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Wednesday, December 3, 1997

At 15, Fallon Taylor is a top barrel racing pro

By MARK McDONALD / The Dallas Morning News

PONDER, Texas -- "I am not," she says, "a usual kid."

Usual would be school dances, 4-H clubs, proper riding lessons, that whole National Velvet upbringing. But "usual" hardly ever applies to Fallon Taylor.

She was all of 6 years old when, after watching a rodeo on TV, she decided she would become a professional barrel racer. "I can do that," she announced. Didn't matter that she'd been on a horse exactly once, at a nursery school outing when she was 3. Miss Fallon Taylor had made up her mind.

The Taylor family, then living in Tampa, Fla., came to Texas that summer, partly on business, partly so Fallon could watch some real live barrel racing. It wasn't long before they had bought her a horse and arranged for lessons with legendary barrel racer Martha Josey -- something like sending a Little Leaguer to Ken Griffey to learn how to hit.

The family never made it back to Florida.

Fallon Taylor is 15 now, and even though she doesn't yet car-date, she's a six-year rodeo veteran and the fourth-ranked barrel racer on the women's pro circuit, having earned $56,556 this season. She again has qualified for the National Finals Rodeo, one of 15 women in the event.

Barrel racing, it looks so easy: Buy a great horse, saddle up and start kicking. You make a few turns, and that's about it.

Not quite. A thousand-pound horse at full gallop is about as stable as a Roto-Tiller, and those gyroscopic turns would make an Andretti swallow hard. The only people who sneer at barrel racing are the ones who haven't done it. Fallon Taylor, 5-6 and 115 pounds, is part jockey, part cornerback, part test pilot, all athlete.

This year, from the family spread in Ponder, Taylor and her parents traveled some 60,000 miles -- and those were hard-nose-the-highway miles, not AAdvantage Platinum air miles. She rodeoed in places like Cheyenne and Tucson, Abilene and Albuquerque.

"It's a year-round season," she says with a Cal Ripken sigh. "Way too hectic."

But she does travel in style. Her parents, Dian and Shelton, have outfitted a 42-foot custom trailer with a bedroom in the front and room for Fallon's two horses in the back. There are fans and water-misters for the horses, and the Taylors use a closed-circuit TV system to keep an eye on Flo-Jo and True.

"It's one of those $300,000 trailers with a custom paint job," says James Jennings of Mesquite Championship Rodeo. "They've spent some money, that's for sure, but they could have done that with a lot of kids and still not have succeeded."

Charmayne James of Stephenville is perhaps the greatest barrel racer of all time. She was the world champion for 10 straight years, from 1984-93, and she knows the rigors and costs of the road.

"If you rodeo hard, and Fallon has been rodeoing real hard this year, I'm gonna say you can spend $60,000 or $70,000 a year," James says.

Feed, fuel, tack, vet bills, entry fees -- it adds up. Plus, a top barrel-racing horse can cost as much as $75,000, although that's one place the Taylors have economized. They bought Flowers and Money, nicknamed Flo-Jo, for $7,500 at the Trinity Meadows racetrack.

Fallon says her little sorrel mare, now 7 years old, was beaten and abused at some point, which might account for the horse's being overly nervous and twitchy.

"She vapor-locks," Fallon says. "She's psycho."

Flo gets herbal treatments to relieve her psychotic episodes, plus there's a medical team that includes vets, a massage therapist and a chiropractor. Everything but a horse whisperer.

"Flo doesn't like to walk in the pasture and she won't ride in the hills," Fallon says. "She just walks the fence, wanting to get out.

"All she wants to do is run barrels."

Sounds a lot like her owner.

Fallon Taylor took to barrel racing as if she'd been born to the saddle. Of her first real ride on a full-sized horse, she says, "I just slapped him on the butt and away we went."

"A lot of adults couldn't ride these horses," says James Jennings of the Mesquite Rodeo. "They're unbelievably powerful and hard to handle. It's like the difference between a 5-horsepower Evinrude and a 300-horsepower speedboat."

Speedboating around all those barrels has earned Fallon Taylor a lot of money in her young career -- more than $120,000 since the start of the '96 season. Her first pro victory came in Lafayette, La., when she was 9. Her first major win was in Houston, and in 1995 she made the National Finals. She was 13.

Only one other barrel racer at the NFR has been younger. Rachel Myllimacki was 12 when she first qualified for rodeo's annual "World Series" in Las Vegas, but she has not stuck with the sport. She went back to school in Montana, where she trains barrel horses and runs some cows.

Behind the rodeo chutes, where things can get nasty, it's said that the great barrel racers either have rich daddies or they've married well.

"Not wealthy," says Shelton Taylor. "We're just lucky, lucky people. And we know that."

It has helped Fallon's career that her parents do all the driving and that she doesn't have to win to make the checkbook balance. "She knows," says Charmayne James, "that her bills are going to be paid."

Dian Taylor has been behind the wheel of the trailer long enough to know that "those rodeos sure do seem closer together when you're winning."

Fallon, a 10th-grader, does home-schooling through a Florida Christian academy. "We do school," her father insists, "before we do horses.

"Fallon has grown tremendously from being on the road. She has met more people and had more experiences and seen more parts of the country than most adults."

Most of the women veterans on the barrel-racing circuit have been hospitable to the young Miss Taylor, but she has received her share of hazing, too. This is not exactly a Tri-Delt sisterhood she has bought into. It's a rugged, expensive sport with tough-minded athletes and races measured to the thousandth of a second. "You get outrun by a second, you might as well go home," says Charmayne James.

Competitors have tried to scare Fallon by warning her -- unnecessarily -- about loose ground or racing tactics or imagined quirks at particular arenas.

"You always go through that if you're winning," is James' counsel. "There's lots of rumors and people get to talking. You sure know who your friends are -- and who they aren't."

Not much of this throws Fallon Taylor. She is mature and determined beyond her age. Consider her take on attending regular high school: "I don't want to go to high school -- it scares me. There's drugs, guns, knives." She once called her mother to come get her, at church, because some kids were smoking marijuana before Sunday school.

Fallon Taylor, it's more than clear, and as she says, is not your usual kid.

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The National Finals Rodeo is Friday, Dec. 14, Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas.

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Distributed by The Associated Press

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