By John Goralski
The January chill was broken by thundering hooves as
steered her horse TeeJay toward a barrel at the back of the Wolcott barn. The earth shook as the two raced toward the barrel, and a plume of dust filled the air as they banked into a turn.
The Kennedy Middle School student wiped the dirt from her face as the horse trotted back towards two family members and a visitor at the side of the indoor arena, but Renn made no effort to hide her smile. Behind her, the barrel still seemed to teeter in the dirt.
It’s easy to see why the local rider has turned heads in the rodeo sport of barrel racing. Even on a day that’s too cold for skiers, Renn was honing her craft in the chilly stable enclosure.
“You don’t take too many days off when you ride at this level,” her father says to a visitor with a look of proud satisfaction.
Rain or shine. Cold of winter or heat of summer. Renn is practicing break-neck turns with her 1,100 pound quarterhorse. The two spend hours each day circling poles and barrels to get ready for their next weekend tournament.
It’s no surprise that Abramczyk-Dubiel is the defending Connecicut youth champion for the National Barrel Horse Association.
“My arms hurt a lot because of the training that I do,” she said. “There’s a lot of pulling. Some days I’m really sore after working him, but it’s worth it.”
Renn has only been riding seriously since 2007 when she attended horse camp, but that sparked an obsession that graduated the young rider from pleasure riding to small Western-style competitions. Four years later, she switched to barrel racing, and that began a whirlwind climb to the top of the rankings.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “I always get the jitters before I go out in the ring, but it all goes away once it starts.”
Barrel racing is a rodeo event where riders negotiate horses in tight patterns against the clock. It includes ‘dash’ racing where there’s just one barrel that a rider needs to circle. There is ‘pole bending’ competitions where six or seven poles are situated in a sort of slalom event, and there’s barrel racing which challenges a rider to run tight circles around barrels displayed in a tight triangle course.
“The hardest thing is not knocking the barrels over,” she said. “I’ve gone against plastic barrels and metal barrels. If you get really close, you can hit your knee against it. That really hurts, but you have to work on getting as close as you can. It’s an ongoing thing.”
The competitive season runs from May through September, and for the past two seasons Renn and TeeJay have competed in both the open and youth divisions. Weekends take the pair to stables throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts for competitions that can attract hundreds of competitors.
“It’s almost like a family. Even those guys that you race against are like family,” she said. “Everyone cheers for you no matter what. It isn’t based on how you’re dressed or anything like that. It’s based on your time and how well you can do with your horse.”
For Renn and TeeJay, it didn’t take long to turn some heads. In their 2012 rookie year, they climbed to third place in the Youth 3D division and finished sixth in the open division. Last fall, they moved up to third place in the open division, and they finished near the top of the rankings in all four youth divisions. They scored sixth place in the top youth division, and they captured the overall state title in the Youth 2D division.
During her final competition in September, Renn and TeeJay came in under 16 seconds for the first time in their careers, and it pushed Renn over the top in the final standings. She talks about the accomplishment like a proud mother describing her child.
“I was really proud of him. I never thought I’d be able to do that with him,” she said. “He usually runs between 16 and 17 seconds, but when he broke into the 15s it was just amazing. No one really knew if he was capable of doing it, and he really had to push himself to get there.”
This spring, she expects to take the next step beginning with the New York Super Show in Syracuse in March.
The young rider expects to compete in the Colonial Nationals in Virginia at the end of the season. She hopes to, one day, qualify for the youth world championship in Georgia or even the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas—the sports Super Bowl competition.
She said that she hopes her success will bring attention to the sport she loves.
“There are always people out there that don’t think that horseback riding is actually a sport,” she said. “They know that horse racing like the Kentucky Derby is a sport, but I want to show people that horseback riding is a real sport. It’s in the Olympics. It’s just like football, basketball, and everything else.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.