Turn and Burn
by Kris Sell
It feels like a party is going on in the arena. There’s a lot of chatter, laughing, and people shifting from group to group. These horse riders, 95% of them women, are busy catching up with each other, encouraging each other, and warming up horses in preparation to ‘Turn and Burn’ at a January 5th, 2019, ‘Jackpot’ barrel race. ‘Jackpot’ means most of the entry fees get divided among the winners. This kind of party requires an indoor area the size of a football field and several inches of soft dirt on the floor. Kalispell’s Majestic Arena works just fine.
The frequent barrel racing events in Montana, around the United States, and in Scotland and other countries, are part of a sport that has exploded in popularity since the founding of the National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA) in 1992. The NBHA made more riders into winners by instituting a handicap system. The NBHA website explains that the fastest time running the cloverleaf pattern establishes the 1D winner. The 2D section starts at half a second after the winning time. The 3D division starts at one second after the winning time. 4D begins two seconds after the fastest time logged at that event. Each section has its own winners. A rider doesn’t know if she won, or in which division, until everyone has gone.
The possibility of winning may have become the big draw since 1992, but a Flathead area three- generation barrel racing family will tell you it is connectedness, even love, that keeps them coming back. Kim Abertoni began barrel racing when her then 12- year- old daughter, Kassi, decided she was ready to leave horse shows to go fast. 20 years later Kassi is married and known as Kassi Knodel. Kassi has a 4- year- old daughter, Kashlynn, who has also joined her mother and grandmother at the arena. Kim says the sport brings her closer to her daughter and granddaughter, feeding the heart connection they have with each other and their horses. Kim says they celebrate together whenever there is improvement in each rider’s relationship, and performance, with her horse.
Kashlynn mostly talked about getting a prize. All the ‘PeeWee’ riders get to draw a toy out of a bag at the end of his or her run. Kashlynn is not into speed yet but she was brave enough to trot the last section of the pattern while Kassi ran alongside for support. Kashlynn also enjoyed showing off the custom tack and accessories her mother makes, which are marketed on a Facebook page called, “Cowgirl Candy”. Kassi is a Columbia Falls High School graduate and studied Equine Science and Business at Montana State University. Kassi says barrel racers provide her a market for her unique, non-traditional horse gear.
Kassi likes Kashlynn participating because Kashlynn is learning that hard work and being responsible leads to fun and rewards. Kassi has a rule that if Kashlynn doesn’t practice her riding during the week, and do the small chores she is assigned to help take care of her horse, she doesn’t get to join in with her Mom and Grandmother on Saturday to compete, and get a prize.
After Kashlynn’s run, Kassi has work to do with her own young, developing horse. He did well in practice runs so Kim encourages Kassi to pay the entry fee and see if the young horse can turn in a respectable time. Kassi is up for the challenge and ends up delighted that her still- growing horse improved by a whole second over a prior attempt, though the team was seconds slower than the 1D competitors.
Then, it was Kim’s turn. Kim may have followed her daughter into the sport but she is now a serious competitor. When Kim gets ready to enter the arena her horse spins and sidesteps in excitement while Kim is calm and focused. When Kim gets her horse near the gate and he can see the pattern, the pair lunges forward as though out of starting blocks. Kim comes out of the arena with a wide smile and pounds her horses neck with hard, happy pats to make sure he knows he did good. This Grandma clearly has some game, decisively showing that while she is the oldest, she is also the fastest member of the family today.