Valley News Correspondent
Saturday, August 17, 2019
Lexus Austin was born around horses.
It’s easy to do when growing up in a family operating Austin’s Ranch and Trucking in West Fairlee. She got her first pony when she was 2 years old and learned English riding — a European style with a flat saddle and without a saddle horn — at an early age.
It’s something like a full-time job: waking up at early hours, feeding all the horses, making sure they get their exercise. For someone who was born in that world, it’s work that quickly becomes a labor of love.
Rodeo, on the other hand, happened by happy accident.
Cory, Austin’s father, was scrolling through his Facebook feed last year when, by chance, he came across a post about the New York State High School Rodeo Association, a regionwide varsity rodeo organization that operates under the National High School Rodeo Association for athletes in grades 6-12.
“I just checked into it,” Cory Austin said over the phone on Tuesday. “Anybody in any of the New England states can join the New York High School Rodeo Association. … So we went up there one day to watch, just to check it out. We never thought we’d be up there to run.”
One rodeo — the environment, the smell, the noise, the camaraderie, the energy — and Lexus was hooked.
Two years later, Austin — a rising freshman at Rivendell Academy — is a veteran racer with three horses to her name and is one of six Vermonters to compete in the Empire State’s high school rodeo ranks. She recently competed at the NYSHSRA’s rodeo at Pond Hill Ranch in Castleton, Vt., taking 10th in barrel racing in the morning and 12th in pole bending in the afternoon.
“It’s something you can always get better at,” Austin said on Tuesday. “When you get good at something, you’re never doing the same thing. … There are always people at races giving you advice, which is nice.”
Joanne Bania, from West Rutland, Vt., the NYSHSRA’s first-year president, said she’s seen confidence grow in Austin over the last year. The organization welcomes student-athletes from all New England states and currently has six from Massachusetts and two from Connecticut competing in its circuit. Athletes compete in a state championship for a chance to appear at the NHSRA national championship, held next summer in Lincoln, Neb.
The New York organization, Bania said, has been around for 13 years, starting out with about 60-70 registered riders. This year, the group will include about 50 riders, exceeding some expectations after 11 seniors graduated last year. So far, the numbers have sustained almost entirely on word of mouth.
“Nobody knows about it,” Bania said. “We’re really trying to push social media, making events on Facebook, passing a calendar around, inviting kids out to try it.”
Austin also plays basketball during rodeo’s winter offseason. The differences between the two sports, she said, are nearly incomparable.
“Riding horses is a lot of leg strength,” Austin said. “Basketball is a lot of running and a lot of hand-eye coordination compared to racing, where you’re just looking where you’re going.
“Basketball is easier. I think people think it’s super easy to ride a horse. Not at all. It takes a lot of finding balance … figuring out how to ride a certain horse.”
Never mind the other living creature involved, which needs just as much — if not more — training than the human being guiding it around barrels and poles in a rodeo arena. Austin’s work with the horses is twofold: regular physical training, including exercise and stamina training, and a well-rounded understanding of the horse’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.
But even after the horses are trained and ready to go, she said, the logistics of getting to a rodeo can be the most difficult part.
“You have to deal with the travel,” she said. “That takes the biggest toll out of anything.”
Rodeo also requires as much financial backing as anything. Riders often seek sponsorships to help offset the costs.
“It’s expensive,” Bania said. “A lot of kids have sponsorships. … You have to maintain the horses, you have to own your own horse, all your own tack, a truck or trailer or have someone willing to drive you. You have to pay a national membership, pay entry fees for the rodeos.
“We are nonprofit, so all the extra money goes back to the kids: more money toward scholarships, toward helping kids travel to nationals.”
The Austins, who are about to begin their third season of varsity rodeo, attend about 12 rodeos a year. Each is usually two days long, almost always on weekends; that includes the New York state championship in late May. By now, the family has traveling down to something of a science.
“I am very OCD about when I want to leave. It never happens,” Cory Austin said. “For the most part, that first year of rodeos, we were like, ‘Oh great, we left that at home. That’s great.’ Now, after our first full season and into our second season, we’ve gone through it enough to know what to bring and what not to bring.”
Their farthest trip of the year is to Attica, N.Y., a small town just 50 minutes east of Buffalo. The trip takes about 14 hours one-way, with 30-minute stops every few hours to give both horses and humans a break.
“It’s definitely a commitment,” Cory Austin said. “You have to commit time to it. There is travel. But everyone is there to help. That’s the biggest thing I like about it.”
Austin hopes for a scholarship to compete in college one day, although the odds are seemingly stacked against her. New England winters can be harsh and long, forcing her to put her competing aside, while others in warmer states can compete year-round. But the 14-year-old has found her calling: an ingrained love of horses and a competitive outlet. Now it’s just about moving up the ranks.
“You’re at a slight disadvantage (nationally), going up to compete against some of these bigger states, where that’s all they do,” Cory Austin said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be good. You just have to work a littler harder with less time. It’s not impossible.”
Bania also acknowledged the disadvantage, saying riders from the South and West are often home-schooled on ranches. Some rodeo events are what they do almost every day. But it doesn’t mean an athlete from the Northeast can’t succeed at that level; New York’s Layne Shampang won the junior high chute dogging championships at nationals this summer.
“There might be some disadvantage, but there are some who have been the exception and just done it,” Bania said. “In the winter, when they’re working their horses. they’ve got long johns on, winter boots, gloves, a hat. … They look like little Eskimos.
“But you’ve just got to ride.”