Think Out Loud

Union County girl competes in Las Vegas barrel racing championship

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Dec. 2, 2022 5:44 p.m. Updated: Dec. 9, 2022 7:55 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Dec. 2

A 9-year-old from Cove, Oregon, traveled over 700 miles to compete at the Vegas Tuffest Jr. World Championship. Hayden Johnson is a competitive barrel racing jockey. She began riding horses at the age of 3. Hannah Johnson is Hayden’s mother and coach. They both join us to explain what barrel racing is and Hayden’s hopes for this competition.


Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A 9-year-old from Cove, east of La Grande, is in Las Vegas right now. Hayden Johnson is a barrel racer and she’s competing in the Vegas Tuffest Jr. World Championship. Hannah Johnson is Hayden’s mother and coach and a barrel racer in her own right. We talked yesterday after Hayden’s first race. I started by asking Hannah to explain how barrel racing works.

Hannah Johnson: Three barrels are set up in an arena. The pattern size can be different. It’s a cloverleaf pattern. The barrel racer can start to the left or to the right. They cross their path three times. Generally, this day and age, you always have an electronic eye. So when you trip the eye going in, and you trip the eye coming out. This day and age our barrel racers are so fast that oftentimes we have to go down to a one-hundredth of a second to place them.

Miller: So the racer circles around one of the barrels, comes back to the starting point, circles around the other side…

Hannah Johnson: We go in and once you trip the eye, you go to the left or the right. You go around the barrel, the first barrel. It’s set in a triangular pattern, if that makes sense, in an arena. So you’d go to the right barrel, you’d cross your path going to the left barrel, and then the third would be like the third point in your triangle. So then you’d go down and you’d go around that one, and then you’d come straight home back across the eye.

Miller: Oh, okay. Hayden, do you always start in the same direction, the left or the right, or do you vary it?

Hayden Johnson: Well I always start on the right because usually your horse has kind of a dominant side or whatever. So if your horse likes turning to the right more, then you’d probably start on the left to get two right turns. But if your horse likes turning to the left more, you can go to the right. But if your horse doesn’t really care, then you can go either one you’d like.

Miller: Am I right that, unlike some other rodeo events, competitors use their own horses for barrel racing?

Hayden Johnson: Yes.

Miller: So I imagine your relationship with your horse has to be pretty important. Can you tell us about your horse?

Hayden Johnson: Well my horse’s name is Zoe. She’s 9 like me, too.

Miller: So you have that in common.

Hayden Johnson: Yeah, she was just born one day after me.

Miller: Wow. What’s she like to ride?

Hayden Johnson: She’s pretty smooth. She’s quick and smooth. But you have to hustle her, too.

Miller: Oh. How do you hustle her?

Hayden Johnson: Well you use your legs to hustle her.

Miller: And she responds.

Hayden Johnson: Yes.

Miller: Hayden, do you remember the very first time that you competed in a barrel race?

Hayden Johnson: No. [giggling]

Miller: Because you were too young to remember?

Hayden Johnson: Yeah. [giggling]

Miller: Wow. So, Hannah, I imagine your memories for that very first race, maybe, are easier to access. How old was Hayden?

Hannah Johnson: For sure. She started riding when she was… well, she was on horses before she could walk. But, by herself, she started riding when she was 3. Then at 4 she started going to the local events and then kind of just progressed from there.

Miller: How common is that for 4-year-olds to actually be going to events and to be riding?

Hannah Johnson: Not super common on their own. They do have leadline events where parents will lead them through the pattern just for fun. But to actually be competitive at 4, is probably a little bit more rare.

Miller: You’re a rider and a racer yourself. Did you have to push Hayden when she was young to get interested in barrel racing?


Hannah Johnson: Not at all. It was actually opposite. She pushed me to get herself going… I mean, both my kids were on horses all the time because I’m on them all the time. But Hayden is very unique. She’s very self driven and has been ever since she was little. We bought her a horse, or I did, just so that she had something safe to sit on when I was competing. She could follow me around. That way I knew where she was all the time, and she wasn’t off by herself. She actually took that horse and she was like, “No, Mom. I’m going to do the barrels.” And they do have the young age divisions. It wasn’t a barrel horse or anything. It was literally a horse she could sit on and be safe. She turned that horse to where she actually was competitive.

I don’t know if it’s still around, but we did have a Junior Rodeo Association in the Northwest. At 5, she was the Reserve All-Around Cowgirl, and that was an 8 and under age division.

Miller: Hayden, what do you like about barrel racing?

Hayden Johnson: Well, I like that you get to go fast. [giggling] It’s true.

Miller: Going fast seems like it would be super exciting. But I have to say, as somebody who’s not a horse rider, it also seems potentially terrifying. You’re a relatively small human on a very fast, very large galloping animal. Do you ever get scared?

Hayden Johnson: No.

Miller: [laughs] Is that a silly question to ask a racer? I mean, do barrel racers just not get scared?

Hannah Johnson: I don’t think that’s silly. I think there’s probably some that [are] probably more nervous than scared. I think you have to have definitely that trust level too with your partner, your horse. Going in, you’ve definitely got to have that trust, or you’re not gonna be competitive because you’ve got to trust that they’re gonna take care of you as well.

Miller: It seems like one of the big technical challenges in barrel racing is turning corners quickly. You have to go as fast as you can in the straightaways and then really in an agile way – keeping, I imagine, as much of your momentum as you can – making tight quarter circles or half circles and then doing another galloping straight away. How do you approach those turns?

Hayden Johnson: Well, when you get close to it, you kind of pull them up a little bit, and pick ‘em up so they can turn the barrel. Then you sit down, hold your horn and turn the barrel, basically. And then when you go to your second one, you do the same. You just kinda pull them up a little bit, slow them down, grab your horn, turn, kind of sit in your seat and pull them around the barrel… not pull them, but…

Miller: I should say that we are recording this conversation on Thursday afternoon, meaning that you had your first race for these world championships just a couple hours ago,Thursday morning. How did that first race go?

Hayden Johnson: Uh…

Hannah Johnson: Not very well. [both laugh] The nerves got the best of her today.

Hayden Johnson: Yeah.

Hannah Johnson: Like we talked about earlier, getting in there and turning those barrels is so important. The pin down here is really a lot smaller than she’s ever run in before, and that first barrel came quicker than she expected. So, like she was just telling you that she needs to sit and set her horse to make that turn. She was very late in sitting to set her horse for that first barrel, so it cost her the race today.

Miller: What does that mean for these championships? Because my understanding is there is another race on Saturday.

Hannah Johnson: Correct. There’s also an average and a short go. It cost her qualifying for the short go, which would have been on Monday. But she still gets to ride on Saturday, so she can still run for day money. I think they pay eight spots in day money. She can still run for day money on Saturday, and then there’s also a hot round. If she happened to place in the first or second place, she would qualify for a hot round, which is like another short go that she could still qualify for if she had a good run on Saturday.

Miller: Hannah, is it hard to be Hayden’s coach and mom? I mean, are there ever times when it’s hard to do both of those roles at once? Because, as a parent, you might want to be somebody who provides support and comfort, and as a coach, you might want to be somebody who pushes your athlete to the best of their ability.

Hannah Johnson: You’re absolutely right. It’s a fine line, and I try really hard to do both. I’ve coached a few other kids as well, and it’s a lot harder in the parent’s shoes because the nerves probably get to me just as bad – especially at these higher level events – as they do Hayden. Because you are the parent, and you’re just nervous for them. You want them to do well. You want them to be safe. You have all those things as a parent. Then also, on the coaching side of it, we’re practicing and we’re setting her up for as best a success as we can. So yeah, you’re right. It’s a fine line. You have to be hard on them in the coach’s hat, and you have to be soft, a little bit soft, as the parent.

Miller: Hayden, you’re competing in the 12 and under age group, but you are just 9 years old. Does that mean that you’re younger than many of the other competitors in your age group?

Hayden Johnson: Yeah, I’m definitely on the younger side of the competitors.

Miller: Do you care how old your competitors are?

Hayden Johnson: No. When you go barrel racing, it’s not about how old the other competitors are. It’s about how good you do and how good your runs go.

Miller: What are your hopes, as a barrel racer, for the future? What are your goals?

Hayden Johnson: Next year, we might try to qualify again. But as we get older, there’s the NFR, National Finals Rodeo. That’s 18? That’s when you’re 18 years old, so when I’m 18, I might try to qualify for that.

Miller: And in high school as well?

Hayden Johnson: Yes.

Miller: Hayden, congratulations on what you’ve done so far, and best of luck to you on Saturday.

Hayden Johnson: Thank you.

Hannah Johnson: Thank you.

Miller: Hayden Johnson is a 9-year-old barrel racer from Cove who is competing in the Vegas Tuffest Jr. World Championship right now. Hannah Johnson is Hayden’s mother and coach. We spoke yesterday.

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