Watch Pine resident Lara Baker barrel race at the Payson High School Rodeo this weekend and you'll be amazed at the fearlessness of a girl who can't weigh more than 95 pounds. Baker, a senior at Payson High School, was practically born in the saddle.
"We've had horses all my life, and I first got on a horse when I was a baby with my mom," Baker said in a soft voice. "I probably started riding by myself when I was three or four, and I've been rodeoing since I was five."
Baker and her horse of three years, Harriet, move like one, and she rides the 10-year-old quarter horse every day after school to keep her in shape. But they're not particularly close.
"Some horses you can be close to, but she doesn't like to be close to anybody," Baker said. "With her and me, it's strictly business. I just let her be because she likes to do her own thing."
But Harriet, who is a bit high strung, loves doing barrels.
"Oh man, she's nuts," Baker said. "You'll see other people's horses nice and calm, and she makes it look like I have no control over her."
Both Baker and Harriet get a little tense just before a barrels event.
"She gets nervous and so do I," Baker said. "Sometimes she starts shaking right before the event. It's her way of getting psyched up."
Once the event is under way, Harriet knows exactly what to do.
"The only thing I have to do is use my legs to cue her," Baker said.
Harriet has slipped a few times, but she's only fallen once.
"We had a really good run going," Baker said. "We got past the first two barrels and then she slipped at the third one. I rubber band my feet in so they won't come out of the stirrups so I was worried about that. But they broke and I crawled away. Harriet got up and ran around the arena for about 15 minutes before I could catch her."
Other than that spill, Baker and Harriet have managed to stay fairly healthy, although hitting a barrel during a run is not an uncommon experience.
"You get five seconds added onto your time if you hit a barrel, and it hurts," she said. "If you hit a barrel, you're pretty much out of it."
Despite the fact that they're not particularly close outside the arena, Baker and Harriet are currently in third place in the Arizona High School Rodeo Association standings. The top four finishers at the end of the 11-rodeo state season, which ends in June, qualify to go on to the national high school rodeo at Farmington, N.M. in mid-July.
Times in barrel racing depend on the size of the arena, but 17 seconds is generally considered a good time. Baker's personal best is 14.7 seconds at the National Livestock Show at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.
In addition to going to college to major in education or business, Baker has her sights set on a professional rodeo career.
"I have my pro card right now, but I've only been to one rodeo so far," she said. "But I plan to go on the circuit and make some money."
So far, school and bad weather have kept her from getting in the practice she'd like before hitting the pro circuit, but she knows there's plenty of time. Some cowboys and cowgirls rodeo well into their 50s.
In the meantime, Baker will focus on the remaining high school rodeos, including this weekend's big event at the Payson Event Center.
The rodeo runs Saturday and Sunday, with slack beginning each day at 9 a.m. and the performance at 1 p.m.
"In high school rodeo, slack is all of our timed events -- barrel racing, pole bending, goat tying, team roping, calf roping," Baker said. "Rough stock is performance -- bull riding, saddle bronc, and all that."
"Admission is free both days, and that alone makes it worth coming out," she said. "Most rodeos cost seven bucks. It's exciting and it's free."
"Nobody ever comes to our rodeos," she said, "and it's a lot more fun if you know your community is supporting you."
In addition to Baker, who also competes in team roping and pole bending, the Payson High School rodeo team consists of Ramsey Milam (barrel racing, pole bending), Lindi Parker (barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway), Jessie Brown (barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway), Jamie Ewing (team roping, breakaway), Lani Murdock (goat tying, team roping, breakaway), John Ewing (team roping), Clayton Haught (bareback riding), Garret Riggins (bareback riding), Jason Amon (team roping, calf roping, saddle bronc) and Seth Barkley (saddle bronc).