By MARINA WATERS
Most folks just see dirt and metal when they look out at a round pen with barrels strategically placed ahead of a barrel racing competition. But when Emily Jackson looks out at that same arena from her horse, Oakie, she sees everything she’s been working for — and the one thing that gets her heart racing more than anything else.
Emily is an 11-year-old Sulphur Springs student who recently qualified for her first Junior World Finals for barrel racing and will now, along with her younger brother, mom and dad, load up her horse and head out to Las Vegas, Nevada for the biggest race of her life.
“You just have to nail your timing,” Emily said, already picturing running her next pattern. “I think the biggest part is the muscle memory and getting the timing of it. I’ve been working just to make sure I know 100 percent we can go out there and make consistent runs.”
Emily’s been riding horses for six years and has been barrel racing for the last three. She started out on Noble, the Jacksons’ “fat buckskin,” as Emily affectionately put it. Soon, she realized she wanted to give barrel racing her all with a horse built for the sport. But it took Emily and her new barrel horse, Oakie, some time to get acquainted.
“I about fell off her when I first rode her,” Emily said. “She started bucking, but we were like, ‘We have a feeling about this horse.’ She would not even let me catch her in the pasture or anything like that. She would just run around in circles. But then I started working a lot with her. That’s when I started getting interested in the Junior NFR. I was like, ‘Oh I want to do this.’”
It was a long road to earn the horse’s trust and for Oakie to earn Emily’s, but over the past year and a half, the pair have worked together and competed in many arenas across the southeast before qualifying for the Junior World Finals.
“When I first got her, I did not trust her a bit because she was already bucking and everything. So it took a long time,” Emily said. “When I first started to ride her, we didn’t do a lot of barrel work. I did a lot of ground work with her. I would do a lot of lunging and I had to wait for her to build up her trust.
“There’s this exercise you do where you stand in the middle (of the pen) and follow them with the whip and they’ll trot in a circle around you. She started doing this thing with her ears where one is facing forward and the other’s facing towards you and that means they’re listening to you and they’ve figured out the point of that. She gets it now. It’s a lot of reading body language.”
For Emily’s mom, Kelly, there is certainly some fear associated with her daughter’s favorite hobby. But she said she also feels it’s a great way for her to grow as a person and in her responsibilities — and that doesn’t include just taking a few laps around the round pen every day.
“We still question our parenting pretty much every time we let her go down that alleyway,” Kelly Jackson said, laughing. “But you know, that’s life. You have to put in some risk to get the reward. And Emily puts in so much work. She’s out here everyday in the barn, cleaning stalls, brushing, feeding, doing hay. She doesn’t sit down while we go get hay. We get up in the hay loft and she’s up there, pulling and pushing as much as any adult. She tacks her own horse. She does it all.”
It’s not all just about working and racing; Emilly said she feels an important aspect to consider when working with horses is to remember to have fun, and for Oakie — who used to run cattle at her previous home — that means going to visit with the neighbor’s cattle here and there.
“You have to let horses be horses sometimes, too,” Emily said. “You can’t just have them locked up all the time. You can’t bubble wrap them. A lot of people keep them in their stalls thinking they’re less likely to get hurt but I think they’re more likely to get hurt in the stall than in the pasture. We go over here in this cow field sometimes and play with the cows a lot. She likes to chase them.”
Emily has also spent a lot of time working with her trainer, Rose Yeager, throughout the past few years. Yeager, Kelly said, has made all the difference in Emily’s racing as well as the family’s horse knowledge.
“She is a fantastic resource and she’s hard on Emily,” Kelly Jackson said, “but in a very positive way. It’s just good for her.”
Since Emily discovered her love for barrel racing, she and her family have been loading up the family horse trailer and driving to the closest competitions. Sometimes she’s barrel racing in competitions in places like Pennsylvania or Lexington. And other times, Emily will race in her favorite sort of competition — a rodeo.
“I like rodeos better,” Emily said. “It’s more exciting. And you get to watch all the other action, the bulls and the broncs, and roping and everything.”
Emily won the rodeo in Elizabethton this summer. But it’s not just a fun atmosphere with often a cash prize — Kelly Jackson said Emily and Oakie also get loads of experience in that sort of environment.
“With rodeos, they don’t drag so you run in the arena where everybody else has run and made big divots in the dirt,” Kelly Jackson said. “But they’re really fun. There’s a lot of people, it’s louder, they allow music versus a regular barrel race. It’s just different everywhere we go, but it’s fun.”
Emily is always aiming for the fastest time around the barrels, but she’s also building a bond with her horse as much as she can, which can be a missing aspect in the barrel racing world.
“Oakie didn’t do barrels before we got her. A lot of people buy a finished barrel horse and you just get on. But (Emily) had to train the horse,” Kelly Jackson said. “Some (riders) want finished horses that are ready to ride in the Junior NFR. They just want to go buy the horse and go ride it.
“To me, you have to have that trust and know that horse and how to tell it to go and move. I just can’t ever imagine ever saying, ‘Here Emily, here’s a horse. Go run the NFR.’ That’s not what we want to teach her either. That’s not how life is. You don’t just go buy a Ferrari when you learn how to drive. That’s not how it works.”
Emily also spends a lot of time with the Jacksons’ other three horses, Noble, Magic and a 9-month-old colt the family recently got for Emily to train.
“We got this baby so that Emily can get some of that knowledge that we don’t have,” Kelly Jackson said. “Emily is good with horses just naturally and instinctively, but I just think (she needs to know) how to train it, how to get it to do what you want it to do. She works with him every day. She’s out there lunging him, loving on him, putting bags on him, flags, blankets, just to desensitize him.”
Emily has also been hard at work to fundraise for her trip to the world finals. The trip is estimated to cost between $5,000 to $10,000 and part of that includes a stalling fee for Oakie that costs more than the Jacksons’ hotel room in Las Vegas.
To raise money, the Jackson sold raffle tickets, held a meet and greet at the Jonesborough Tractor Supply, and started a GoFundMe page and a website, which can be found at https://www.emilygracejackson.com/. Emily also offers horse riding lessons for local kids to raise money for her competitions.
Whether it’s raising money, loading hay or just taking the time to work with Oakie every day after school, Emily continues to work to chase her barrel racing dream while also learning lessons along the way.
“With Oakie, when she was earning that trust, she fell off sometimes,” Kelly Jackson said. “It was frustrating for her and it was a thing she had to work through. I think that’s life. You don’t just get it easy. You have to work to get things and you’re better in the end for it. I remember there was one time where we went to this arena and got to the second barrel and she fell off. She kept trying to work it. So we go again and she says, ‘We’re going to get it this time.’
“She sets these small goals for herself with time or how the horse does. It’s just good for her in general. It makes her more confident. She’s out there working with a 1,200 pound animal (laughs). It’s pretty neat.”