One would assume jockeying for the top spot in the first ever barrel and pole bending buckle series in Payson would be a cutthroat battle to the finish line.
But for best friends Shelbi Parker and Lara Baker, it's just a chance to catch up with one another and improve their already impressive racing skills.
"We joke about it," said 18-year-old Baker.
Parker, 19, said, "We are neck and neck, but we just have fun together. When we're together competing, it's kind of like a game."
The two, who met in their elementary school days, have competed in the 18-and-older racing bracket every Wednesday night since the buckle series began on June 4.
When the final points are tallied and the series ends on July 30, Baker, Parker, or one of the other 12 girls racing in their bracket, will be awarded a handmade belt buckle for barrel racing and/or pole bending.
In pole bending, a rider and their horse must run down the arena parallel to six poles arranged in a straight line. Once the rider reaches the last pole, he/she must then weave in and out of the poles without knocking any of them over. When they get to the end of the poles again, they weave back and then race their horse as fast as they can to the finish line.
In barrel racing, a rider and their horse must race to a barrel and run their horse around it, proceed to the next barrel 90 feet away, race around it, then run around a third barrel 105 feet away. After that, they race to the finish line.
Baker and Parker are in a dead heat. Parker placed first in barrel racing at the most recent competition, Wednesday, July 2. Baker was one of the top pole benders the same night.
However, that competition was something of an oddity. Usually, Parker's strong point is pole bending and Baker's is barrel racing.
Parker recently completed a pole bending race in 20.9 seconds. And Baker's breakneck speed of 17.8 seconds will make her hard to beat in barrel racing. The two scores are the best in the competition.
"Whoever wins it, deserves it," Parker, a resident of Strawberry, said. "No matter what, we're going to be friends."
Baker--who lives in Pine--said, "If she wins, that's great. If I win, that's great too."
There are two other age brackets in addition to 18-and-older. Seventeen-year-old Ramsey Milam of Payson, one of Baker's and Parker's best friends, is competing in and dominating the 17-and-under bracket.
Milam placed first in both pole bending and barrel racing on July 2 and said she hopes to get her hands on a buckle or two at the end of the series. But even if she doesn't, she added the fun in between makes it worthwhile.
"I like the speed," she said. "It's an adrenaline rush. I'm having a whole lot of fun with them (races) and I get to see my friends."
Amber Marshall, 12, is one of the leaders of the third age bracket, 12-and-under. She placed first in both barrel racing and pole bending on July 2.
The Payson Parks and Recreation Department's Charlene Hunt said the 12-and-under bracket boasts the best turnout of competitors and is the fastest growing bracket.
"It's so great to see these young kids on their horses," she said. "The 12-and-under grew from five on June 4 to 19 last night (July 2)."
Hunt added that Amanda Haworth, 12, is the perfect example of a fairly new racer finding success in the series.
While Haworth knocked over a barrel in the July 2 race, she is still one of the top five barrel racers in the competition.
"I've never knocked over a barrel in my life," she said. "It hurt when it hit my shin and then it made me mad that I lost five points for knocking it over."
Haworth, who has only been competing for two years, said she has seen a vast improvement in her racing skills since the competition began in early June.
"I've improved my speed a lot," she said, "because I've been getting more practice."
Hunt said it was her idea to start a buckle series. She brought the idea to the Parks and Recreation Department's director, Bill Schwind, who, she said, stood whole-heartedly behind the buckle series.
Schwind gave Hunt a $2,000 budget to organize the event and buy prizes. Hunt said that since the series is so popular, she hopes to get a larger budget next year and make it a saddle series.
"This town has never sponsored anything like this," she said. "We're hoping to make it bigger and better next year, and I think the town will support it."
Hunt added that providing the buckle series not only gives competitors practice and possibly a prize, but it allows them to actually compete.
"Some of these girls (and boys) were traveling 100 miles and paying $15 to compete," she said. "Now, for $5, they can bring their horse to our arena 10 minutes from home."
Hunt said the Payson Event Center on the Beeline Highway has been a great place to hold the series.
"That arena was sitting empty during the week and was completely booked on weekends," she added. "This has been a great opportunity for them to bring their horses and compete against other kids. They can socialize with other horse people and it socializes the horses as well."
Milam said, "I like (the series) because it's something we can go to once a week, it's close to home and it's good practice for us to get with our horses. It's a great thing to have."
Baker said that while she will continue to travel extensively to race with her horse, she appreciates having a competition close to home.
"I would really like to say thank you because we've lived here all our lives and nobody has really been involved in barrel racing," she said. "You go all over Arizona and even out-of-state to places like New Mexico to compete. It's nice to know that every Wednesday night, I'm going to be able to run barrels without traveling three or four hours."
Baker said that sometimes her horse does not perform as well after it has been traveling for a long period of time. She added that her horse, 10-year-old Harriet, has been an extraordinary companion.
"She's got lots of speed and a good heart," she said. "I've had her for two years and she got really sick just a couple of months ago ... Even after that, I've been winning with her. That's why I say she's got such a big heart. She never gives up."
Parker reiterated the importance of the relationship between rider and horse. Her horse, 12-year-old Razor, helped her place first in the July 2 barrel race in which she competed.
"We connect," she said. "He's always there for me. If he were human, he would be my best friend."
Hunt added Payson residents and even its visitors should stop by the event center to check out the races.
"It's fun and it's free," she said. "You get to see fast-paced action with competitors from ages three to 70."
There are four more competitions to go before the series ends. They start at 7 p.m. every Wednesday and continue until July 30.
Hunt encouraged guests to bring sweatshirts, snacks and beverages, but to leave the alcohol at home because it is not permitted.
Flowing Springs resident and volunteer at the buckle series Bobbi Miller said watching the races is a blast.
"It's a lot of upbeat action," she said. "It's a lot of fun to watch and the kids could always use the cheering. They feed on that when they hear their name and they're under the lights and they get applause -- that's a lot to a kid."