Barrel Action: Phyllis MalanSeptember 7, 2018
Story by Kathleen Messmer
Photos by Brittney Lohmiller
Phyllis Malan rolls out of bed early in the morning. She strolls through the living room and into the kitchen to pour herself a hot cup of coffee. The entire home is flooded in ribbons, trophies and awards, tokens of 81 years of victory.
A horseback barrel racer, Phyllis is no ordinary equestrian. At 81 years old, nothing can stop her from dashing and weaving around barrels. After coffee, she ties her hair up, laces up her boots and heads out to the barn to join her husband, Don, who has already been awake for hours. There is hay to be baled, work to be done and a morning ride to enjoy.
Phyllis and Don live on a small farm northwest of Ireland in a more than 200-year-old home. The two have raised two daughters, Donna and Valerie, along with dozens of horses. Phyllis and her horse, Joey Cody Pine, are like two peas in a pod. The first barrel horse Phyllis has trained herself, she began riding Joey when he was 10 years old.
Phyllis and now-26-year-old Joey compete together in about 18 barrel racing competitions a year.
As impressive as her ability to ride a horse may be, her ability to barrel race is a whole new level of impressiveness.
A high-speed event, the rider and her horse must twist and turn around three different barrels as quickly as possible.
“They are set up like a clover leaf, and you go to whichever one your horse likes best first. You can go to the right or left. And you finish it in a clover leaf pattern,” Phyllis said. The average time for a barrel racer to maneuver the course is between 14 to 18 seconds. Phyllis said she usually runs a 15.5-second race.
“If you hit a barrel, it’s over,” Don said, meaning if a horse even slightly taps just one of the barrels, the entire run is disqualified.
Phyllis (Stradtner) has been around horses her entire life. She grew up in the same home where she and Don currently live, which was built in 1880. She used her family’s horses to help her father pull potatoes from their patch. Longing to ride, she bought a $5 army saddle at 7 years old, which she used to ride one of the horses.
Later on in life, she carried on the family tradition with a family of her own. At one time, they had as many as 20 horses in the stable. They soon taught their daughters to ride, who later went on to compete in races.
“The girls began riding with me when Donna was 3 years old and Valerie was one.” Phyllis said. “When they got older, we put them in 4-H. They began riding in pleasure class and then did barrels.”
The family traveled all over Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky for shows. Occasionally, they went to as many as four shows in one weekend.
Phyllis worked as a truck driver for the United Parcel Service for 26 years beginning in her late 30s. She had been competing in barrel races with her daughters; however, she felt it was too dangerous and risky to her health. Her job had a very strict attendance policy. However, she continued to compete in pleasure class.
In pleasure class, the horse is required to walk, trot and canter. The horses are also judged on manners, quality, performance and conformation. The horse should be “a pleasure to ride.”
A family friend would often ask the Malans to train horses that had never been ridden. The family would train the horses in exchange for frozen beef.
“We didn’t have to keep them long, just long enough to get them going,” Phyllis said. “Donna (her daughter) was tough on them; she would shape them up. To train them just depends on the horse and what breeding they have. Sometimes some pick it up quicker.”
“It takes about a good year to get one going,” Don added. “Some never make it and some make it quicker.”
As her daughters continued to barrel race, Phyllis found herself missing the competitive nature the sport brought out in herself. So in her 60s, she decided to jump back on the horse, literally.
Now at 81 years old, Phyllis is one of the oldest members of the National Barrel Horse Association.
“I think there was one woman who was 90, and I saw one on Facebook out west who is 83,” Phyllis said.
Her daughter, Valerie, who is now 60 years old, also continues to compete in the sport. In fact, she and Phyllis compete in the same classes: open and senior. Any age may compete in the open class, while competitors 50 years old and older may compete in the senior class.
“Senior class is small, not as many qualify for that. Maybe a dozen total,” Phyllis said. “In the open class there can be about 80 competitors; some shows have over 100 in the class.”
To prepare for a show, Phyllis and Don put in hours of time and effort.
“I’m the behind-the-scenes guy,” Don said. “All behind the scenes is where everything’s happening. I have to get the trailer ready, we trim the horse and give him a bath, it’s a lot of work just keeping it going.”
Phyllis takes Joey out riding on the farm a couple of times a week.
“He’s 26 and doesn’t need too much of it,” she said. “I just like to ride him a couple of times and get him ready for the show. Some people don’t work their horse enough.”
Before she takes him riding on her farm, Phyllis spends time grooming and cleaning Joey. She begins by gently brushing out his coat, mane and tail. She then cleans out his hooves. Carefully lifting each leg, she takes a small tool and scrapes the dirt loose from Joey’s horseshoes. Lastly, she situates the saddle on his back and places wraps around his ankles. These wraps are used for protection of the inside of the horse’s legs from its hooves when running.
And finally it’s time to ride.
Phyllis slowly leads Joey out of the stable and swings herself onto the saddle. Typically, she takes Joey for a few laps around the small circle pen and then out for a trail ride.
“I don’t even have my barrels out there anymore, just a circle pen,” Phyllis said. “I take him out riding hills and things to keep him built up or out on the road somewhere.”
Although Joey is getting older, he is still in tip-top shape. Well, almost.
“Joey’s pretty healthy, he’s tough,” Phyllis said as she knocked on her hardwood kitchen table. “But he’s a little heavy, he likes to eat.” Though she feeds Joey hay, she lets him eat grass every now and then for a special treat.
“If I let him eat grass all the time, he’d be fat,” Phyllis chuckled.
In addition to the 18 shows the two compete in each year, Phyllis and Joey also compete in the state show in Cloverdale. They have qualified for three world shows, two in Augusta, Georgia, and one in Perry, Georgia. The world shows last about a week and bring in thousands of competitors and their horses.
Phyllis and Don also enjoy trail riding. For 20 years, the couple traveled to Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, for trail rides.
“They know how to feed ya down there,” Don laughed. The two once traveled to Corydon for a 100-mile trail ride that took four or five days to complete.
So why does Phyllis still barrel race?
“It’s a good sport, good for therapy,” Phyllis said. “I believe in it and it can help you get in shape. I do it just to be in it, I like to be around horses. I do it for pleasure, to have a good time.”
Knowing Joey is older and not a very fast horse, Phyllis doesn’t race to beat anyone.
“I just go along with whatever I can get,” she said.
But what she usually gets is a victory.
After 60 years of attending horse shows, the Malans aren’t expecting to stop any time soon.
“I’ll do it as long as I’m able, as long as I don’t fall apart for some reason,” Phyllis said, laughing.
“She’ll do it for 20 more years,” Don added.
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