Rooting for Yeller
When Tracie McGraw rides old Yeller in barrel races, it's the horse, not McGraw, for whom the crowd cheers.
But that doesn't bother the 20-year-old Tonganoxie barrel racer -- she's just as crazy about her 22-year-old palomino as they are.
"She'll be making her run and we'll hear people yell, 'Go Yeller,'" said Karen McGraw, Tracie's mother.
From all appearances it could be said that Yeller is in the prime of his second life. It is a life split by lameness from which, a few years ago, he was not expected to recover.
"When he was young, he was as fast as any horse out there," said Mike McGraw, Tracie's father.
In fact, about 15 years ago, a friend who used to barrel race once offered to pay $10,000 for Yeller. But the owner said he wasn't for sale.
Then the horse's condition changed.
"He came up lame on them," Mike McGraw said. "They thought he was done."
About four years ago, and a couple of years after the horse was put to pasture, the same friend encouraged the McGraws to buy Yeller for Tracie. The McGraws cautiously took the horse.
Yeller's original owner gave the McGraws time to try Yeller out. After Tracie had ridden him for a month, they agreed to buy the horse. Even then, they questioned their decision.
"We paid $3,000 for him," Karen said. "That seemed like a lot of money for a crippled up old horse."
Today Yeller is anything but crippled.
Soon after they bought him, the McGraws looked into what was making Yeller limp after running. A veterinarian said Yeller needed to wear a different type of shoes because of calcium deposits in his right front foot. So the horse now wears aluminum wedges on his front hooves and regular horse shoes on his back hooves. The wedges prop his front feet up a little more and take some pressure off his feet, Mike said.
To keep the horse in the proper shoes, every eight weeks the family makes a 350-mile round trip to Wichita to fit Yeller with new shoes.
"He hasn't took a lame step since," Mike said.
They're trying other remedies as well.
Once a day the McGraws pour a glucosamine chrondroitin mixture on his feet to help rebuild cartilage.
They buy a feed mixture tailored for older horses.
And recently, the family consulted a horse psychic.
Though the McGraw's daughter-in-law, Angela McGraw, who also barrel races, recommended they call a horse psychic, the McGraws were skeptical.
But, they decided to give it a try. And so they called Toni Trimble of Angel Hand Ranch in Texas. Their original questions dealt with another horse. But because a $70 telephone consultation can include questions about three animals, they asked about Yeller as well.
"It was spooky almost, the things that she (Trimble) knew," Karen said.
"The thing that spooked me was she said she saw a dark area in his (Yeller's) right foot," Mike said, noting that's the foot that's been giving him trouble.
And Trimble said Yeller was telling her his mouth was sore.
"We had just gotten his teeth worked on several days before," Mike said.
Trimble also said she thought Yeller was coughing after his workouts.
That, too, was right, Tracie said, adding they've followed Trimble's advice to give the horse aloe vera juice to soothe his throat.
Karen said Trimble surprised them by asking Tracie, who has dark brown hair, if she was a blonde, "because Yeller told her they looked very pretty together."
Tracie got a chuckle out of that comment.
"She (Trimble) was just making that up," Tracie said, slapping her hands on her legs. "I mean, who wouldn't want to know that!"
But Mike agreed with Trimble.
"I thought that was pretty neat, because they do look good together," Mike said.
But the kicker of their psychic consultation, Tracie said, came when she asked if Yeller was ready to retire.
"I just wanted to know if he was still enjoying his job," Tracie said. "She (Trimble) started to laugh on the phone. ... She said, 'My goodness I've never seen a horse react so strongly. He's jumping up and down and he said no, no, no I'm not ready to retire, I feel like I'm 12.'"
Just once in a lifetime
For Tracie, Yeller has turned out to be the horse of a lifetime.
But when she first saw him, she wasn't so sure.
"His tail was all whacked off and he was shaggy," Tracie said, noting he had not yet lost his winter coat.
And Karen said the horse could be cantankerous, and had a habit of trying to bite anyone who was saddling him.
But at the Tonganoxie farm, Yeller's tail grew out and his coat became shiny. And Yeller mellowed as he and Tracy bonded. Now, instead of trying to bite her, he'll nuzzle for her pocket where he knows she's hiding an apple treat for him.
"That horse is my best friend, literally, as much time as we spend together," Tracie said.
The family goes to barrel races together, traveling in a combination horse trailer and camper. Family members likely to be seen at the events include Tracie's brother, Travis, and his wife, Angela, who also rodeo.
"We have so much fun going around to the big shows together," said Karen, who videotapes all the competitions. "We might not always win, but we have fun."
For Tracie, as for her parents who run a farming operation in Leavenworth County, the horse trips are done in her spare time.
Tracie works as a hairdresser at Studio 800 in Tonganoxie, she teaches gymnastics and dance at Judy's Dance Studio in Basehor and she is the choreographer for Immaculata High School's dance team and cheerleading squad.
Her jobs give her the flexibility to set aside time for barrel racing competitions.
Yeller isn't the first horse Tracie has ridden, and chances are he won't be her last.
But Tracie, like the people who cheer for old Yeller during the barrel races, knows a good horse when she sees one.
Though horses have an average life span of 30 to 40 years, Tracie realizes that, at 22, Yeller is no longer young. So she collects all the photos she can of this horse she loves, and always purchases the photos taken by professional photographers at rodeos.
"I buy a picture of Yeller everywhere I go because when he's gone I want to remember him," Tracie said.
Karen said she reminds her daughter that she likely will have other horses.
"I keep telling her she's young, there will be more good horses down the road," Karen said.
But Tracie said she doubts there will ever be one as good as Yeller.
"He's the best horse that I've ever rode in my life and he's probably the best horse I'll ever get to ride," Tracie said. "I'm just thinking you're going to get one super horse in your lifetime and I think this is the one."