N.B. teen lives for the grit, grime and gut-wrenching speed of barrel racing


Years before the hit series Yellowstone made it famous, Salisbury’s Grace Johnston was hooked on barrel racing. Now 17, she’s headed to the world championships in the U.S.

Grace Johnston and her horse, Katie, will compete in the world barrel-racing championships in Georgia in October. (Submitted by Grace Johnston)

Grace Johnston isn’t afraid of a little dirt and a little speed.

In fact, the more of that you can throw at her, the better.

Johnston, 17, is a barrel racer, and if you’ve ever watched the hit cowboy drama Yellowstone, you’re fully aware of how gritty and gut-wrenching the sport can be.

For Johnston, who lives in the southeastern New Brunswick village of Salisbury, just west of Moncton, that’s a big part of its charm.

At age 13, she was already an accomplished rider trained in the formal English style when she paid a visit to Upshaw Performance Horses in Mill Cove. The western sport of barrel racing was underway and the owners, friends of Johnston’s mom, suggested she give it a try.

She was hooked instantly.

“I think it was just the thrill of going so fast that really got me into it,” Johnston said.

But it was also the exhilarating mess of it all.

Johnston, seen here with Katie, said she the loves the speed and grit of barrel racing. (Tracy Barton Photography/Submitted by Grace Johnston)

“With English riding, my horse had to be super, super clean all the time, I couldn’t have any bling on me, it was really slow,” Johnston said.

With barrel racing, “I loved that my horse could have poop stains all over her. She doesn’t have to be the prettiest horse, she just has to be the fastest. Which I really loved.”

From then on, Johnston spent as much free time as possible honing her barrel-racing skills, and this year, she’ll get a chance to showcase them on the international stage.

A few weeks ago, Johnston qualified for the barrel-racing world championships.

In October, she and her beloved racer, The Backup Plan, will head to Georgia, where they’ll face off against hundreds of competitors from around the world – and hopefully come home with “the bling.”

Salisbury teen lives for the thrill of barrel racing

Long before Yellowstone made it famous, Grace Johnston and her horse, Katie, were perfecting the wild western sport. 0:56

The crucial horse-rider connection

If you’ve never seen barrel racing, here’s the Coles Notes version: a horse and rider run a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels in a large arena, and the fastest time wins. 

It gets wild, and it gets messy.

“There’s a lot of dirt,” Johnston said with a laugh.

It takes skill and nerve and speed, and something else that no amount of training can make up for: a genuine horse-rider connection. 

Johnston said she and her horse have that in spades.

The Backup Plan, also known as Katie – “that’s her barn name,” Johnston said – was only ever supposed to be a loaner.

Johnston had been racing another horse, “and I loved her very much, but it just wasn’t a good fit, for the both of us.”  

A family friend said she had a horse, Katie, that wasn’t being used.

“She said ‘You can borrow her for the rest of the season,’ ” Johnston said.

“And I think I didn’t even have her for 24 hours and I was like, ‘I’m sorry but you’re not getting your horse back. She’s mine now.’ “

Katie, who had been idle in a field for two years when Johnston bought her, took to barrel racing like a natural. (Submitted by Grace Johnston)

“I bought her and she just automatically loved what she was doing,” Johnston said.

Katie needs a lot of patience and is keenly attuned to Johnston’s moods.

Johnston said that helps her focus on staying calm.

“If I’m upset she automatically becomes upset. If I’m anxious, she becomes anxious. … You have to be in tune with each other, it’s very much a 50/50,” she said.

“If we knock a barrel, it’s not her fault, but it’s not my fault either. We have to work together to get it done correctly.”

Grace with Katie, a.k.a. The Backup Plan. (Submitted by Grace Johnston)

Gearing up for the worlds

Staying calm in the intense spotlight of the championships will require all the mettle Johnston and Katie can muster.

The National Barrel Horse Association, headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, is the largest barrel-racing organization in the world, and competition at its annual championships is fierce.

But those who’ve watched Johnston develop as a barrel racer say she’s got this in the bag.

“Grace was for sure a horse-crazy young girl,” said Crystal Upshaw of Upshaw Performance Horses, where Johnston got her first taste of barrel racing.

Back then, Johnston was shy and reserved and didn’t have her own horse, so she borrowed others’ horses for competitions.

Her skills, and her confidence, developed quickly.

“We saw Grace grow from that quiet, shy girl who didn’t say much, to a young woman who kept pushing forward to better herself and her horses.”

Johnston agrees that those years of training taught her she can handle whatever she sets her mind to, starting with the disciplined regime she follows every day. 

A typical day for Johnston, who is in Grade 12 at Salisbury’s J.M.A. Armstrong high school, starts at 6:30 in the morning.

She gets up, heads to the barn to feed and water her horses, goes to school, goes to her co-op placement, comes home, feeds and waters the horses again, and then cleans the barn.

“Then I usually go to work and then I come back and I feed and water again,” she said.

And that’s before spring training season kicks in. When that happens, which is right about now, Johnston’s days are even busier.

“I just fit in as much saddle time as I can … whenever I can.”

Fundraising, the future, and Yellowstone

It’s hard work, she said, but she loves every minute of it.

Which is a good thing, because from now until October, Johnston won’t have too many minutes to spare.

She’ll be training, working, training some more, and planning a variety of fundraising campaigns to help finance the trip to the worlds, including bottle drives, a horse show and a virtual paint night. 

Watching television and other “chill-out” pastimes will have to take a pause. Fortunately, Johnston already took in Yellowstone during her winter break, although she admits she had to be dragged to it.

“I had no intentions of watching Yellowstone, because from what I had heard it was all about the cute cowboys,” she said. “But my dad kept telling me I had to watch it, it’s such a good show.”

In January, she finally gave in.

“I watched the whole series in just a few days and loved it,” she said. “Since then I’ve become a lot more interested in owning cattle in the future.” 

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