Danielle Conrad, 19, on her quarterhorse, Chrome, makes a tight turn around a barrel at a Keystone Barrel Classic event last season. Conrad competes in barrel racing, keyhole, pole bending and other gymkhana events against riders from across the East Coast.
Danielle Conrad isn't someone you'd describe as exuberant or assuming; she's more of the quiet, hard-working type. But don't let that fool you. The Delaware Valley College freshman likes to play hard too.
Conrad, an equestrian, competes in a number of events including barrel racing with her quarterhorse, Chrome, and Bruce, a thoroughbred which is a new addition this year. She has been competing since the age of 12.
"I loved it from the beginning," she said of first taking riding lessons as a 6-year-old. The lessons were a birthday gift from her dad, Dave. "I was really excited to go."
After a few years of lessons, she got Nevada, her first horse. Conrad, all the while, was soaking up everything she could at Skyline Stables in Alburtis, where she boarded her animals. From taking riding lessons there, she transitioned to teaching and working at summer camps and leading trail rides.
It was there that the Upper Hanover girl started competing in gymkhana events, a series of timed competitions like barrel racing, pole bending, keyhole and flag competitions. Each event is designed to show the horse's precise, controlled actions as well as the teamwork between the horse and rider at high speeds. Gymkhana has become increasingly popular in Western style riding.
While it was hard for her to narrow down why she loves competition, Conrad said everyone is generally very friendly and supportive. She referred to them, especially members of the National Barrel Horse Association (NBHA), like family.
She races in the youth division at venues like Mountain Springs Rodeo in Shartlesville, the Keystone Barrel Classic series, Spring Mountain Farm in Gilbertsville, Bucks-Mont Riding Club in Tylersport and Irish Creek Stables in Mohrsville.
She said her favorite event is pole bending, where each rider must weave his or her horse between six poles and turn at the top before racing to the finish. Missing a pole means a 5 second penalty and riders are disqualified if the horse goes off course. She said she loves the challenge.
"That's Chrome's best event," Conrad said proudly of the 15-year-old. "When he knows he's going to run he gets anxious and hot. But once we're on the ground [during the event] he's nice and gentle."
Barrel racing competition, also a favorite of hers, means entering the course at breakneck speed and making your way between preset barrels in a cloverleaf pattern. Again, knocking over a barrel results in penalties and speed is paramount.
Conrad's average time in that event is 15.9 seconds, what her mom, Becky, referred to as good. She garnered some first-place awards in her division at Mountain Springs Arena and remained competitive throughout last season, she said.
In the keyhole race, each rider has to begin at a starting line about 20 feet before a 'keyhole' pattern, which is laid out in the ring. The rider has to race his or her horse in the confines of the pattern, turn around and race back out. Flag competitions usually require the riders to retrieve four flags from locations in a pattern before depositing them in a barrel and racing to the finish.
The Keystone Barrel Classic, which runs all summer long, yields about $140,000 in prizes. Riders can win saddles, buckles and cash, to name a few. Riders frequently come from out-of-state as far away as Maine to compete.
"The main goal is to stay consistent," Conrad said of the events. "It doesn't matter what division I'm in. It would be nice to win but I'm hoping that's where Bruce takes me."
Conrad, now affiliated with Shaky "H" Paint Horses in Upper Hanover, said she is looking forward to running Bruce, her dapple gray, in this year's events. The gelding was actually a former race horse with a feisty streak. He was given to her as a gift.
"Yeah, he used to bite and kick me when he was still a colt. He wasn't fast enough to be a race horse, but he has potential," she said of running him in gymkhana.
The equestrian studies major said she will focus on exposing Bruce this year to the events, which require completely different skills than running in straight lines with two curves like he is used to. She said Bruce will have to hone in on backing up, standing still and neck reining.
"I need to get him in shape by doing a lot of circles to get his hind end under him. Once he's in shape I think he'll do well," she noted. "We've done barrels and pole bending to practice and he's good and willing."
And Bruce has so far proven to enjoy the new challenge. Under Conrad's leadership, he did well at Mountain Spring Arena's competition last weekend, taking home seven ribbons, including a second-place finish in the walk/lead event.
Danielle said she can't wait to compete in more events this spring and summer.
"I think he's gonna take me far, barrel racing or not," she said of Bruce. "He's gonna be good at something. I don't know exactly what now, but I will. With Chrome, I want to keep running clean barrel races. My goal with him is to be more consistent.
"I am so excited for the rest of the season. I'm always excited, though, because it's something I love to do."