Published: 8/20/2019 4:38:24 PM
Modified: 8/20/2019 4:38:15 PM


Valley News Correspondent

Lexus Austin was born around horses.

It’s easy to do when growing up on a family operating a expansive ranch in West Fairlee. She got her first pony when she was 2 years old and learned English riding – a European style with a flat saddle and without a saddle horn – at an early age. It’s something like a full-time job: waking up at early hours, feeding all the horses, making sure they get their exercise. For someone who was born in that world, it’s work that quickly becomes a labor of love.

Rodeo, on the other hand, happened by happy accident.

Cory, Austin’s father, was scrolling through his Facebook feed two years ago when, by chance, he came across a post about the New York State High School Rodeo Association – a region-wide varsity rodeo organization that sponsors rodeos for middle school and high school riders in New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania. The association welcomes kids 6th to 12th grade from any state in New England to join 

“I just checked into it,” Cory Austin said over the phone on Tuesday. “Anybody in any of the New England states can join the New York High School Rodeo Association. … So we went up there one day to watch, just to check it out. We never thought we’d be up there to run.”

One rodeo – the environment, the smell, the noise, the camaraderie, the energy – and Austin was hooked. Two years later Austin – an upcoming freshman at Rivendell Academy – a multi-season veteran racer with three horses to her name, one of six Vermonters to compete in the Empire State’s high school rodeo ranks. She recently competed at the NYSHSRA’s rodeo at Pond Hill Ranch in Castleton, Vt., taking 10th in barrel racing in the morning and 12th in pole bending in the afternoon.

“It’s something you can always get better at,” Austin said on Tuesday. “When you get good at something, you’re never doing the same thing. … There are always people at races giving you advice, which is nice. I play basketball, too. There are a lot of people at the games telling you what to do. You just listen to the coaches.”

Austin will join a Rivendell girls basketball team with plenty of promise, one that went to a VPA Division III state championship last year. The differences between the two sports, she said, are nearly incomparable.

“Riding horses is a lot of leg strength,” Austin said. “Basketball is a lot of running and a lot of hand-eye coordination. Compared to racing where you’re just looking where you’re going.

“Basketball is easier. I think people think it’s super easy to ride a horse. Not at all. It takes a lot of finding balance … figuring out how to ride a certain horse.”

Never mind the other living creature involved, which needs just as much – if not more – training than the human being guiding it around barrels and poles in a rodeo arena. Austin’s work with the horses is twofold – regular physical training including exercise and stamina training, and a well-rounded understanding of the horse’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. 

But even after the horses are trained and ready to go, she said, the logistics of getting to a rodeo can be the most difficult part.

“You have to deal with the travel,” she said. “That takes the biggest toll out of anything.”

The Austins, who are about to begin their third season of varsity rodeo, attend about 12 rodeos a year – usually two-days long, almost always on weekends – including the New York state championship in late May. By now, the family has traveling down to something of a science.

“I am very OCD about when I want to leave. It never happens,” said Cory Austin. “For the most part, that first year of rodeos we were like, ‘Oh great, we left that at home. That’s great.’ Now, after our first full season and into our second season, we’ve gone through it enough to know what to bring and what not to bring.”

Their furthest trip of the year is to Attica, N.Y., a small town just 50 minutes east of Buffalo. The trip takes about 14 hours one way, with stops every few hours for 30 minutes to give both the horses and the humans a break. 

“It’s definitely a commitment,” Cory Austin said. “You have to commit time to it. There is travel. But everyone is there to help. That’s the biggest thing I like about it.”

Austin hopes for a scholarship to compete in college one day although the odds are seemingly stacked against her. New England winters can be harsh and long, forcing her to put her competing aside while others in warmer western states can compete year-round. But the 14-year-old has found her calling: an ingrained love of horses and a competitive outlet. Now it’s just about moving up the ranks.

“You’re at a slight disadvantage, going up to compete against some of these bigger states where that’s all they do,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be good. … You just have to work a littler harder with less time. It’s not impossible.”

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