By Staff Sgt. Mary E. Thach, 155th Air Refueling wing
/ Published May 29, 2014
Lincoln, NE -- Dirt flies, cheers and whistles echo, and the announcer' s voice rings throughout the arena. She can't eat, she can't sit still. She can't even think. All she can do is shake in her saddle as she feels the pounding of her heart and the steady deep breathing of the 1,500-pound horse beneath her. She waits for the announcer to call her name.
"You can do this, you've got this," she whispers to herself as she tightens her grip on the reins and pushes her cowboy hat down hard on her head. The announcer calls her name and the unfamiliar steed lunges forward. The pair glides around barrels strategically placed in the arena as fast as lightning. After her run was over, she knew the ride went well, but was it enough to win?
Staff Sgt. Abby Ford, a Lewellen, Neb., native and a member of the 155th Air Refueling Wing Logistics Readiness Squadron, in Lincoln, Neb., grew up with her mother and step-father riding horses. Ford even rode horses while her mother was still pregnant with her, but riding horses goes back generations.
Her grandmother, June Holeman, a legendary 70-year-old barrel racer, was raised on a ranch 20 miles east of Broken Bow, Neb., and rode a horse to and from school every day. She grew up competing in horse shows and to this day, competes in more than 60 barrel races annually. She passed the tradition of competitive horseback riding down to her daughter, Teresa McCormick, Ford's mother, who in turn passed it to Ford.
"Usually kids grow up riding bikes," said Ford. "I grew up riding horses."
Ford said even as an infant she was riding in her mother's lap. By age three, she had her own Shetland pony. McCormick's reasoning for giving her daughter a pony her own size was to instill confidence and teach responsibility. Ford learned how to lead, ride and care for her pony by brushing, feeding and watering him.
As she grew in age, size and talent, so did the horses she rode and the events in which she competed. By age eight, Ford was riding a full-sized horse named Rocky, who is now 33-years-old and "easing into his retirement," she said. Ford said horseback riding relieves pent up stress and having a horse is like having a gigantic dog.
Growing up, Ford was thoroughly involved in 4-H and competed in high school rodeos. McCormick said she focused on getting Ford well-rounded by building a solid foundation in horsemanship. Ford competed heavily in barrel racing and pole-bending, an event similar to barrel racing but weaving around stationary poles rather than barrels. She said growing up in a competitive rodeo culture and horseback riding is a part of who she is as a person.
Ford joined the Nebraska Air National Guard in May 2007, following in the footsteps of her father, Mike Ford, a retired Army ranger, and her step-mother, Noel, a member of the Nebraska Army National Guard. Ford had to put her riding days on hold, especially in 2012 when she deployed to Kuwait and Afghanistan. Growing up on a ranch, horses were available to ride at any time, so being deployed and having no access to horses proved to Ford that riding was a part of her life she was not ready to give up. When she got home she was determined to resume this integral part of her life.
"You don't realize what you have until you leave," said Ford. "I joined the military and went five years without riding horses."
In 2013, Ford competed at the Professional Armed Forces Rodeo Association's World Finals barrel race, Nov. 30 - Dec. 1, 2013 in Midland, Texas.
The PAFRA is a newer association for military members, past and present, who participate in rodeo events. They can bring their accumulated points from other sanctioned competitions to World Finals and compete.
Holeman allowed Ford to borrow "Hopes Money Boy," her top-dollar performance horse, for PAFRA World Finals, because Ford did not have a trained horse of her own at the time. Holeman said Tall Boy is like an "overly hyperactive child," but Ford has a special bond with the horse and handles him well.
"It takes a talented person to be able to crawl onto that level of horse...and be successful," said McCormick. "She had only ridden that horse once before, and she could feel he was a good horse. She has pure talent and ability."
"I wish I had her hands and head, she can get him do to anything," said Holeman. "I can't get him to cooperate."
Ford said she and Tall Boy struggled to work together initially, but by the end of her third and final run at World Finals, they developed a bond. They worked together as if they were one body.
Ford waited with Tall Boy at the PAFRA World Finals wondering if they had done enough to win. When her results were finally posted, the pair had run fast enough to win.
Winning at World Finals was extremely special for Ford and her family. Her mother's family provided the training, discipline, and support she needed in horsemanship to advance to higher levels in competitions, and her father's family paved the way for her to join the Nebraska Air National Guard.
"The association and event is all about the military, acknowledging all of the uniformed services before performances," said McCormick. "It was a tear jerking and emotional rodeo because they give honor those serving overseas and those who made the ultimate sacrifice for us to have the freedom to have rodeo."
McCormick and Holeman said they were proud of Ford for excelling in her talents.
"I lucked out having such a talented young woman as my daughter," said McCormick.
Ford plans to follow in her grandmother's footsteps and ride and compete until her body fails her. And now with a PAFRA title under her belt, she represents the legacy of her grandmother and continues to live up to the family name.
"I wouldn't have ever done any of this without all of my family. I've got my mom and grandma for the horses, I've got my dad, step-mom and aunts for my military push," said Ford. "Thanks to my entire family, they have made me how I am and put me in the position I am. I couldn't have asked for better experiences and opportunities. They are very supportive of me being in the military."