Sheralee Fiore gives Diesel an affectionate pat before horse and rider take off, dust rising in the corral in their wake. The pair leans sharply as they round the first of three barrels set in a triangle pattern that covers most of the corral at the stable in Medford. They speed up, cutting it even closer on the second, which is about 15 yards away. By the third -- and final -- barrel, Fiore's leg brushes the metal drum during the tight turn. Once successfully around, the pair races the length of the corral to the finish. It's all happened in maybe 20 seconds.
This is barrel racing, a Western-style rodeo sport that's gaining traction on Long Island. On Sunday, 80 riders of all ages will compete in a season-opening competition in Islandia -- up from about 60 last year.
"People don't realize that things like this go on on Long Island," says Fiore, 40, who won the state championship in her division last year.
ABOUT THE SPORT
Barrel racing, which shows off a horse and rider's ability to work together, mimics what cowboys do to maneuver cattle in a herd. As riders circle each obstacle, their turns tighten and their speed increases -- the horses often tilting at a precarious angle.
"When you go into the lean, it feels like you're going to fall," says Viktoria Alonso, 14, of Smithtown, who has been barrel racing competitively since she was 5. "But you get used to it."
Indeed, some riders say they crave the adrenaline rush that comes with rounding the course as fast as possible. A good ride is about 15 to 17 seconds.
"You have to trust your horse to do what it is trained to do," says Kelley Schauder, 41, of Calverton, as she sits atop her horse Harry, awaiting their turn to practice in the ring.
AT THE COMPETITION
Like many rodeo sports, barrel racing is spectator-friendly. As they watch from the stands, audience members can see what the rider can't: the ticking clock. There are also moments of suspense when riders knock into barrels -- tipping one entirely over means automatic disqualification.
Like the final stretch on a horse-racing track, the audience at barrel racing tournaments cheer the loudest when the riders are making their final dash after the last obstacle (the announcers cue the crowd: "Bring 'em on home").
"You can hear them cheering," says Lianne Miller, 43, of East Hampton, who has been riding since she was 5. "And the horse hears it too, and they know what to do."
National Barrel Horse Association
NY03 district competition
INFO 631-226-9105, nbha.com