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Holli Covey enters the barn after working her horse, Hank. Covey is a barrel racing champion in the state of Georgia.

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A barrel of fun: Local horse-racing teen heading to nationals

On a typically hot and humid June morning, 14-year-old Holli Covey finds herself inside the practice pen at her family-owned Covey Creek farm off Cloud Springs Road in Rossville. She is putting Hank, an 11-year-old quarter horse, through a workout and it appears that everything is being done in slow motion.

Being very precise with the commands she gives with her hands and feet, Holli deliberately walks Hank to the alleyway, the chute-like area of the pen where barrel racers start their ride, then proceeds to guide him to the first of three blue 55-gallon barrels placed in a triangle around the ring.

In a competition, Hank would be running at full speed, but on this day Holli quietly gets Hank to stop about three feet from the first barrel and stand perfectly still. She never takes her eyes off Hank or the ground in front of them.

"She's slow-working him," says her dad, Donnie Covey. "She wants to make sure she is in complete control so that when she's actually racing him and calls for him to do something, he does it."

The workout goes on for about 20 minutes, the pace never quickening. To the untrained eye, it appears that Holli is out on a lazy Sunday stroll on a very old and very tired horse. The truth is these are both finely tuned and in-tune champions capable of negotiating the barrels at breakneck speeds.

"I never run him during practice here," Holli says.

Later, inside the barn, Holli is sporting her new belt buckle, a silver and gold piece about the size of an iPhone 6s Plus; it bears the words "Georgia State Barrel Racing Champion 2016." Hank is also sporting some new bling, a brand-new leather saddle branded with "2016 GHSRA Champion Barrel Racer." The two won the buckle and the saddle back in May after winning the Georgia High School Rodeo Association Barrel Racing competition. Holli is a rising sophomore at Notre Dame High School.

Riders compete from September through May in more than a dozen races held throughout the state. Points are accumulated at each based on where you place. First is worth 10 points, second is worth nine and so on.

It's rare for a high school freshman to have won the nearly four-decades-old Georgia state championship, says association president Todd Watkins. It's even rarer, he says, for anyone of any age to have also won the barrel racing competitions in the regional Southeastern Showdown and the Bama Challenge (Georgia vs. Alabama student riders), this past year as Holli did.

Starting Saturday, Holli will compete in the National High School Rodeo Finals in Gillette, Wyo. That event, which runs through July 23, will feature contestants from 41 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia.

Watkins credits two things to Holli's success.

"Her horse is a big part of it and that's not taking anything away from her," he says. "She has a great work ethic and she is very dedicated. Horsing is hard. You're either into it or you are not, and she is. It's a lot of work."

Rodeos have competitions in events such as bull riding, goat tying, roping, pole bending (like slalom skiing) and barrel racing. Holli focuses on barrel racing, though for fun she occasionally competes in pole-bending events just for something fun to do.

She is at the farm every morning in the heat, cold, rain, snow, sleet, whatever, to feed and water the horses, then she returns in every afternoon to further care for them. She says she spends about an hour a day actually riding Hank for training. She does all of the work to compete, sometimes only getting to make one run, which lasts about 14 seconds, in a competition.

"I just love it," she says. "I love the atmosphere of the rodeo. I love being at the barn. This takes up all of my time, but I just love it."

Watkins says Hank is a "big 'ol long-legged horse who is very fast and patterned well. That's a barrel racing term [it refers to a horse being able to read the pattern it should take around the barrels]. He sucks those barrels up and gets out of there."

Much of the work for Holli and Hank is in the form of things like the slow work because it gets the horse and ride in sync.

"You've got a rider who knows what she wants the horse to do, and a horse that wants to do what the rider wants him to do, but it's two minds trying to work together," Watkins says.

What makes Holli's success with Hank more remarkable is that the two only became partners about a year ago. Hank's previous owner/rider became ill and sold him. The Covey's found him through Holli's trainer, Terry Alexander, in Carrollton, Ga. Throughout the year, Holli spends a good deal of time in Carrollton, training with Alexander.

Prior to acquiring Hank, Holli rode and competed with the horses Moose and Princess, both of whom helped her win events, but the bond with Hank is different, and it was instantaneous, she says.

"I've been riding since I was little and everyone has always said, 'When you find the right horse, you'll know' and that's how it was."

Covey says Hank follows his daughter around the farm and seems to enjoy their time together. Holli says she still works out and cares for Moose and Princess, but her bond with Hank is special.

Holli says Hank is "so goofy and lovable. He's also faster."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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