After a long day training for her favorite sport, caring for farm animals, mucking out stalls, and being home-schooled, 15-year-old Hannah Miles still carves out time in the kitchen to bake up goodies for a very special fellow. Once his favorite ingredients — chopped apples, shredded carrots, oats, and molasses — are combined, she molds the dough into little balls, arranges them on a baking sheet, and places them in the oven, where they bake until golden brown.
The lucky fellow’s name? It’s Dude, her spirited 11-year-old gelding. At the sight of the tall, dark, and handsome boy in his glistening brown coat with black mane and tail, what girl wouldn’t swoon?
The extraordinary bond between a girl and her horse is no more evident than in the sport of barrel racing. To watch them in motion, moving as one, is a thing of indescribable beauty. For many lucky young women, a horse is their first love, one they will never forget.
Not unlike two ballroom dancers who glide in perfect sync from years of practicing together, Hannah and Dude are barrel racing partners who are striving to perfect their cadence, form, and economy around the drums. Hannah’s mom, Lauren, says her daughter started barrel racing at the State Fair a couple of years ago, and it didn’t take long before she was hooked.
Thoroughly smitten by the sport as well, the Mileses decided to buy some starter horses, purchase a farm in the northeast Midlands, and put their Blythewood home on the market. “We bought the horses even before we bought our farm,” she says.
When Hannah’s father, Charlie, suggested possibly purchasing an exceptional horse with a well-established record of wins in the barrel racing circuit, she was thunderstruck. “Never in a million years did I see myself on that horse,” she says. “He looked too fast for me! I loved him, but I was still a little scared of him.”
At that point, Hannah was still relatively new to the sport, considering many of her competitors have been riding since they were toddlers. Obviously, she needed training to match her skills with that of her new horse.
Veteran rider Leslie Willis of Chester still actively barrel races and has won several advanced titles over her career. When she is not traveling to competitions across the country, Leslie is in high demand as a trainer, and she passes along her expertise to young girls in training for barrel racing.
“My work with Hannah is slow work. It is focused on critical details,” Leslie says. “I tell all my students to go home and practice. But just because we practice perfectly doesn’t mean we will get that perfect run. We need to keep working on it.”
Leslie actually uses the verb “tune” when describing the work she does to help young riders. Like tuning a guitar, lots of stops and starts are involved. “Hannah has natural ability. You either have it or you don’t,” she says. “She places her hands where they need to be. Her balance is right and that is something you can’t teach.”
Since Hannah became immersed in the sport, barrel racing has become a Miles family affair, with younger brothers Charlie, 10, now also racing and Daniel, 7, taking lessons. “We love to travel to races,” Lauren says. “We got a horse trailer with living quarters onboard. It’s like camping. We make a weekend of it.”
Hannah has been riding Dude in barrel races since May of 2020, and they are still learning about each other, continually strengthening their bond.
Typically in barrel racing, three barrels are set up in a triangle pattern, and competitors run their horses around the barrels in a cloverleaf pattern as fast as they can. As they enter the course, riders trigger an electronic sensor that starts a timer. As the horse exits back through the gate, the beam stops the timer. The best barrel racers complete an average course in about 14 to 15 seconds, or less.
“Barrel racing is broken into divisions: 1D, 2D, 3D, and 4D. That is to accommodate for all skill levels. It allows riders of all abilities to have a chance to participate and place in competitions,” Lauren says. “The very top horses will be in the 1D, with slightly slower horses in 2D, and so on. My daughter started out with 3D horses.”
In the months she’s been riding Dude, Hannah has won some races and even earned modest prize money. Prizes vary by competition, but generally the top finishers qualify to receive part of a jackpot culled from a portion of entry fees.
In July 2020, Hannah placed 32nd out of about 900 riders in a national competition. That was a confidence-building achievement, for sure. However, the following month at a race in Lexington, Virginia, Dude and Hannah had a disquieting fall.
“Dude fell. He went completely down,” Lauren says. “It was a hard fall. Everybody gasped.”
Fortunately, Hannah and Dude came out of their fall without serious injury. It was a sobering experience nonetheless.
“The weekend was really rainy and cold. The first day, we didn’t do too well,” Hannah recalls. “He took the first barrel really, really wide. That never happens. I thought it might be my mistake. The second day, the same thing happened … The third day, when he was on the way to the second barrel, I was pushing him really hard, and he hyperextended. His feet came out from under him, and he fell. It happened really, really fast. In just one second, we were on the ground.”
Hannah’s parents told her she could take a break from competition if she needed to, and she did rest for several days. It was a traumatic event for her, but she did not want to quit. “It was scary, but that kind of stuff happens,” she said. “I have seen falls multiple times before. I have seen people taken out in an ambulance. You know the risks, but you just have to trust God with it.”
A week after her accident, Hannah got back in the saddle, riding Dude at home on the farm. “When I ran him, I was really nervous,” she said. “I think he was a little bit shaken by the fall, but we both got up fast. A few races after the fall, we won our first race.”
As a multiple Open 1D champion, Leslie advises her riding clients to ease back into training after an accident and not compete again until they feel ready. In this sport, you can’t let fear consume you. “I have been through some scrapes that God let me walk away from,” she says.
Nineteen-year-old racer Kathryne Marion Copeland of Blythewood has experienced a fall or two but nothing serious. “If we fall, always my first concern is that the horse is okay,” she says. “In barrel racing, they don’t require that you wear a helmet, but I choose to. If you can prevent a career-ending head injury, that is the wise thing to do.”
That attitude is not surprising since Kathryne is a student majoring in nursing at the University of South Carolina. She also gives horse lessons and takes in outside horses for training. To fit all that as well as her own training into a day, she is up before the sun for two hours of work with her horse, Rusty.
Kathyrne got her start in English riding when she was 4 and switched to barrel racing at age 12. “I was ready for something a little faster-paced,” she says. “English riding is beautiful, and it’s graceful, but I like competing against a clock and not a judge. Barrel racing is not a judging event. You are really just competing against yourself.”
Kylie Snelgrove, 17, has been barrel racing since she was 5 years old. Her horse’s full name is “Pretty Girl Swag,” Swag for short. She is a bay quarter horse with reddish brown hair and a white star on her face. “Riding over the years, you create that bond and trust with the horse. I think that is what Swag and I really have. She is a really sweet horse. She taught me a whole lot.”
Kylie can relate to the risk but does not let herself get preoccupied with the thought. It’s important to focus on the task at hand. “Always in the back of your mind is the possibility that something could happen,” she says. “After riding Swag for so long, I trust that she will take care of me. She really takes care of me and herself, for which I am very grateful.”
Hannah also believes that Dude was trying to keep both of them safe when he took the barrel wide. “I think he didn’t like the ground and went wide to be safe. He is very, very smart.”
Hannah, Kylie, and Kathryne all admit to spoiling their steeds … just a little.
“Barrel racing is a humbling sport. You have got to love to work hard and remember to love your animals,” Kylie says. “Swag loves treats. She gets a handful after every run.”
Kathryne says that Rusty loves to be petted and have a bath, adding, “He is a little spoiled. It’s only fitting. You are asking them for so much when you go to compete. You are asking for their best, and it’s only fair that you give them your best as well.”
“Dude is my baby,” says Hannah with a smile. “That’s why I found a recipe for homemade treats for him. He’s a picky eater, so I didn’t know if he would like them, but he absolutely loved them. He chased me around trying to get more!”
It’s been said that luck is where preparation and opportunity meet. That may well be true, but for many, prayer is a powerful component as well. Their faith is very important to the Miles family, and they practice it as consistently as they train, even in the horse arena.
“We have a family friend, Derrick McManus, whose daughter also barrel races,” Lauren says. “He goes in the alley (holding area) with Hannah to help keep her and the horse calm. They pray together before she goes out.”
The barrel racing community is tightknit. “It’s like one big family,” says Kylie. “You cheer for everyone, and you want everyone to do well.”
“It has really been a blessing to our family,” says Lauren. “We are so thankful. It’s a lifestyle for us and one we love.”
“Dude has a lot of heart. All he wants to do is his best. Every run, he runs as hard as he can for me,” Hannah says. “The thrill in the alleyway; it’s just the most exciting thing. You train and get mentally ready, and then you have about 15 seconds to have a run. It’s just you and your horse. There are no judges. It doesn’t matter how pretty or ugly you are. There is just the timer.”