By Robbi Nace Explorebigsky.com Contributor
The barrel racer’s number one rule is to know your horse like the back of your hand.

I kept that rule in mind in Casper last June, at the College National Finals Rodeo. I was in prime position to win a national title that night, and my nerves were on high alert. It was the first run I ever asked my coach to stand with me while I waited my turnin the infamous tunnel in the Casper Events Center.

It had been a long road to this moment. My horse Crystal had surgery seven months earlier, and the vets were unsure if she would make a comeback, let alone survive. She cleared to run four days before CNFR, but I doubted if she could still do it or if I still knew how to ride her. Despite the odds, here we were sitting among the top 10 in the nation with a chance to win it all.

Butterflies fluttered in my stomach. These nerves were for Crystal and me, and also for my teammates. Before my run, I listened, sitting astride of my horse as one of my teammates won the national title in her event and another placed seventh.

The crowd roared, and the echoes in the tunnel made Crystal uneasy and antsy. Coach was there to steady her, as the barrel racers who finished sidled past us on their way out. Slowly, we inched our way up the tunnel. I contained my thoughts to my job and my horse, trying to ignore the results being announced. Worrying about someone
else’s run wouldn’t help my focus.

Then I was up. I eased up the alley, but Crystal stalled at the gate. I quietly backed her up and spun her around again. That did the trick, and in an instant we were flying down the arena to the first barrel.

My adrenaline was up, my thoughts blurred and my body took over. I pushed Crystal hard to each barrel, because if I didn’t, we would have knocked a barrel, resulting in a five second penalty and taking us out of the championship race.

Barrel racing isn’t just about speed. It has more to do with teamwork and muscle memory than anything else. I could feel Crystal’s breath pushing against my legs, her heart beating so hard I could feel her pulse under my right knee.

We turned second and I went for the whip because we were losing too much speed. I over-undered her to the third barrel and all the way around it to ensure we maintained speed. She launched us from the back of the barrel, and we crossed the finish line at full speed.

As we approached the gate, she glided to a stop and we both took a deep breath. I patted her on the neck, and we walked out of the arena the announcer’s excited voice echoing abovethe crowd.

I didn’t knock that night, and instead we made a great run, turning all three barrels tight, losing very little speed and running across the finish line as fast as my little horse could go—about 35 mph.

I was elated. My horse had come back from a life-threatening surgery, four out of five CNFR qualifiers from Montana State ended up in the top 10 in their respective events, and despite the doubts, Crystal and I still placed second and helped MSU to a women’s team national championship.

Robbi Nace enjoys riding and competing throughout Big Sky Country. She competes in rodeos throughout Montana and western Canada.

This story was originally published in the Summer 2012 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine. Read more here.