taking my victory lap.”

When the last rider started her run, I mounted up, still nervous she’d beat my time. I couldn’t see the clock, but I could tell from the noise that I didn’t need to worry.

That night was pretty crazy. After the victory lap, I got hustled off to do television interviews. I didn’t see my Mom until maybe 45 minutes later. She’s a crier, and I’m not. Sobbing with joy, she gave me a big hug. A tear probably rolled down my eye, too.

I came back the next night and won Round Seven. But during the final three rounds, true to form, I hit barrels. I didn’t place in the NFR average, but I won more than $80,000 in go-round money. I entered the finals in ninth place and finished the year ranked third in the world, with an arena record to boot!

And by the time I got home, I was a graduate of Texas A&M University. I hated to miss the ceremony, but I had a good excuse.

Mom,” I said, bawling like a baby, “it’s not meant to be. I’m ready to call it quits. I’m ready to go home.

In 2014, I didn’t make the NFR. But nobody broke my record.

I made the finals again in 2015. I had a decent NFR, but it wasn’t as exciting as my first, in 2013. How could it be?

Again, my record remained unbroken.

The next year, 2016, started strong. By the end of June, Bo and I were rocking and rolling, with enough money won to put us deep into the top fifteen. It felt like a repeat of 2013. Then, in Ponoka, Alberta, Bo pulled a shoe turning a barrel and strained the deep digital flexor tendon in his right front foot. By then, I had a backup horse, Madonna. She was young but she was really good, and I was confident we could win. My goal was to earn enough to stay in the top fifteen, because I knew if I made the NFR, Bo would be healed and ready to compete.

A month later, running barrels in Miles City, Montana, Madonna cracked her coffin bone in her left front foot. That’s when things got tough.

Mounting out is hard when you’re a barrel racer. We grow so close with our horses, and we push them hard. Knowing the risk of injury, it’s hard to let someone else do the same. But I managed. I had to if I was going to make the NFR.

By the end of the summer, Amberleigh Moore was gaining ground. She had a good horse. I was still winning money on borrowed horses, but Amberleigh was winning more.

photos by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

Halfway into September, two weeks before the season ended, we were neck and neck in money won. I trailered a borrowed horse to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for a morning slack round. I really needed the win, but I hit a barrel and ruined my chance. It’s funny, in 2013, a downed barrel wouldn’t have phased me, but now that I was struggling to hang on to my spot at the NFR, it hurt. Bad.

I was up that night in Waterloo, Iowa, 300 miles to the south and east. Mom was with me. We loaded the trailer and drove. I just needed to win a dollar.

Barreling down the Interstate, we had a blowout. One of the truck’s front tires. I’d never felt anything like it. You’re traveling 75 miles an hour, the tire blows, and the weight of the trailer is pushing you around, off the road and back on again. I was in the front seat. Mom was driving. She barely had any control. Thank God there were no cars beside us.

We came to a stop. At first, things seemed okay. We’re good! We’re good! We unloaded the horse and checked it for injuries. Then the adrenaline faded, and something inside me broke. A wave of pent-up emotion, triggered by the accident, swept over me.

“Mom,” I said, bawling like a baby, “it’s not meant to be. I’m ready to call it quits. I’m ready to go home.”

“Taylor, we’re not going down without a fight,” she said. “Just. Keep. Pushing.”

Before long, I calmed down. But things were worse than we had thought. Not only did the tire blow, but all that shaking ruptured an engine hose. We were stuck.

Not long after, two guys with a truck and trailer pulled off on the shoulder.

“Y’all need help?” one of them asked.

“Yeah, I’m trying to get to a rodeo,” I said. “Where are y’all headed?”

“Waterloo. To the rodeo. Need a ride?”

I didn’t know these guys from Adam, but I loaded my horse onto their trailer and left Mom on the side of the Interstate. It was Saturday. Nothing was open.

I made the rodeo but didn’t win any money.

Mom called some people we kind of knew in Sioux Falls, and they brought her a truck. She hitched up the trailer and picked me and my borrowed horse up in a borrowed truck.

By the end of the season, I had spent more money than I won. On September 30, Amberleigh was ranked fifteenth. I was sixteenth. Stuck on the bubble. She beat me by about fifteen-hundred dollars.

But, I never gave up.

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

That December, I attended the NFR in Las Vegas as a spectator. Yes, I was bitter. I worked hard and did everything I was supposed to do, and I still came up short. Having to watch the barrel racing from the stands sucked. There’s no other way to describe it.

Then, in Round Eight, Amberleigh Moore tied the arena record. My record.

I was surrounded by friends and family. They all looked at me. I didn’t say a word. I just sat there, tears rolling down my cheeks.

So in a way, when Hailey Kinsel broke my—our—record in 2017, I was prepared for the blow. It didn’t feel as personal, because I did most of my suffering the year before. Even in 2016, when the pain hurt so deeply, it was never really about Amberleigh as a person. She’s a good rider with a good horse. We all are. That’s what makes rodeo exciting.

I’ve grown a lot since my rookie year. I’ve learned that if you’re going to rodeo, you’re bound to face highs and lows.

I've learned you have to ride the wave.



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