A member of the Cherokee High School rodeo team, Harden will be making a trip to Rock Springs, Wyo., with some of her teammates to compete in the National High School Finals Rodeo. The event begins Sunday and will continue through July 19.
Harden and her family left Cherokee County this morning for an approximate 1,660-mile drive that will take about 24 hours.
Harden said she will have a day or so to get acclimated before competing in barrel racing. She is scheduled to race compete in the preliminaries Sunday afternoon, with the finals July 19.
Harden has been competing in barrel racing for the last four years. She advanced to the national competition after placing sixth in the state.
“Really, I’ve been riding horses my whole life,” Harden said. “Up in Dahlonega, there is this place called the R-Ranch. I learned how to ride with a group of friends up there, with my dad and my brothers and sisters. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Harden, 16, is a home-schooled student living in Canton. She became affiliated with the Cherokee rodeo team after seeing them compete at one of her first competitions.
“I became friends with a lot of the kids there,” Harden said. “They kind of just took me into their group.”
The rodeo competitions have become a social outlet for Harden.
“There are tons of kids my age, and all of them are so nice,” Harden said. “It’s really a friendly atmosphere, and you get to meet people from all over Georgia.”
One of the things Harden is looking forward to about the trip to nationals is the chance to extend her network. She is looking forward to not only competing on a national stage, but meeting other students like her that are doing the same thing.
As far as the rodeo is concerned, barrel racing is one of the more tame events. Others will be vying for titles in events such as bull riding, bareback riding, goat tying, steer wrestling and rifle shooting.
Harden said she doesn’t have plans to try any of the other events, steadfast in her dedication to barrel racing.
“When I saw it, I knew I wanted to do it,” she said. “I worked as hard as I could to get to where I am today.”
Harden conditions her horse daily and works on barrels several times a week. Even on the days when she may not feel like riding, she makes sure that she stays with it.
“We spend a lot of time trotting around pastures and making circles,” Harden said. “We just do different things to keep him interested in riding. Sometimes, it may be hot outside, and everyone has those days when you just don’t want to do anything, but you just have to make yourself work on those days. When you are done, it ends up making you happy, and you are glad that you did it.”
Harden said the most challenging part of competing is working with the variables — mainly, her horse. Arenas come in various shapes and size, but the distance between barrels is roughly the same.
“With your horse, there is always something that you need to work on, and you have to think about that when you run,” she said. “You have to really know your horse to prepare yourself and prepare him for the first or second or third barrel.”
Harden said it helps that she has been riding the same horse — a 14-year old stallion — for the last two years.
Also competing from Cherokee are Matthew Bearden, Macade Calliouet, and Clay Pannell.
Bearden, who recently completed his senior year at Cherokee, placed fifth in the state in bull riding. Pannell, a rising senior, will also complete in bull riding after finishing seventh in the state. Calliouet placed ninth to earn his spot.