Autumn Gallagher grips the reins with confidence as her partner bursts through the chute, hooves throwing dirt.
“It’s almost like I could hear her breathing. I could feel her underneath me and I could sense she was getting tired at the last two poles,” said Gallagher.
Gallagher, a freshman at Aubrey High School, and her mare, Colonels Lil Tari, competed May 22 in the final round of the North Texas High School Rodeo Association (NTHSRA) Pole Bending Championship.
Pole bending is a discipline in rodeo. There’s six poles in a straight line 21 feet apart. The objective is to run down the side of the poles, weave through, turn the end pole, weave back to the top and, as quick as the rider can, turn and head straight out. The fastest time wins.
“We finally got to the end of the last pole and she kicked it into high gear out of the arena. I could tell she was giving it her all and that’s what I love about Tari because she gives it her all no matter what,” Gallagher said.
Tari ran a 20.6, her fastest time of the season, placing Autumn in first place and crowning her champion of the event.
“I won the finals for high school rodeo as a freshman with a horse that everyone thought was ridiculous. It was one of the best feelings in the world,” Gallagher said.
Five years ago, when Autumn was 10, her parents bought Tari – a horse that was only three years old at the time. Her peers criticized her for choosing such a seemingly inadequate horse and called Lil Tari “undersized” and “green.”
“I got her when I was 10. She was my first horse and she was only three years old. People questioned us asking, ‘Why would such a young girl choose such a young horse?’’’ Gallagher said.
But upon entering the 2016 season, Tari started to show signs of progress.
“She came out of nowhere. She started the season running a 22.5 now she’s running a 21.3 and 21.2 and we’re like, ‘Where is this coming from?’’’ Gallagher said.
Early in the season, Lil Tari tore a ligament in her fetlock joint (ankle) on her hind leg, an injury almost impossible to fully recover from.
Lil Tari had to take a year off to rehab, and Autumn began to realize the appreciation she had for Lil Tari.
“When she had the year off, I realized that I might not ever ride her again. She was my baby, my best friend and I knew I took her for granted,” Gallagher said.
With help from trainer Christina, Lil Tari defied the odds and was back at 100 percent.
“When most horses suffer a torn ligament they won’t come back and run as hard as she’s been running. She’s shown everyone that doubted her when I first bought her what’s she truly made of. I couldn’t ask for a better horse,” Gallagher said.
There are 26 rodeo events in a season; the top 15 from a field of 189 are chosen to compete in the NTHSRA finals. Autumn won first place in the NTHSRA finals, finishing eighth overall for the season.
“Champions are made in the practice pen and she is in the practice pen with her horses everyday, and that’s admirable,” Gallagher’s mother Brandee Gallagher said.
“Autumn is a special kid with an incredible faith in God. Before the girls made their runs, Autumn got the girls with their horses to circle up and pray. That was really awesome.”
Based on her success with barrel racing and pole bending, the Texas Quarter Horse Association (TQHA) accepted Autumn to run on their team for the state of Texas at the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) world finals August 7-9 in Oklahoma City.
Autumn will compete in the FFA (Future Farmers of America) state rodeo July 11-12 in Mesquite.
The original version of this story incorrectly reported Gallagher competed in the National High School Rodeo Association.