The trail to Oklahoma

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By Carolyn Ten Broeck

It will be happy trails for six area equestrians as they gallop to Shawnee, Okla. next week for the International Youth Finals Rodeo.

Kaley Wilder, Chelsi Arrington, Ashton Geiger, Shelby Mills, Mark Arrington and Harden Grant, members of the GA-FL Youth Rodeo Association (GFYRA), are training almost daily to prepare for the rides of the lives.

The GFYRA began in September 2005 to provide rodeo competition on a professional level to cowboys and cowgirls ages 14-19. Contestants can win money, awards and the chance to compete in Shawnee.

The ladies will try their skills at barrel racing, while the young men will show off their cow roping abilities.

Last week, the six met at Harris Training Center in Morriston to plot strategy and share their passions before embarking on the rides of their dreams.

Most of them remember being on horses before tricycles and all aver it is the way of life they’ve chosen–and love.

Wilder started working cows on her family’s ranch and parlayed it into barrel racing years later, after abandoning competitive cheerleading.

The daughter of Chris and Amy Wilder says now rodeo is a lifestyle choice that takes as much as 85 percent of her time–and a lot of money.

“It’s like having a child,” she said. “You have to feed your horse, groom it, exercise it.”

Arrington agrees.

“They’re athletes,” said the daughter of George and Georgia  Arrington, who also gives credit where credit is due.

Her horse, Charisma, was already trained for barrel racing when she got her.

“She taught me everything I know,”  Arrington said.

Winning can be lucrative, the ladies agreed, but, Arrington cautioned, “It can also be a money hole. You’re either in or you’re out.”

And both assert that competitive racing doesn’t come without its risks.

Wilder says the multitude of scars on her legs are testimony to the rigors of racing–along with a sundry of broken, stressed or bruised vertebrae in her back and neck.

“I’ve broken everyone of my toes,” Arrington said detailing the various falls she’s taken over the years.

Barrel racing comes naturally for Geiger, whose mother still competes.

“I’m just following in her footsteps,” she said. Riding four days a week takes a lot of her time, too, she said and like her friends, has had her share of injuries, including wrapping her leg around a gate at the beginning of a race.

Though 16, she already has her mind set on attending Rodeo College. “You have to want it,” she said. “In your heart, you have to want it. I want to be the best and I want to be a role model for younger kids.”

This is Mills’ first year with GFYRA, although she’s been riding since she was three.

“I’ve never gotten hurt,” she said. “I have bones of steel.”

At 18, Strickland and Grant are in the twilight of their competitive state with GFYRA .

Both have been around horses their entire lives and throwing their ropes almost as long.

At one time they competed against each other, and now they are partners in what may be one of the fastest rodeo events–cow roping.

Grant, the header, must work quickly to lasso the cow’s head in order for the heeler–Strickland– to finish up the task of tying the cows feet. All this is done from the saddle, unlike calf roping where the cowboy dismounts to make the tie.

Both riders are dally ropers, meaning their ropes are not tied hard and fast to the saddle horn once the catch is made, they dally their ropes they wrap it around it the horn a couple of times, and hold the end of it, keeping it taut

From start to finish, the cow roping takes mere seconds and next week the pair will try to break their record of 4.5 seconds at the Oklahoma rodeo.

“You have to have good horsemanship first,”?Grant said. “You work on the roping separately.”

“Then you put them together,” Strickland said, adding cow roping is the only sport that is 100 percent American.

Both young men are recent high school graduates and both want to train horses as their careers.

The men also agree it’s an expensive sport, with ropes lasting about a week, costing $40 each.

But despite the costs, the work and the injuries, all six can’t imagine any other life and believe the motto of International Youth Finals Rodeo–it’s worth the ride.