July 7, 2018 9:59:17 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Joy Nabors is into speed and precision, into pushing limits with a near half-ton, hairy partner in a sport ruled by athleticism, control and split-second decisions. One rider, one horse, three barrels and a timer. The clock is the only judge. That is why all eyes were on the electronic timer as final competitors in the All American Youth Barrel Race 4D division made their runs in mid-June in Jackson. Joy, 17, watched from the bleachers, struggling with nerves, hoping to at least finish up in the Top 10. With Sparky, her family's 14-year-old quarter horse, she had already put down a clean run and was sitting on the fastest time. Only a few remaining challengers could take that lead away. The pressure had already sent her mother, Misty Nabors, to the horse trailer.
"I had to leave the arena because it was just nail-biting," said Misty, who is also a competitive barrel racer. "I knew Joy was close to winning the 4D championship. I just didn't know how close. Her older sister, Noel, had come close to it twice, and at the last she was knocked out."
Horse after horse burst from the alley -- entryway -- to navigate three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern as fast as possible without tipping over a barrel. Dirt churned in the explosive turns and flew behind hooves on the straightaway toward home. And horse after horse, Joy's time held up.
"You don't know if you're going to be sitting good until the last horse goes because the last person that runs could blow it out of the water and change the whole leader board -- and instead of winning a big check, you could win nothing," she said. "It's like you're gambling, always sitting on the edge of your seat. Every time I compete I get a huge adrenaline rush!"
After the last run was clocked, Joy had done better than Top 10.
"When the announcer said my name (as division champion), I didn't know how to react," the Starkville High School senior said, still somewhat in awe. "After I realized I just won a big check, I started running and calling my mom."
A $4,000 check came with the championship, as did a new barrel racing saddle, custom spurs and multiple other prizes. It was a mountaintop moment for Joy, who only began barrel racing competitively about two years ago.
At the barn
On a hot July afternoon in Adaton, about 7 miles west of Starkville, Joy walked from stall to stall in the family's barn, introducing the three horses she rides. Sparky -- registered as Freckles Frosty Spark -- is tried-and-true. He was raised by the family; much of his training and competitive seasoning was done by Joy's elder sister, under their mother's guidance.
Joker, in the second stall, is a 5-year-old quarter horse/thoroughbred mix in training. Renegade, the elder statesman, is Misty's honed barrel horse, a "free runner," a horse with natural raw speed. Sparky is more of a "push-style" mount. He's expected to soon help teach the Nabors' 11-year-old daughter Isabelle the basics of barrels.
Joy's parents seem still a bit surprised she has embraced barrel racing and rodeo like she has, even though Joy learned to ride as a youngster. It wasn't long ago she was consumed with competitive gymnastics and volleyball.
"We really didn't think she would ever get interested in horses, then it just kind of hit her," said the teen's dad, veterinarian Ben Nabors. He is a clinical instructor at the Mississippi State College of Veterinary Medicine and certified farrier (horseshoer) with the American Farrier's Association.
"I'm glad to see her perseverance translate into a win in that division. She's worked for it," he continued. "It's always good to see your kids put forth some effort and get recognized for it."
Putting in the work
As exciting as they are, big wins are sporadic, elusive highs for legions of people like Joy who daily feed and groom their horses, clean stalls, scrub water buckets, haul hay and train in heat and cold.
In summer, Joy is up about 7 a.m., bringing horses in from pasture to feed; they remain in stalls during the day with a cooling box fan.
"I like to spoil the horses. I feel bad if I don't put them in the stall with a fan," Joy said. "I try and keep them happy."
Regular exercise is crucial for horses in competition. That means daily riding. During the school year, when Joy gets up nearer 6 a.m. to head to the barn, the riding has to be done after she gets home.
"That's something I'm very stern about," Misty said. "If they're going to run, the horses have to be in condition."
Joy doesn't have to be coerced, her father said.
"She goes out, she rides, she takes care of the horses, she takes it upon herself that they're fed at a certain time, that they're exercised. It's not something I make her do, or her mother makes her do," Ben said. "It impresses me."
It's a good feeling, Misty said, to see her daughters' rapport with horses.
"They learn a lot of good horsemanship, a good work ethic and have motivation and a drive and passion for something," she said.
The Nabors' horse trailer has logged plenty of miles from Oklahoma to Georgia for races and rodeos. They're often mother-daughter outings.
"It's good bonding time," said Joy. "We have lots of fun making memories and barrel racing together." With a grin she added, "Sometimes we may get mad at each other, but the next day we love each other."
If Joy meets her goals, the horse trailer has many more miles to go.
"I want to make it to the national finals of the National High School Rodeo Association in Rock Springs, Wyoming," she said. "I want to be in the Top 5. And when I grow older, I want to go to the National Finals Rodeo." She also plans to be involved with college rodeo when she goes to Mississippi State.
She'll keep working toward more mountaintop moments. A win, when it comes, is a satisfying reward for all the hard work, but the bond between horse and rider is at the heart of it all.
"When I'm riding, I'm not focused on everybody else, just me and my horse," Joy said. "Horses were always my best friends."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.