“I want to ride my own horse.”
Kendall Gentry was 4 years old and her sister Kenzie just 2 when their family took a vacation at Land Between The Lakes. Parents Kenny and Valerie decided to surprise their daughters with a trail ride, planning to place one child with each of them for their first ride on a horse. But Kendall would have none of that. She wanted a horse of her own, and she didn’t want anyone leading her horse.
A fearless child, Kendall was placed on a gentle old horse that knew the trails well. The big mare didn’t frighten the tiny girl one bit, and now at 16, Kendall fondly remembers the experience.
“Riding that horse was better than Disneyland for me,” recalls Kendall. “We went to Disneyland that same year. I don’t remember Disneyland, but I remember that trail ride.”
Kendall has hardly been off a horse since. Ditto for sister Kenzie, 15, who declared a few years later that she “wanted to do horses.”
The sisters not only ride, but are nationally known as rising stars in rodeo barrel racing. They have won so many awards, Valerie keeps a typed list for each girl, mostly so she can remember them all. Both qualified for the national youth barrel racing championships in 2008, 2009, 2010, and Kendall qualified in 2011. In 2009, Kendall came in third in Division 1 of the National Barrel Horse Association’s (NBHA) youth championship, and in 2010 she took second and third in events at the state division level. In 2008, Kenzie came in third in youth barrels and qualified for the NBHA Youth World Finals, and in 2009 qualified for the NBHA Youth World Championships.
In addition to barrel racing, they have also won numerous events in goat tying (which requires jumping off the horse in midcourse) and pole bending (weaving the horse through a series of six poles). Kenzie was even named Miss Congeniality at the Kentucky Junior Rodeo Association in 2006, an award created for her that hasn’t been presented since.
Rounding the barrels
Just as it sounds, barrel racing is a rodeo event in which a rider runs a horse around and between three barrels set in a cloverleaf pattern. The goal is to complete the pattern in the fastest time without knocking over a barrel. Winning requires a combination of physical and mental conditioning on the part of both rider and horse, horsemanship on the part of the rider, and trust between rider and horse.
“Barrel racing is becoming a popular sport in more rural areas,” says Stacey Wilks, past state secretary for the Kentucky Junior Rodeo Association. “It’s something kids can do at their local fairgrounds. All you need is an open arena, your horse, and three barrels.”
Kendall actually started with English riding; she received a riding lesson for her fifth birthday. But English riding—which includes dressage and jumping—quickly outstripped the family’s finances, so they switched to Western riding. The lessons and the required attire are less expensive. The girls also prefer Western riding because the winner is determined by an impartial clock rather than a human judge.
Life lessons on a horse
How to win and lose gracefully is just one of the many life lessons the girls have learned through their sport.
When she was 12, Kendall had to make a decision that is heart-wrenching for most adults. She returned from school one afternoon to find her horse, Flames, near death from a rare type of bacterial infection. The disease had ravaged the horse in just one day. The vet gave Flames intravenous therapies, so many that they used up the supply of IV fluid in the tri-state area. The beloved horse was not improving, however, and was in pain. Kendall didn’t want her friend to suffer and made the decision to euthanize her horse.
“It took me into depression,” Kendall says. “I loved that horse, but if it happened again, I wouldn’t put the horse through so much. I didn’t understand Flames was in pain.”
Kendall became less selfish from that ordeal, according to her parents. She learned the difference between her wants and what is best for another. Kendall has learned many other lessons as well, including how to negotiate.
“I had wanted a foal for a long time,” she says. “I wanted a baby I could train myself. Rick Kellen (a nearby horseman who taught the girls to ride) had a foal I wanted.”
Kendall headed to Kellen’s farm with a check for $1,000 in her back pocket. If she wanted the foal, her parents said she had to be able to explain to Kellen why she was the right person for the foal, what she would do with the horse, and how her skills would improve. She also couldn’t go a penny above $1,000.
“I can’t believe I just did business with a 12-year-old girl” was all Kellen could say to Kendall’s parents after the deal was done that day. Kendall named the foal MCR Hollywood Joe.
Put your money where your horse is
The $1,000 was not a gift from her parents either. Kenzie had earned the money at barrel racing competitions. Since the girls started winning, their parents have insisted that the girls buy their own horses and any supplies that go beyond the basics.
They also insist on the girls doing all the work associated with the horses. That is in addition to their chores around the house. Valerie makes one exception. During the school year, she feeds the horses in the morning since the girls leave for school so early.
“The girls have never received an allowance,” says Valerie. “If they want horses, they have to care for them. The horses are pretty much their life. They have missed out on dances and hanging out at the mall to have them.”
In fact, the entire family makes sacrifices so the girls can race. Kenny jokes that when you buy a horse, you have to ride it, and feed it, and build a barn for it. Then you need a trailer to haul it to competitions and a truck to pull the trailer. Then you need a trailer with living quarters so you can spend the weekend at competitions.
Sitting around the kitchen table vying for their turn to talk about their horses, the girls don’t appear to have missed much. Their eyes sparkle as they show off pictures of themselves rounding a barrel, long ponytails airborne behind them, total focus on their faces, in command of such a large, strong animal.
If they were missing out, last year they were allowed to add extracurricular school activities so they could socialize with their friends. Kenzie chose choir and dance while Kendall chose volleyball and track. But the girls qualify for so many competitions that conflict with school events that they have to choose between school activities or horses. They usually choose the horses.
But the conversation and the enthusiasm always come right back to the horses at the Gentry farm just outside Henderson.
“My horse is my best friend in the world,” allows Kendall. “I tell him stuff I don’t tell anyone else.” Kenzie nods her head in agreement. Perhaps the T-shirt Kendall is wearing sums up the girls and their sport well: “Ride,” it proclaims. “A little girly. A little gutsy.”
WANT TO JOIN THE RODEO?
The Kentucky Junior Rodeo Association was created in 1988 with its first sanctioned rodeo in April 1989. Approximately 50-60 members now compete in sanctioned events from September through June.
The association is designed for children ages 5 to 15 (kindergarten-8th grade). To compete, the child must live in Kentucky and have good conduct and passing grades in all school subjects. A parent or guardian must also attend events with the child. To find out more, go to their Web site at www.kyjrrodeo.org.
The National High School Rodeo Association has also established the Junior High Division for 6th-8th graders. The Junior High Division allows young people to compete during the year and earn points to qualify for the National Junior High Division Finals, held each July in Gallup, New Mexico, according to Isabella Cole, Kentucky state secretary of the Junior High Division. For more information, call Cole at (859) 484-2214.
For grades 9-12, there is the Kentucky High School Rodeo Association. The association sponsors several rodeos a year, including events for girls (barrel racing, poles, breakaway, goat tying, and team roping) as well as boys (bareback, saddle bronc, tie down, team roping, bull riding, and steer wrestling).
“There is a lot more to the sport than most people think,” says Chasidy Chappell, state secretary for the Kentucky High School Rodeo Association. “We not only host several in-state rodeos but give out scholarships, too. Over the past several years, at least four kids have received an almost free ride (everything except housing) to college because of their participation in rodeo.”
As with the younger cowboys and cowgirls, students must be passing all their subjects and have good conduct. To find out more, go online to www.kyhsra.com or contact Chappell at (270) 619-0112.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MORE LESSONS ABOARD A HORSE
Read about the many invaluable lessons the Gentry sisters have learned from their horses—gratitude, accepting responsibility and challenges, and focusing in “More lessons aboard a horse.”