NB teen lives for the guts, grime and heartbreaking speed of barrel racing


Grace Johnston isn’t afraid of a little dirt and a little speed.

In fact, the more you can throw at him, the better.

Johnston, 17, is a barrel racer, and if you’ve ever watched the hit cowboy drama Yellowstoneyou know how rough and heartbreaking this sport can be.

For Johnston, who lives in the village of Salisbury in southeastern New Brunswick, just west of Moncton, that’s a big part of its charm.

At 13, she was already an accomplished rider trained in the formal English style when she visited Upshaw Performance Horses at Mill Cove. The western sport of barrel racing was underway, and the owners, friends of Johnston’s mother, suggested he try it.

She was hooked instantly.

“I think it was just the thrill of going so fast that really grabbed me,” Johnston said.

But it was also the exhilarating mess of it all.

Johnston, seen here with Katie, said she loves the speed and courage of barrel racing. (Tracy Barton Photography/Sent by Grace Johnston)

“With English riding my horse had to be super, super clean all the time, I couldn’t have any bling on me, it was really slow,” Johnston said.

With barrel racing, “I liked that my horse could have poo stains all over him. She doesn’t have to be the prettiest horse, she just has to be the fastest. What I really loved it.”

From then on, Johnston has spent as much free time as possible honing her barrel racing skills, and this year she will have the chance to showcase them on the international stage.

A few weeks ago, Johnston qualified for the world barrel racing championships.

In October, she and her beloved racer, The Backup Plan, will travel to Georgia, where they’ll compete against hundreds of competitors from around the world — and hopefully come home with “the bling.”

Salisbury teenager lives for the thrill of barrel racing

Long before Yellowstone made it famous, Grace Johnston and her horse, Katie, were perfecting the wild western sport. 0:56

The crucial bond between horse and rider

If you’ve never seen barrel racing, here’s the Notes of cabbage version: a horse and rider perform a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels in a large arena, and the fastest time wins.

It gets wild and it gets messy.

“There’s a lot of dirt,” Johnston said with a laugh.

It takes skill, courage and speed, and something else that no amount of training can compensate for: a true horse-rider connection.

Johnston said she and her horse had it in spades.

The backup plan, also known as Katie – “that’s the name of her barn”, Johnston said – was only meant to be a loan.

Johnston had raced another horse, “and I liked him a lot, but he just wasn’t a good fit, for both of us.”

A family friend said she had a horse, Katie, which was unused.

“She said ‘You can borrow it for the rest of the season,'” Johnston said.

“And I think I haven’t even had it for 24 hours and I was like, ‘I’m sorry but you’re not getting your horse back. She is mine now. “

Katie, who had been idle in a field for two years when Johnston bought her, took to barrel racing like a natural. (Submitted by Grace Johnston)

“I bought her and she automatically loved what she was doing,” Johnston said.

Katie needs a lot of patience and is perfectly attuned to Johnston’s moods.

Johnston said it helped him stay calm.

“If I’m upset, she automatically becomes upset. If I’m anxious, she becomes anxious. … You have to be in tune with each other, it’s really 50/50,” she said.

“If we hit a barrel, it’s not his fault, but it’s not my fault either. We have to work together to do it right.”

Grace with Katie, aka The Backup Plan. (Submitted by Grace Johnston)

Prepare for the worlds

Staying calm in the intense championship spotlight will take all the courage Johnston and Katie can muster.

The National Barrel Horse Association, headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, is the largest barrel racing organization in the world, and the competition at its annual championships is fierce.

But those who have watched Johnston develop as a barrel racer say she has it in the bag.

“Grace was a horse-crazed young girl for sure,” said Crystal Upshaw of Upshaw Performance Horses, where Johnston got her first taste of barrel racing.

At the time, Johnston was shy and reserved and did not have a horse of her own, so she borrowed other people’s horses for competitions.

His skills and confidence grew rapidly.

“We saw Grace go from being a quiet, shy girl who didn’t say much to a young woman who kept pushing forward to improve herself and her horses.”

Johnston agrees that those formative years have taught her that she can handle anything she puts her mind to, starting with the disciplined diet she follows every day.

A typical day for Johnston, who is in Grade 12 at JMA Armstrong Secondary School in Salisbury, starts at 6.30am.

She gets up, heads to the stable to feed and water her horses, goes to school, goes to her co-op placement, comes home, feeds and waters the horses again, then cleans the stable.

“Then I usually go to work and then come back and feed and water again,” she said.

And that’s before the start of the spring training season. When that happens, which is about now, Johnston’s days are even busier.

“I spend as much time as possible in the saddle… whenever I can.”

Fundraising, the Future and Yellowstone

It’s hard work, she says, but she enjoys every minute of it.

Which is a good thing, because by October, Johnston won’t have too many minutes to spare.

She will train, work, train again, and plan various fundraisers to help fund the trip to the worlds, including bottle drives, a horse show, and a virtual paint party.

Watching TV and other “chill-out” pastimes will need to take a break. Fortunately, Johnston has already hosted Yellowstone during her winter break, although she admits that she must have been trained there.

“I had no intention of looking Yellowstonebecause from what I heard it was all about the cute cowboys,” she said. “But my dad kept telling me I had to watch it, that’s such a good show.”

In January, she finally gave in.

“I watched the whole series in a few days and loved it,” she said. “Since then I have become much more interested in owning cattle in the future.”