The gate at the Young County Rodeo in Graham, Texas, bursts open wide as the two lead horses of the Hardin-Simmons University Six White Horses Team gallop into the arena. Over the loud speakers, to the tune of “Rock Around the Clock,” the announcer proclaims, “The one, the only, the Six White Horses!”
That is what Kristen Johnson has dreamed of doing since she was a child, being one of the western-clad show-women riding one the majestic HSU Six White Horses. Riding since the age of four, Johnson dreamed of galloping across arenas and leading parades, carrying one of the six flags that have flown over Texas.
The world-famous horses and their riders have been performing in parades and shows since the early 1930s. They have marched in inaugural parades for six U.S. presidents. This year, thousands of people will see the horses at public functions throughout the year, including hundreds of elementary school children across Abilene and the Big Country.
Each year more than 15,000 school children will have his or her turn riding one of the horses as they are led by one of the team members or by volunteers. “There are times when more than 600 children have ridden the horses, and that’s before lunch,” says Debra Jones, the director of the program since 1997.
This week, Johnson was one of 10 HSU students arriving at the Taylor County Expo Center horse barn for the tryouts, which was moved from the HSU White Horses Complex because of rain and a muddy corral. But Johnson is in a somewhat different position than the other women here to audition. Kristen has held a certificate since she was 11 years old, proclaiming her as an honorary Six White Horse rider.
Johnson explains that she was diagnosed with AML leukemia in 2003 at age 11. Johnson says it was then that Jones made her an honorary Six White Horse Team member. "I called Debbie when I was ready to tryout and told her my story to see if she remembered it, and she did.” Johnson ended up spending seven months at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, undergoing seven rounds of chemotherapy treatments.
Riders are chosen each year, with even the current riders also having to prove they are among the best in the tryouts. Skills include handling quick acceleration, stopping, and quick turns while maintaining balance in the saddle. Riders have to control the horse with one hand, because the other hand is busy holding a flagpole. University students competing for the coveted spots are also judged on showmanship, personality, and appearance. According to Jones, “The judges are primarily former Six White Horse riders or may have ridden on HSU rodeo teams; they know what qualities make a good rider.”
As it turned out, all 10 of the women who showed up were deemed excellent riders by the judges. Even though there are six horses performing at one time, eight riders are generally chosen, but the scores were so close, all the women who tried out were accepted, says Jones.
New riders are:
Kristy Beam, Abilene
Tisha Bristow, Hawley, Texas
Lindy Chittum, Abilene
Jessie Forrest, Frisco, Texas
Kristen Johnson, Abilene
Kate Lanting, Dublin, Texas
Jennifer Mitchell, Breckenridge, Texas
Kate West, Denton, Texas
Kayla Willis, Granbury, Texas
Tambree Wolff, Abilene
Horses on the team include Powder, Cotton, Shine, Goose, Harley, Spirit, Oscar, Casper, Napoleon, Jake Sandino, Pistol, Brady, and Ace. Plus, there’s the show-stealer, Vanilla Fever, who is known better for his nicknames. “Titan is what most team members call him,” says Jones. “I like to call him Mini-Me.” The 33-inch-tall tiny horse doesn’t seem to mind which name he is called. Jones says, HSU’s older horse, Apache, has been retired and has a new home.
The team is gearing up for another busy season of rodeos, parades, homecomings, and fat stock shows across the Big Country and the state. The team practices three nights a week to get ready for the busy season. They also have to prep the horses with haircuts, scrubbing and manicuring, and prepare their riding gear and outfits for the upcoming shows.
Last week the team was a highlight of the West Texas Fair Rodeo at the Taylor County Coliseum. This weekend, the Six White Horses Team is appearing in the Jim Ned ISD Homecoming parade in Tuscola, Texas, and will ride in the Trent ISD Homecoming parade. Horses and riders will make several appearances during the HSU Homecoming, October 12-13, 2012.