Story by Dr. James Reisner • Photos by Fran Reisner
Nichole Hewitt is a horse owner, trainer and “all around” cowgirl. Sparky is her four-year-old “quarter horse” training to become a barrel racer. Sparky has an interesting pedigree: one-half quarter horse and one-half thoroughbred.
Nichole: a horse woman since age 11
Nichole said her first horse, Thunder, “helped teach me the fundamentals of horses, which includes patience, consistency, dedication and hard work.” After placing as first runner-up in the local Miss Thunder Mountain Pro Rodeo contest in 2001, she won the next year to become Queen. Criteria to win include personality, horsemanship, appearance, and interviews. Contestants also give a short speech. Nichole said. “They want to make sure you are comfortable in any situation,” while representing the entire area in many appearances.
Her next “Miss” pageant was for Miss Rodeo Washington, an even more vigorous test. She won in 2005 (pictured at right; photo by Mark Reynolds Studio, Ogden, Utah), and competed in the Miss Rodeo America contest in Las Vegas. This occurs concurrently with the National Finals Rodeo. Nichole had a busy year in 2006 as Miss Rodeo Washington.
Nichole’s last horse, Nugget, was a good barrel racer but a fractured coffin bone ended his career. After his injury had healed, she raced him several times but he was less competitive and had to be retired.
See it in Salkum
One close-by venue dedicated to barrel racing competition is the Rocky Top Arena in Salkum, Washington. One of the large facility’s owners, Viki Fredrich, is a top level barrel racer. The fall series ends with its final competitive event November 18th. The spring series starts the end of March. There are many competitors, plenty of parking for visitors, a concession stand and seating (info: 360-520-0004). Nichole thinks Sparky will be ready for serious competition by Spring 2012.
Horses have great sense of balance
The best way to understand that is to see a barrel race. Both rider and horse need terrific balance and athleticism. This is not an activity for the “weak of heart” or the clumsy.
Started in Texas in 1948, barrel racing is a competitive, timed, rodeo event primarily for women and girls. Women wanted their own rodeo competition since they were not allowed to compete in bull riding, bucking bronco riding, steer wrestling or even the roping events. Now, barrel racing is second only to bull riding in rodeo popularity. Men do barrel racing but only cowgirls compete at the larger venues.
Barrel racing pattern
Competitors enter the arena at full speed, cut around three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern and then exit (see diagram). A horse must be fast on the straight-away but also able to “hug the barrels” on the turns. Timing is from entry to exit at the same point always at full speed. A winning time in most events would be 13-17 intense seconds, depending on arena size. Great athleticism, conditioning, discipline and concentration are required for both horse and rider.
Measuring a horse
Although I’ve had several horses and knew they were always measured in “hands” (a hand is four inches), the fractions confused me. The number preceding the decimal (as in 15.2) is the number of hands (15) and the number after is inches left over (15.2 is 15 hands plus two inches, the same as 15 ½ hands). Two inches is ½ hand, right?
Nichole feels Sparky has the right combination of mental and physical characteristics to be a great barrel racer. “I like his winning mindset and competitiveness,” she said. Sparky is a compact 14.3 hands, an average size quarter horse with great conformation. Thoroughbreds are taller (17 or more hands is not unusual). Sparky is smooth and tight “hugging the barrels,” but fast on the straight-aways. In addition, he reaches good speed rapidly.
Sparky: heading for the glue factory
Four trainers gave up on the horse because of his aggressiveness and “wildness.” Sparky bucked them off He could not be trained. Glenn Newby, Sparky’s previous owner, had bought him as a cutting horse, later showing him to Nichole, who thought he would be a good barrel horse. She wanted to “take a look at him.” Glenn was nervous putting Nichole on him because of his violent history. Sparky had actually injured two trainers.
Glenn agreed to drop Sparky off at Nichole’s training area with the advice: “Be careful.” He returned two hours later finding that Nichole had already ridden him bareback three times. She liked Sparky’s attitude and his performance. His “spirit” remained intact. They were ready to become a team. Any minor “issues” were quickly and expertly managed by Nichole’s steady hand.
Both Sparky’s sire (thoroughbred) and dam (quarter horse) have outstanding pedigrees. On the thoroughbred side, the pedigree has well known racehorses such as Native Dancer and, way back, Secretariat.The dam has well known quarter horses in her parentage. Skills required in a cutting horse are similar for barrel racing. Glenn eventually realized Nichole was the only one who could work with Sparky and gave him to her in July 2010.
From an early age, Nichole settled fully into the horse scene going through show performance and dressage. “But I always wanted something more,” she said. Eventually, that path led her to her first love: barrel racing, training and competing. Now she has Sparky, who seems to have endless possibilities for superior performance. Nichole is ready to add the final piece in his training — speed. This requires a new level of commitment, she said. “You have to get into his mind more deeply to add speed.”
Do you think it is OK for humans to train and use animals for their personal enjoyment or in commercial enterprises, such as racing or competitive events in rodeos? Why or why not? What traits do horses possess that humans can admire? Add your comment in the space below.
James Reisner is a retired OB/Gyn physician. Owner of two quarterhorses, he lives west of Longview on a small farm. He has written for CRR on various topics over the years.