Vanessa Leggett grew up on the back of a horse.
Many of the 24-year-old nurse's first memories involve her careening around the "cans" in a riding ring on the back of Sage, her little white Shetland pony.
"I've been barrel racing since I was four. I was born into it," says Leggett.
She and her horses were trained by her mother Julie, who was a professional jockey before breaking her arms and transitioning to barrel racing and ultimately the pro rodeo circuit.
"I just picked it up right away, loved it, and so followed in her footsteps."
Soon enough, Leggett graduated from the pony to her mom's old rodeo horse, appropriately named Burnit.
The big black mare's approach to barrel racing was: go fast and hang on or don't even try," recalls Leggett with a laugh.
"I remember people would always get scared because I would go so fast when I was so little."
Barrel racing is a timed event in which a rider and horse run a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels as quickly as possible without knocking them over.
Leggett credits Burnit with cementing her love for a sport that combines adrenaline with accuracy, athleticism and balance and, of course, superior horse- handling skills.
Barrel racing also requires no small amount of courage given the speed and momentum with which rider and horse navigate the course and round the large metal cans.
"It's a bit dangerous because horses really lean in during the tight turns. I've had a few wipe outs and it's a little scary," she says.
"You have to be a good pilot."
But a horse that loves its job is as important as a good rider. And, so is the connection between the two, she adds.
"You can't get anywhere without a good horse. You have to have a bond with your horse," she says.
"When they do trust you, they kinda give you everything."
Leggett figures she fosters that connection through her riding style.
"I have really quiet hands and don't like to pull on them…I just work with them and try and find their footing and encourage them."
Her riding skills have proven results in various rodeo circuits.
In 2012, at age 17, Leggett won the BC High School Rodeo Association barrel racing championship in her rookie year.
She followed that up by heading down to Wyoming and placing first at the National High School Finals, which includes competitors from Canada, the US and Australia.
That led to a one-year scholarship at Texas Tech University and competing in the college rodeo circuit where Leggett and her horse, Shiver, regularly placed in the top 10 at events.
But she decided to return home to Kamloops to study nursing.
"I've always liked doctoring and taking care of horses, so that was a big indicator for choosing nursing," she says.
After graduating from Thompson Rivers University this June, Leggett began working on a medical and palliative unit at Royal Inland Hospital.
She juggled barrel racing during her studies, and more recently, while working a full-time job. She admits fitting it all in was hectic.
Despite the costs, travel and all the hours of training and work involved, Leggett plans to continue competing and hopefully qualify for the finals in the professional circuits like her mom.
But the main motivator for the self-professed adrenaline junkie is her love of barrel racing.
"It's my passion. It's fun, exciting and very fast. Performing for large crowds is exhilarating," she says.
"You need to find something that makes you happy and keeps your mental game strong."
(Dec 2019 / Jan 2020)
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