For the average person, the word rodeo conjures up the imagery of Hollywood’s Wild West: Tough, laconic cowboys, bucking horses, and whirling lassos against a stark, sepia-toned desert. Outside of the equine community, it’s not well-known that Madison, Wisconsin hosts one of the nation’s premier horse fairs — or that the modern rodeo isn’t just a boys’ club anymore.
This past weekend, the Alliant Energy Center hosted the Midwest Horse Fair, one of the largest horse fairs in the country and a Madison tradition since 1979. While the fair offers a full three days of activities, the event’s centerpiece is the professional rodeo. Alongside classic “roughstock” events like bull riding and saddle bronc riding, the rodeo features barrel racing.
In this all-women event, three barrels are set up in a triangle shape. The horse and rider complete a “cloverleaf” pattern, circling each barrel before proceeding to the next. The object is simple: Fastest time wins. Simple enough, right? Wrong.
“In every arena, depending on the size, [the barrels] are in a different spot. It can be anything from a 12-second pattern to a 17- or 18-second pattern,” explains Sandli Brandli, a barrel racer from Mauston. “You get one shot.”
It’s high-speed and high-pressure. But succeeding in this sport takes more than just skill: It tests a rider’s connection with their horse. Managing tight turns without knocking over a barrel — which earns a 5-second penalty — demands trust from both, especially when each course is slightly different.
“You have to become one with the horse,” says Brandli. The 62-year-old competitor started barrel racing when she was 8 years old, and she hasn’t stopped since. While she’s plenty competitive (placing fourth overall at last year’s fair), she thinks about what her 11-year-old horse, Mikey, needs before thinking about placing or prizes.
For example, Mikey prefers to run when it’s quieter. Knowing that, Brandli chose to race during “slack” (the periods of downtime during the day) instead of during the sold-out nighttime performance.
Any advantage counts. Competitors’ times are often only hundredths or thousandths of a second apart. Take this year’s final standings, for example: Tasia Behnke won with a time of 13.97 seconds in her Saturday night performance. The runner-up, 64-year-old Cindy Patrick, was just one one-hundredth back, at 13.98 seconds.
Surprised to hear the ages of some of the sport's contenders? You’re not alone. But in barrel racing, age is an advantage.
“The women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s … those are the really tough barrel racers,” says Brandli. “There’s some good young ones, too, but your reflexes and your muscle memory get better with age.”
This year, four of the top ten finishers in the barrel racing event were over 60 years old, with an average age of just over 48. In stark contrast, all but one of the saddle bronc riders at the event were in their 20s. It’s a testament to the unique nature of the sport — and to the commitment of its athletes.
“I’m old, but I feel like I’m where I want to be,” says Brandli contentedly. “It never gets old, and you’re never perfect at it.”
In their race at the Midwest Horse Fair, Mikey and Brandli took the first turn a little too tight and tipped the barrel over. Despite running the course in just over 14 seconds, the penalty — which added five seconds to their time — kept them from placing this year.
Brandli and Mikey will have more opportunities to win as she continues to compete on the barrel racing circuit. In the next month alone, she’ll travel to five more rodeos. While the schedule can be grueling, Brandli doesn’t view it as a burden.
“The girls that are doing this … they love their horses. We take better care of these horses than we do ourselves,” she admits, laughing. “I buy used boots on eBay, but I put shoes on him for $150 every six weeks. Barrel racers sacrifice a lot to be able to do this.”
Anna Kottakis is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.
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