The lights and sounds pouring from Brent Romick Rodeo Arena tempted Alexa Mitchell.
She used to live near the downtown rodeo grounds, and on Thursday, she found herself walking toward the arena, curious about the noise.
"I knew something was going on, but it wasn't the rodeo, because it wasn't the weekend," Mitchell said.
What Mitchell found -- and has participated in ever since -- is the Routt County Gymkhana Club. The name has changed through the years, but its purpose has not.
"It's a horseback riding race club," organizer Celia Mitchell said. "Within the club, it's a chance for all these kids who have horses and a competitive spirit to come together and root each other on. They teach each other. You would be amazed at the different styles and abilities by the end of the season. It improves their riding."
The Routt County Gymkhana Club meets Thursdays at Brent Romick Rodeo Arena. Registration begins at 5:30 p.m., and races usually start by 6 p.m. Members and nonmembers are allowed to race, and spectators are welcome to watch for free.
Watching the barrel-racing, pole-bending and stake-racing was Alexa Mitchell's introduction to the sport. She kept coming back, and eventually, other competitors let her ride their horses.
"I tried out Rosie," the 15-year-old racer said. "At the time, she seemed really mean, and I didn't like her. After a couple weeks, I decided to try her again, and she worked out really well, and I kept her for the summer."
When the opportunity arose to purchase Rosie, the young racer became a horse owner. Rosie gave birth to a foal soon after. The Mitchells had no idea Rosie was pregnant when they bought her.
Now, Alexa can ride either Rosie or her filly, RD, now almost 4 years old, at gymkhana.
"Rosie has pretty much been doing it her whole life," Alexa Mitchell said. "She pretty much knew what she was doing and gets better every year. RD's more of a pleasure horse. She's not as high strung as her mother."
Celia Mitchell enjoys watching the children and adults interact with their horses every week. The relationships humans form with horses are distinct, and gymkhana offers riders the chance to compete and improve and meet other riders.
"If you have ever been around a kid with a horse, they live and breathe for them," Celia Mitchell said. "It still amazes me every week how many people haul horses in. We've had people come in from Grand Lake, Kremmling, Craig, Yampa and Oak Creek."
Gymkhana, a popular activity for youths, is open to adults, as well. The divisions are split into pee wee (8 and younger), junior (9 to 13), intermediate (14 to 17) and adult (18 and older). If members compete in seven out of the 10 weeks, they are eligible for year-end prizes, and sportsmanship and participation awards are handed out at the end of the season, too.
In previous years, four events were offered, but the length of the competition forced organizers to cut back to three events, allowing gymkhana to end at about 9:30 p.m.
All three events -- barrel-racing, pole-bending and stake-racing -- are judged on speed and the ability of the horse to make the correct turns around the objects placed on the arena floor. Pole-bending is the most technical event, and barrel-racing is the most popular one.
"It's the very first race, and we have a lot of people who come just do to barrel," Celia Mitchell said. "It's all mainly Western riding, but we have some kids who use English saddles."
Although fast horses usually do well, they don't always win, 13-year-old Emma Lyons said. Her sister's horse, Pigeon, is one of the fastest, but sometimes he wins, and sometimes he takes third place. The Lyons girls are just getting their start with gymkhana but already have found it a rewarding experience.
"I think it's really fun because you get to try something new, and you can see how fast your horse does," Emma Lyons said.