Haley Ganzel stretched her arms out, leaned forward and arched her head back. She looked for all the world like Kate Winslet posing on the ship’s prow in “Titanic.”
Ganzel, however, struck the pose atop a galloping horse. The trick rider stayed steady for much of the length of the Pendleton Round-Up Arena before pulling back and sitting in the saddle.
Ganzel and her partner Lindy Nealy Lica, known as the Cowgirl Sweethearts, were doing some practice runs prior to four days of performing at the Pendleton Round-Up. The stands, empty at the moment, would soon fill with thousands of rodeo fans.
A day in the office for these two includes daredevil moves such as the Indian hideaway (where the rider hangs off to the side parallel to the horse), the hippodrome (that “Titanic” move) and the Cossack death drag (the rider hangs off the saddle, dragging a hand on the ground). As a finale, each rides two horses simultaneously. It’s called Roman riding, where a standing rider has one foot on each horse. The two riders and four horses weave in and out, jump through fire and straddle fiery torches in a blend of showmanship and athleticism.
Ganzel, 23, learned trick riding early on at her family’s Oklahoma ranch. Her uncle, Shawn Brackett, was a trick rider who performed five times at the National Finals Rodeo as a specialty act. In addition, Ganzel’s father rode bulls and her grandfather was a bronc rider.
“I’ve been on the back of a horse since I was born,” she said.
Her mom and dad weren’t happy when they noticed little Haley trying to copy her uncle’s moves on the sly at age four. When she wouldn’t stop, her parents started her on formal lessons. Ganzel performed in her first rodeo at age 5 and first professional rodeo at 6.
Lica, who grew up in Illinois and now lives in Indiana, had a slightly different route. She decided to learn trick riding after attending numerous rodeos with her rodeo announcer father.
“I saw trick riders perform and thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” Lica said.
The 26-year-old credits years of gymnastics and lessons from a trick rider who lived nearby for helping her become proficient at the sport.
The two trick riders met at a rodeo where Ganzel, then 10, was set to perform. Lica’s dad was going to announce the rodeo and Lica, 13, had accompanied him.
“When we got there,” Ganzel said, “Lindy was practicing in the arena. We asked her if she wanted to trick ride with us that night.”
She accepted, the two girls realized they had chemistry and the rest, Ganzel said, is history.
Special equipment gives the riders increased stability and versatility.
“Trick riding saddles are reinforced,” Lica said. “They’ve got different straps and handholds.”
Lica’s father, Tom Nealey, built her saddle. Ganzel’s saddle was built by her significant other, professional bull rider Shane Proctor.
Ganzel brought five horses to Pendleton, including her two Roman riding horses, Jiminy and Cricket. One of the other three, a black-and-white paint horse named Sadie, will perform for the final time. An injury has kept her on the sidelines in recent days.
“The vet gave me the okay to use her in Pendleton,” Ganzel said. “This is her first performance in a few years and her very last. After this week, she will be officially retired.”
Lica has her two buckskins, Colt 45 and Remington. The women let each of the horses get the feel of the Round-Up Arena on Monday.
“Our horses have to adjust to every place we go,” said Lica.
Each arena varies, Ganzel said, “but this place is really different. It’s bigger and there’s grass in the middle.”
Ganzel said she came through Pendleton a few weeks ago, eyeballed the arena and took a ride there. She called Lica with the report and they developed a plan. Neither seemed worried.
“Horses adapt,” Lica said. “It’s just ‘point me in the right direction, Mom.’”
This week, on a day yet to be decided, the riders will don Wild West garb and attempt to recreate a vintage black-and-white photo that shows two Roman riders dashing around the Round-Up track.
Ganzel and Lica know their profession can be dangerous, but spend little time thinking about it.
“It’s like riding a bike most of the time,” Ganzel said,
But the older they get, they admitted, the scarier it is to try new things, and sometimes things go awry. Last year, Ganzel broke her wrist and cracked her spine. Lica tore her ACL and her meniscus.
“Last year was rough for us,” Lica said.
Ganzel said her father forced her to consider the dangers of trick riding when she was just 7. He sat his daughter down and asked straight out if she thought trick riding was worth dying for.
“I was 7,” she said. “I didn’t really know how to answer that. He gave me a week to think about it. I decided it was.” She broke off.
“I still have to ask myself that question at times,” she said. “I sit back and think about what I was asked at age 7.”
They don’t dwell too much on the risks, though, instead concentrating on why they love this crazy thing called trick riding.
“It is all adrenaline,” Lica said. “You have to have trust that you have practiced hard and your horses and you know your job, so whatever happens you are prepared. That calms your nerves, then after that, the rush that comes from the crowd roaring when you enter the arena makes you feel invincible.”
“It makes my heart happy,” Ganzel said. “It gives me a peaceful feeling even though it’s nerve-racking. It’s what we absolutely love to do.”
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.