The Arnold family from Gum Branch has taken their love of horses and riding a step further than most. Ashley Arnold, 15, and her sister Courtney, 13, started riding when they were 7 and 5, respectively, because they loved horses.
Riding soon led to competing and that is where the girls’ father, Gary, joins in the fun.
“Gary competes too,” Amy Arnold, the girls’ mother said. “I’m there for support and snacks, but all of it is 100 percent Gary and the girls.”
The girls and their father are members of the National Barrel Horse Association and are part of the Coastal Empire District. They also ride with the Southeast Cowboys Association.
Recently the sisters competed at the annual Georgia Federation of Saddle Club State Championship. The competition is in Perry and this year was over Labor Day weekend.
“The top six riders from each age group within each district association competes there,” Gary Arnold said. “There are nine different associations in state of Georgia. That means it’s the top 54 riders in the state competing for trophies. Ashley wasn’t supposed to go to state this year. She was training horses. While training, she qualified in two events, she wasn’t even trying. Courtney was the reserve champion in the 1-12 small fry division and we went to state and she ended up being number one in the state in the arena race and she beat every single person in the state. Nobody had a faster time than she did on her horse. She took second place in the cloverleaf in her age group. The only girl who beat her is the World NBHA champion Taylor Carter. She took fifth in the Texas and eighth place in poles.”
Ashley Arnold won while riding Hank her 10-year-old horse while Courtney won riding Rocky that is 5.
It was Ashley’s love of horses and a promise by her father that got the family started rodeo riding.
Gary Arnold was deployed in Bosnia with the Georgia National Guard’s 148th Support Battalion Brigade when his daughter asked if she could have a horse. When he got back in 2001 he bought her the horse.
“We bought her a horse and then we bought several more horses,” dad said. “We hooked up with the Georgia Wranglers Riding Club in Pembroke and we started riding and competing in speed events, which are poles, cones, Texas barrels, the arena race and the cloverleaf.”
Arnold, who competes in barrels and calf roping, started teaching his daughters how to ride. They competed until Arnold was deployed to Iraq. But when he returned in 2006 they picked up right where they left off.
The girls say it’s the speed that keeps them competing.
“When I was younger we didn’t have the ability or the opportunity to travel and compete,” their father said. “Back then you just rode the horse around locally. If you were not within riding distance you were not able to go. Since we’ve become modernized with horse trailers and trucks there are more places we can compete and we travel around through southeast Georgia.
Dad is getting ready to start team roping with Ashley and hopes to travel the circuit competing together soon.
“We are always together at all the outings and we have met all these nice people,” Amy Arnold said. “It’s like one big horse family. We’ve met many friends and have been to quite a few places and we hope to see more. I’ve seen some of our friends with children who were third or fourth graders years ago and now we see them and it’s like ‘golly, has it really been this many years that we’ve been involved in these events.’”
But it’s not all fun and games. Training is five or six days a week. The girls have to wash the horses as well as train them and feed them
“On a normal day we will go to the farm, saddle the horses, set up the cones or barrels, warm the horses up and trot them through the pattern a few times,” Gary Arnold said. “Then we’ll rope them through the pattern, walk them through the patterns. Then we will cool them down, give them some down time and then wash them down.”
On competition days they may start at 4:30 a.m., getting everything ready and may not finish until 1 a.m. the following day, especially if the girls are competing at different matches in different locations.
The family also competes at the N & C Ranch in Long County.
“Last year, Ashley won the saddle in the junior division,” Gary Arnold said. “This year the season isn’t even over and she has already clinched saddle in the open division. She moved up into the open and started competing. I compete there for calves and this past weekend she took first place both nights in barrels and I was first place in calves.”
The girls are currently competing to earn a spot at world competition.
“If you are in the top five in your association then you qualify to go to world in Augusta around November each year,” dad said. “There they compete with riders from all over the world.”
The purse is big and, for Ashley, who will be driving soon, the big prize is what she hopes for.
“Six trucks, 24 saddles, 38 belt buckles, all the prizes total to $660,000 and any age group could win,” Gary Arnold said.
“I never thought of racing,” Ashley said. “I just liked the horses, but he got us to start riding better and I we started competing a whole lot more. I don’t plan on giving this up anytime soon.”
“I’m so proud of them but mostly my husband,” Amy Arnold said. “If it wasn’t for Gary they would not have gotten this far.”
While the girls prepare for world, the family is getting ready for the championship rodeo in Long County as the Southeast Cowboy Association Championship are scheduled at the N & C Ranch Oct. 17-19. Prizes will be awarded on the final day of the rodeo.