By BRIAN JENNINGS
She pulled gently on his reigns and he started to trot toward the barrel from the far end of the rink. He picked up speed as his trot quickly turned into a gallop. He reached the barrel and turned the corner like a speed racer on a street bike. The dirt kicked up from beneath his hooves and just like, she was gone.
You might be skeptical when you hear of a 15-year-old girl barrel horse racing in the Northeast. However, there is nothing skeptical about watching Renn Abramczyk-Dubiel ride a horse.
Whether it was going on pony rides, riding merry-go-rounds, collecting My Little Pony Dolls, or making breyer horses out of model horse tack, Renn has always had a fascination with horses, in her case, it seemed since birth.
Growing up, Renn tried other sports, like soccer, baseball, and gymnastics, but they just didn’t compare to the feeling she got when she was on top of a horse. Renn had found her calling.
“When I’m on a horse, I feel happy,” said Renn. “It’s just you and the horse. You’re focusing on just working with them. You’re not paying attention to anything else.”
From time to time, Renn’s grandmother would take her horseback riding all over the state. Unfortunately, Renn’s grandmother passed away in 2007. Before her passing, Renn’s grandmother had promised to take her to horse camp that summer. Renn went to her grandfather with her grandmother’s promise in mind.
Renn’s grandfather fulfilled his wife’s promise and took Renn to horse camp at the Hayes Equestrian Center in Plantsville. After a week of horseback riding, Renn couldn’t get enough and wanted more.
“I’ve loved horses all my life,” she said. “After doing pleasure riding for four years, I switched. My grandfather got me a horse before he retired. That’s where it started.”
Renn started competing in barrel horse racing in 2010 after her grandfather leased her first horse, Tee Jay, from her trainer and mentor, Alicia Turkington, at Born to Run Barrel Horses in Sandisfield, Mass.
“I tried barrel horse racing on a free ride at my old barn and really liked it,” she said. “I thought to myself, maybe I can start doing this because pleasure riding is getting boring now. It’s not like I’m learning anything here anymore. I switched barns, and here they do everything.”
Renn moved Tee Jay to Hillside Equestrian Meadows in Wolcott. Whatever the weather or temperature is, you can find Renn at Hillside training and practicing with her horse.
Renn races horses in both English and Western-style horseback riding, but enjoys competing in Western-style competitions more, even though English horseback riding is more popular in the Northeast.
Renn may only compete in barrel horse racing, but also races other horses in gymkhana, pole bending, scurry racing, and bleeding heart. Renn’s father and grandfather bring her to competitions and are her biggest supporters. However, before she gets ready to ride, she gets in a zone.
“When it comes to warm-up blocks, I’ll work him through the pattern a few times and wait for my number to be called,” she said. “I usually don’t talk to my father and grandfather. I walk around and watch. My trainer always says, plan the ride and ride the plan.”
In June of 2014, Renn finished fifth in the Youth 4D class, beating more than 390 competitors at the NBHA Syracuse Super Show at the New York Fairgrounds in Syracuse, N.Y.
In August, she traveled to her farthest rodeo and finished 25th at the Youth 4D finals out of more than 700 competitors at the Colonial Nationals in Lexington, Va. In September, she was the Youth 4D Connecticut-Massachusetts State Champion.
“I was surprised that I won, and that the fact that I won a belt buckle,” she said. “I didn’t think I placed that high. There were girls with slow times, but I thought I would place at the bottom of 3D, not really 4D. I was really shocked.”
Besides winning a belt buckle, Renn also won an automatic qualification of a wildcard to go compete in any world show of her choice. Renn ended 2014 finishing 2nd in Youth 1D, 4th in Open 4D, and 2nd in Youth 2D in the NBHA Conn. 01 final standings.
After her first-place finish at the Connecticut-Massachusetts Championships, Renn sold Tee Jay to a 10-year-old girl in Bethany, which was heartbreaking not only to her, but to the people around her as well.
“It’s weird not having him here,” she said. “It was weird for all my friends too. He would always stick his head out, cock it back, and wonder where the food was. He was a goofball. Everyone misses him. A lot of kids liked him, and he was a barn favorite.”
Renn’s grandfather said that Tee Jay was a horse that knew his job, no matter where you took him or what the situation was.
“When you brought him to the arena to race, he knew what he was there for,” said Renn’s grandfather. “He would look around, his ears would go up, and he would observe the other horses. When you were ready to go, he was ready to go.”
Renn needed to advance and move up with a faster horse, in order to win more money and place better. So she purchased a younger, smaller horse at the beginning of the year that Turkington had scouted for her, named Peanut.
“I love his personality,” she said. “He doesn’t know what personal space is. I’ll just be standing in the stall with him, and he’ll come up behind me and play with my hat. Other times he’ll come over and rest his chin on my shoulder. He comes up to me in the field, whereas Tee Jay didn’t.”
This is Renn’s first year with Peanut and she is still getting used to the changes from Tee Jay.
“I have to see how it is racing him,” she said. “I’ve never shown him. My trainer has shown him a little bit last year. I don’t know how he is off of the property or at shows. Tee Jay was a better listener. Peanut is a little more fidgety than Tee Jay and is still learning.”
Although Tee Jay is a much bigger horse than Peanut, he was very calm and gentle, knowing what to do even after Renn lost his reins during a competition. Tee Jay was also patient with Renn, adapting to the trick riding Renn would dabble with on occasion.
“He was able to put up with me,” she said. “I did some really crazy, stupid things on him. I would stand on him and ride him backwards.”
Renn said that she would have loved to keep both horses, but money was an issue.
As far as 2015 goes, Renn looks to compete in more rodeos, NBHA events, Conn. Barrel Horse Racing, and at the Goshen Stampede. She is currently a sophomore at Southington High School and was accepted into the Agriculture Science and Technology Program. Although Renn sees barrel horse racing as a sport, there are still some that simply do not.
“This kid in one of my classes said he didn’t see horseback riding as a sport,” she said. “It is a sport. We work hard just like everyone else. We have our trophies like you have yours too. Your team is with other people and our team is with our horses.”
Not only is barrel horse racing a sport, but it is no joke as well. Every year, the top 15 girls in barrel horse racing in the country get the chance to go the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and compete for grand prizes ranging from new horse saddles or trailers to $250,000.
With no high school rodeo in the state, Renn plans to graduate from Southington and attend a college that offers a rodeo program, which is mostly down south or out west.
Renn hopes to compete in professional rodeos and has dreams of one day qualifying for the youth world championship in Georgia or even the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
“I would love to do that,” she said. “It’s a lot of work though. You have to compete in a bunch of rodeos down south just to qualify. It will be something good for me to focus on in the future, maybe when I get out of college.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.