Barrel racing may be a true sport of the West, but its appeal is universal, and its popularity spans the ages from child to adult for men and women.
It is one of the most popular events in rodeos, and for women it is the only event sanctioned by the professional rodeo association. Although barrel racing clubs can be found all over the United States, the sport itself is pure western … down, dirty and gutsy.
Some of the best barrel racing in Arizona can be found at the Marana Heritage Arena. The race season starts in January and ends in November with the club championship. From January to April, races are held once a month on Saturday mornings. During the summer months the races are scheduled in the evening.
Three containers, the size and shape of 50-gallon drums, sit some distance apart in a dirt arena. They form a triangular pattern that defines the course. The horse and rider must circle all three drums. While there is some rider discretion, there is a pattern; if the rider circles the first barrel from right to left, then the last two barrels must be approached from left to right. If the rider chooses to start her run by circling left, she must finish the other barrels with right turn approaches.
Three categories are offered on an event card; Pee Wee, age six and under; Youth, under 18; and Open. All Pee Wee entries are rewarded with a ribbon for their efforts. It is acts like this that make the sport such a family favorite.
Many Youth riders are old hands at racing. Emily Sargant, 13, has been racing barrels for four years. Still, most of the horses are more experienced than their young riders. Moose, 9-year-old Mackenzie Donaldson’s quarter horse, is 24 years old.
Barrel racing is not just for the young. Elaine Heatley is still winning races at the age of 70-plus. Heatley got her start at 17 as a trick rider in an Illinois Wild West show. Fifty-six years later, she is still showing young and old how to do it.
The Marana barrel racers are an eclectic group of people coming from many professions, and many places who share a love of riding the barrels. Gry Johannsen, a wrangler from the White Stallion Ranch, is originally from Norway. Liz Rivera, a small business owner, a born and bred Arizonan, has been racing for over 22 years. Valery Spade’s occupation, as an ophthalmology technician, limits her racing time, but she is in the arena every chance she gets.
Among the competitors are ranchers, business men and women, and homemakers. Not all the competitors at these meets are amateurs. Marana barrel racer Sherry Cervi rides the amateur and professional circuit and is a women’s national barrel racing champion.
The Marana Heritage Arena, is located on North Postvale Road. See www.sazbra.org/id67.html for more information. Admission is free, so is parking. Drinks and eats are available for purchase.