By Airman 1st Class Shelby Kay-Fantozzi
27th Special Operations Wing Public Affairs
In an arena filled with dirt, three 55-gallon barrels are arranged in a triangle. Airman 1st Class Mari Sylvester, 27th Special Operations Force Support Squadron force management technician, and her horse Muddy Girl race toward the rightmost barrel, then loop around it at neck-breaking speed. Moving as one, rider and horse fly across the arena and whip around another barrel, and a third. The race is finished in just over 17 seconds.
“Barrel racing is one of many rodeo events dominated by women,” said Sylvester. “There are three barrels placed in the arena and riders have to run a clover leaf pattern around the barrels. You want to make your turns as tight as possible so you can cut down your time, because the fastest time wins–it’s basically a race against the clock.”
Aside from the thrill of the fast-paced event, Sylvester has enjoyed a strong connection to the communities surrounding Cannon Air Force Base thanks to barrel racing. Involved in several local clubs including the Cowgirl Rodeo Association, the New Mexico Rodeo Association and the All Breeds Horse Show Association, Sylvester credits her involvement in local rodeos with showing her a new side of Clovis.
“I’ve met a lot of cool people since I began riding here,” Sylvester said. “Some of my connections through these clubs have become good friends. I’m even seeing more of Clovis as I visit horse auctions and shows.”
Rodeos have also given Sylvester a chance to represent Cannon when volunteering in the community.
“This has given me some unique opportunities,” said Sylvester. “I volunteered to work with the Equestrian Special Olympics Team, and carried the 27th Mission Support Group flag in the Heritage Days Rodeo Parade.”
Although the benefits of barrel racing are numerous, taking care of a horse while serving on active duty is not without challenges.
“When I came to Cannon from tech school, my husband trailered my horse 22 hours from California,” said Sylvester. “We’re committed. Taking care of a horse can be expensive and time-consuming, but my horse is my priority.”
Sylvester took measures so she could put duty first without worrying about Muddy Girl.
“When I first moved here, I did my research,” she said. “I found someone with a ranch a mile from base. We worked out an arrangement where I fed at night while she was at work, and she fed in the morning while I was at work.”
Branching out from the small circle of riders she knew at home, Sylvester has been able to form new connections and explore new locales.
“Riding has been a chance to venture out of here,” said Sylvester. “I’ve been as far east as Stephenville [Texas], as far north as Farmington and as far west as Socorro.”
Ultimately, Sylvester is glad to be stationed at Cannon, where the community has an interest in rodeo — even if the competition is tougher than in her home state.
“I love it out here,” she said. “The people are really friendly, warm and welcoming.”
Sylvester hopes that the activity that has helped her make new connections in the community will also help her meet other on-base equestrians.
“If anyone wants to get involved, there are opportunities for lessons in the community, and all of the groups that I’m involved in are open to the public,” she said. “Or you could always come see a rodeo. They’re family-oriented and a lot of fun.”