Astride a horse three times her height, 4-year-old Bailey Singer trotted her horse Bambi into the Brent Romick Rodeo Arena on Thursday night.
Bailey's long brown hair, plaited with a yellow ribbon, bounced merrily as the horse rounded the first barrel in the Gymkhana horse competition. Bailey's legs barely extended past the saddle, but she deftly guided the horse around two other barrels. In the stands, about 60 spectators cheered as Bailey and Bambi trotted down the final stretch. For one of those spectators, pride mingled with anxiety.
"I'm way more nervous than she is," Bailey's mom, Lisa Singer, said. "Children are amazing. They have no fear."
Bailey has been riding horses solo since she was 2 1/2 years old. This is her first year participating in the Gymkhana Club, a group that meets weekly during the summer to compete in barrel, pole and stake races.
"When I fall off, I get scared, but when I don't fall, I really like it and I'm not scared," Bailey said.
About 60 other riders, ranging in age from 4 to 45, competed with Bailey on Thursday evening. The first event was the barrel race.
To help their horses make the sharp turns around the barrels, riders hunker low in the saddle and pressure the back end of the horse. The saddle's horn is taller and the stirrups run forward to help the rider get back on the horse. That helps the horse get his hindquarters beneath him and dig around the turn, said Karen Myers, the mother of competitor Kaylee Myers.
"You're basically helping your horse accomplish this physical feat of hauling your carcass around tight curves at high speeds," Myers said.
In the second event, the pole race, riders weave in and out of a long line of poles. Many of the riders felt this was the most difficult event.
"With the poles, if you get out of synch with the horse, your pattern's gone." Kaylee Myers said.
But the poles don't just intimidate the riders.
"It's mentally and physically challenging for the horse," Karen Myers said. "He has to constantly change which leg he's leading with around each pole."
The last event is the stake race in which riders weave a figure-eight pattern around two stakes. If riders hit a stake, they're eliminated.
This differs from the first two events in which the rider simply incurs a five-second penalty for knocking over a barrel or pole. Riders don't need a time penalty, however, to discourage collisions. The pain alone suffices.
"It hurts pretty bad when your knees hit the barrels," said 11-year-old competitor Caitlyn Berry, who has participated in the club for five years.
Caitlyn likes the barrel racing the best because you can go the fastest on it. Despite the potential hazards, she doesn't worry too much.
"Don't get scared on the horse because a horse can smell your fear, and then he might get scared, too, or buck," Caitlyn said.
Such calm composure may be easier said than done, however, considering riding-related injuries. Karen Myers hurt her back after being thrown from a horse a year ago, Kaylee Myers broke a wrist once and one hapless boy at the competition was pummeled in his stomach by the saddle horn when his horse bucked. Even little Bailey has fallen. But the danger is no different than driving or riding a bike, Karen Myers said.
"You can name a whole bunch of scary things that could happen, but you just pray, 'God, please watch over them,'" she said. "If you love the sport, you do the best to protect yourself, but you can't keep away from it."
A growing number of people, especially children, share Myer's passion. Membership in Gymkhana has grown from about 45 people last year to 66 this year, organizer Jon Hawes said.
For many of the people there, Gymkhana's appeal lies in its low-pressure, community atmosphere. People who love horses come together to improve their skills and have fun doing it.
"It's so positive. Whether you have a good run or a bad run, by the time you leave the field, you've been told at least three times what a good job you did," co-organizer Kevin Kvols said.
One of the fans Thursday was Claire Weiss who came to cheer on her 13-year-old grandson, Gus Allen.
"Some of those kids are just incredible. They're only as big as a minute," she said.
In addition to the support riders receive, another appeal of Gymkhana is that people (and horses) of all ability levels can participate from professional racers to beginners who walk their horses around the barrels. No matter the skill level, everyone helps each other improve, Kvols said.
"See that kid over there," he said pointing to a boy on a tall horse. "Three years ago, he couldn't stay on a horse. He fell off three times. But with each year, he gets better and better, and he sits a little higher on his horse. That's what this is all about."
--To reach Kristin Bjornsen, call 879-1502.