Shirley Kennedy Tells Historians About Barrel Racing

By Terry Hussey

"Barrel racing is a timed event in which the horse and rider try to make a cloverleaf pattern around some barrels faster than anyone else," explained Shirley Kennedy, to members of the Milbridge Historical Society and guests on February 8 at the museum. Shirley; her daughter, Terry West; and her two granddaughters, Megan (a junior in high school) and Morgan West (an eighth grader), compete in this sport at the national and international level.

Shirley explained that training is intense for this sport, for both the horse and for the rider. The horse must learn to respond appropriately to a number of subtle cues given by the rider. They may be a touch, pressure with the knees or heel, or even just a shifting of the rider’s weight. The whole event takes less than 16 seconds for top riders, so there’s no time to correct for a missed cue.

Another event in which the Kennedys compete is pole bending. In this event, six poles are places 21 feet apart. The competitor rides all the way down one side, threads in and out of the poles, turns around and goes through the poles again, then runs down the outside. All this is done in about 22 seconds. "I don’t like pole bending," Shirley said. "I do it, but I don’t like it. Seems like you look up and there’s always another pole right there."

A Family Tradition

Shirley said that she grew up riding horses. Both her parents were riders, her mother riding until she was 78 or 79 years old. When she had daughters of her own, they too grew up riding. Today Shirley’s two granddaughters are becoming skilled horsewomen, attending competition all over the country.

The Kennedy girls, the name that’s blazoned upon their truck, began to compete in gymkhanas in the 1960’s. At that time, it was Shirley and her two daughters, Terry West and Anne Faulkingham. "We enjoyed it for a while," she said, "but then it became too political." She said people would win because they had a new outfit or a new saddle or because of who they knew. "We decided it was time to back off," she said.

In 1979 a national organization of women barrel racers was started. Maine had a chapter, where women could compete in 15 events each season. The most exciting time came when Terry, still in high school, won the Maine State barrel racing championship. Her prize was payment of her entry fee into the Loretta Lynn Rodeo, which came to Portland. "It was her first real rodeo," Shirley said, "and it was quite an experience."

The whole family loved this kind of competition, and soon joined the Canadian rodeo circuit. They toured all over maritime Canada, competing each weekend. She said, however, that it became harder and harder to overcome border crossing difficulties. They had to have the horse examined by vet just hours before crossing, and they needed a blood test and health certificate. The health certificate expired in 32 days, but the health test was only good for 72 hours. "Sometimes," she said, "we’d compete all day, drive back across the border that night, and cross into Canada again the next day to get 72 more hours. It got to be pretty frantic."

When Terry graduated from high school, her graduation gift was to go to Martha Josie’s Ranch in Texas to barrel racing school for two weeks. "We needed to improve some of our skills," she said. "We couldn’t afford to all go, so we sent Terry. She came back and taught her sister and me."

Experiences on the Road

With their improved skills, the Kennedys branched out. They competed in shows in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. "One of the best things about all this is that we’ve been able to go to all kinds of places we never would have seen."

"We’ve met a lot of interesting people too," Shirley continued. She told about meeting the jockey who road Secretariat in the Triple Crown Races. "After he was injured in a race, the jockey returned to his home town of Grand Falls, New Brunswick, where he opened a club called the Jockey Club. He invited all the rodeo contestants to come to the club.

"We’ve even had tea with the Lord Mayor and his Councilman," she said. "I’ve never had tea with a Lord Mayor before, but I sure did enjoy it," said Shirley.

Shirley told of taking her horse to an indoor arena in St. John’s New Brunswick. "My horse had never been inside an indoor arena before. He went right in with no problem, but we just couldn’t get him to come out. There was a huge fan over the door. It made an awful racket, and he wouldn’t walk under it. It was very embarrassing. I couldn’t get out of the ring, so the next contestant couldn’t get in. Finally with a lot of help, we got him out the door."

Another time she said they were competing in a very French region of New Brunswick. The announcer at the arena spoke only in French. "They call your name and number, and you’re supposed to get right out there, but we couldn’t tell if they were calling us or not," said Shirley. "Some nice folks helped us out, but we never did know what our time was. We couldn’t understand a thing."

"We went to Cowtown, New Jersey, to the biggest barrel racing event on the east coast, with contestants from all over the world. In 1993, we qualified to go to Augusta, Georgia for the finals of the National Barrel Racing Association. We all competed. Morgan was just ten years old, riding Shirley’s horse. The horse had been in an inside arena before, but Morgan never had. Can you imagine being ten years old and entering that arena to ride in front of 15,000 spectators" Needless to say she was a little nervous. She scored well. She would have won the event, but she knocked over the very first barrel," said Shirley.

"In 1998 we went to Lexington,Virgina, taking three horses in the trailer. We traded one horse and got two for it, and we thought that was pretty good," said Shirley.

She explained that they now train horses for other people. Then they have to train the riders, so that they know as much as the horses do. They give clinics, both at their farm on Ray’s Point, and at other places all over the state. "We trained most of the top racers in Maine today," Shirley said. "When they see the Kennedy girls trailer coming into a competition, they know they’re going to get some good competition," she said.

Shirley explained that barrel racing became a rodeo event in the 1930’s, but at that time, women were not allowed to compete. She said that women always attended rodeos with their husbands, and gradually won acceptance as competitors, along with the men. It wasn’t until many years later that they were able to win cash prizes instead of ribbons like the men did.

She said that at first barrel racing was just one event of many in a rodeo. In the 1950’s, it began to branch out and appear as an event in gymkhanas. Gymkhanas were shows in which many different games were played on horseback.

Twelfth in the World

The highlight of Shirley’s career, to date anyway, was her appearance just last November in the national finals in Georgia. She was recovering from Lyme’s disease, which had laid her low for most of the summer and was feeling a little shaky about competing. Then, on the way south, she came down with bronchitis. "I couldn’t even talk enough to make my horse hear my commands," she said.

By an unlucky draw, her appearance in the final event wasn't until 9:00 at night, pretty late for someone who wasn’t feeling well. She said she was afraid that, with her reduced strength, she wouldn’t be able to hold on tight enough, as the horse went through his intricate maneuvers. For this reason, she held him back just a little, which cost her .3 of a second. This was enough to drop her to twelfth place, out of 61 contestants. That’s twelfth place in the world, and less than half a second from being number one in the world. Pretty impressive.

The other thing that’s so impressive about the Kennedy women is their closeness as a family. These four women, pulling an enormous horse trailer, strike out for parts unknown, relying only on each other. They share the driving, and they share a lot of good times together.

The Kennedys brought several short videos of their appearances in several events, along with pictures, ribbons, trophies, and fancy belt buckles they have won in competition.