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Barrel-racing event this weekend will come down to the milliseconds (10 photos)

Essa Speed Horse Club hosts Wild Runs of Summer at Essa Agriplex

ESSA TWP. — The neighing was ramping up Friday at the Essa Agriplex as heavy-duty pickup trucks with horse trailers began to arrive at the facility, located just outside the Barrie city limits. 

They'll be taking part in an Ontario Barrel Racing Association (OBRA) event all weekend, called the Wild Runs of Summer, hosted by the Essa Speed Horse Club. 

Spectators are welcome and admission is free. 

Barrel racing, which is popular worldwide, is a speed event where horses and their riders compete in a clover-leaf pattern. The fastest time wins.

St. Thomas resident Irene Wiles helped organize the local event with her sister, Midhurst resident Tracey Steeves. They are directors with the Essa Speed Horse Club.

"It's fast-paced and fun action with a family-focused environment," Wiles said. 

"It's extremely exciting, and when you're in the saddle, you always feel like you're going way faster than you really are," Steeves told BarrieToday. "You're leaning forward to make them go fast, and when you sit up they learn to throw the brakes on. So if you sit up a little too soon, they run into the barrel and knock it over. If you knock a barrel over, no time, you're done."

The margin of victory can be mere milliseconds, or as little as three seconds between first and last place for dozen of riders. 

They are expecting about 75 competitors from across the province and more than $5,000 in prize money is at stake. 

Barrel-racing participants can range in age from three-year-olds to people doing it at the highest level at the Calgary Stampede and national finals rodeo. There are also people pushing 80 years old who are still looking to beat the clock. 

Derek Bernard and his wife, Jody Hillman-Bernard, came up from the Stratford area for the show. He said they are regulars on the circuit. 

"It keeps her happy," the Monkton resident said with a laugh, adding they also like hanging out with others in the racing community. "It's pretty much all the same people, but this is a smaller show."

Bernard, who lived in the Midland area several years ago, said the horses love the activity just as much as the humans do. 

"They drive for it," he said, adding they previously had a horse they eventually had to retire from competition. "She hated it when we didn't take her."

Some of the horses competing this weekend had previous lives on the racetrack. 

"They sometimes look for a second career if they're not doing well as a race horse," Steeves said. "This is a good second career for them. They need to be well broke, because it's so competitive. Some of these horses don't do any other speed events, they only do barrel racing."

Wiles' horse Echo was rescued from "an unfortunate situation" where the owner didn't have the ability to keep him anymore. 

"We've sort of started all over again. I stopped riding when I was about 16 and started back into it at 45," she said with a laugh. 

Holding the reins to Puddin, Steeves says she bought her when the horse was seven years old. 

"She was like a backyard pet and they never broke her. I bought her for 50 cents a pound," which is $600, she said. 

"We were told she was crazy. When I said I was looking for a barrel horse, they said 'do not get her, she's nuts. Run and run fast'," Steeves added. "But once you work with them, I think they take on the personality of the people who are training them.

"It's the same as a rodeo horse, where they get exposed to everything," added Steeves, from tractors and loud noises to running under the lights with other horses in the vicinity.

The OBRA was formed more than 40 years ago to promote speed events, specifically barrel racing, in the province. The non-profit organization has more than 200 members who race at events around Ontario. 

Wild Runs of Summer continues all weekend at the Essa Agriplex, located at 7505 10th Line, near Thornton.

"A lot of people will be seeing this facility for the first time," Steeves said. "They're very impressed with it and they're hoping we can have more events here in the future. A lot of people don't know about it, but this is a great facility."

Exhibitions began Friday afternoon, with the show officially getting underway Friday night with jackpot barrels. 

Saturday's show starts at 9 a.m., with poles, rookie poles, 1st 4D, rookie barrels, three- and four-year-old exhibition, peewee, 2nd 4D, youth, senior and futurity. There action starts up again on Sunday at 9 a.m. 

A raffle will also be offered on site until draw time with over $2,500 in prizes. Tickets are $10. The draw takes place Saturday.  

For more information on the event, click here.