“Are you all right? Can you breathe?” He picked me up and gently palpated my 7-year-old body, looking for broken bones. Then he turned to Penny, my big red mare, who was shaking dust everywhere. He examined her legs, the side of her belly that she’d fallen on before throwing me to the ground.
As the wind swept back into my lungs, I started to cry. Not just from pain or fear, but also from failure. My dad hugged me. “It’s all right,” he said. “You’re all right.”
“I’ll do it again,” I said, but he wouldn’t let me. I protested, vexed. I wanted to accomplish what I’d set out to do: show him that I could race in record time around three clumps of bushes that had grown in a lopsided triangle in a secluded field near our New Mexico farm.
I was a barrel racer. Well, that was one of a few events I did at the weekend 4-H mini-rodeos we called “Play Days.” I also did flags, sometimes partnering with my brother, and poles. But barrel racing was my calling. I worshipped the teenage barrel racers, especially the rodeo queens, who could not only ride like the wind, but were also beautiful enough to be on TV.
I’d found this spot on a solo ride a few weeks earlier. We had a corral behind our house where I could practice, but somehow this place seemed special to me, wild and secret. Trotting Penny around the triangular configuration of bushes, I cleared all the dirt clods and scoped out all the prairie-dog holes—or so I thought.
In those days, in a small rural town, it was OK to let your kids roam—and we were independent enough to handle it. For a week or so, I’d taken Penny out to my secret spot after school and practiced riding the bushy barrel circuit. I couldn’t wait to show my dad how fast I’d gotten. I lived to make him proud.
Finally, the day came when he was home from work early and could ride with me. I led him to the field and, at the entrance, told him to wait. I had something to show him, I said.
On command, Penny bolted for the first clump of bushes. I steered the surprisingly agile old mare clockwise around it, then made for the second one.
To hear my dad tell it, this is what happened next: I rounded the second clump of bushes and … disappeared. He sprinted his horse to where I lay, just coming to, Penny struggling to her feet next to me.
Like any parent, he was horrified and relieved and amused all at once. In his eyes, I was up to my usual inexplicable shenanigans. I think he never did understand what I was trying to do that day—and that I was doing it for him.
We rarely returned to that particular field. It was a scraggly patch after all, full of pitfalls. Around the age of 10, my interests would start to turn town-ward. By adolescence, I’d abandoned horses for cheerleading, makeup, boys. I would—and continue to—ride with my dad only on special occasions. I would never be a rodeo queen.