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Courtesy photo | Kenneth Springer
Hannah Wells competed in division 4D at the world championships last month, finishing 83rd out of nearly 1,400 riders from 38 states, Canada, Italy, Panama, Australia and Mexico.

Having barrel of fun

Roanoke teen makes inroads in horse racing discipline

– She is a world-class athlete, at the age of 17. Two years in a row now, she’s competed in the open world championships in her sport. She’s also competed in the youth worlds, and has qualified to do so again.

But if that’s all you say about Hannah Wells of Roanoke, you’ve left out half the cast of her story.

The other half? Well, start with this: It’s got four legs.

Wells, see, is a horsewoman from way back – she grew up in a horsey family and began riding when she was 4 years old – and seven years ago that particular passion took her from Western and trail riding to barrel racing, a considerably different discipline. Western riding, for want of a better term, is a beauty contest, with the winners determined by human judges. Barrel racing is a flat down-and-dirty test of pure speed, with the winners determined by the bloodless judgment of a stopwatch.

And, yes, the horse is as much a part of that as the rider.

“You literally have two incredible athletes, and they literally work together,” is how Wells’ mom, Peggy Sue, puts it.

Or as one, if it all goes right.

“You want to have a good connection with your horse,” says Wells, who’s home-schooled and is already taking college courses at Grace and Huntington colleges. “And that just depends on the horse and rider. It can take your first ride to really click with your horse, and then it can take up to a couple of years.

“You have some horses that want to turn too soon and you’ll hit a barrel, and then you’ll have some that blow right past it because they just want to run. You have some that turn tighter, some that turn wider – and, of course, some are faster than others.”

That aspect of the sport took some getting used to, it seems.

“You have to think quicker and have to act faster, and when I was younger I didn’t go as fast,” she says. “And of course it’s not just you that you have to worry about, it’s your horse, too.”

Wells first started worrying about horses as a 4-H rider, following in the footsteps of her siblings. Ultimately it was a neighbor who got her involved in barrel racing; after first just tagging along to watch, they finally put her on a horse and “she just got hooked,” according to her mom.

Eventually she began competing in National Barrel Horse Association events, and this year and last she qualified for the NBHA Open & Senior World Championships in Perry, Ga. Nearly 1,400 barrel riders from 38 states and Canada, Italy, Panama, Australia and Mexico competed in the event from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3 in six days of virtually nonstop races.

Wells competed in division 4D and finished 83rd.

“There’s about 1,000 horses for an entire week it starts at 8 in morning and goes until 9 or 10 at night,” Peggy Sue says. “Every minute a rider goes in. And then every five riders they redo the (course).

“It’s a crazy sport. We spend money buying horses and horse trailers and trucks and we drive 20 hours to put a kid in the arena for them to run for 14 seconds. But it’s a lot of fun, and it’s a good crowd to be with. They pray before they start and say the Pledge of Allegiance, and it’s really an Americana kind of sport.”

Most riders have more than one horse in this sport, and some have several. Either they breed and train them on their own ranches, or they buy them from people who do.

“And then there’s people like us,” Peggy Sue says. “We shop around and buy a horse, or people will want Hannah to ride their horse for them.”

Wells rode two horses at both the youth and open worlds, but now she’s down to just one.

“She’s ridden a lot of horses,” Peggy Sue says.

And they’ve carried her far.