Essie Mitchell and her horse, Luke, work on rounding a barrel at the Mitchell farm in Sunny View

Essie Mitchell knows well the gaits of an accomplished equestrian.

Walk. Trot. Canter.

None of them fit the pace at which Mitchell prefers to ride – Wide Open.

Think less Sunday drive, more Sunday drag racer.

“I love the speed,” Mitchell said. “I like the adrenalin rush.”

The Polk County High freshman is satisfying her speed-seeking nature by competing as a barrel racer in both the North Carolina High School Rodeo Assocation and National Barrel Horse Association. In her most recent competition, an NHBA show in Cherryville, Mitchell placed 11th out of 112 riders in the open division and third of 49 riders in the youth division.

Clearly, Mitchell has found her niche. And for a busy youngster who has played a number of sports, she’s fine with that.

“Out of all the sports I’ve ever played, this is the one I get the most action-packed stuff out of,” Mitchell said. “Horses, they don’t cause drama. That’s what I like about it the best.”

Barrel racing has a simple premise – the fastest time around three barrels wins. Horse and rider complete a cloverleaf pattern around the three barrels, the sport requiring speed and agility from the horse and control and skill on the part of the rider.

Talent helps. Hard work is a must.

Mitchell spends nearly every day at her family farm in Sunny View working with Luke, her barrel-racing mount. Those days often begin before the sun rises, with Mitchell trekking to the barn before school.

“In the mornings we have to come down here and we have to pick all the stalls, pull out the whole barn, get grain, hay and water for them,” Mitchell said of the two horses on the farm. “They each have different supplements, because (one of the horses) is basically retired, and then he is a fast-moving horse, traveling a bunch. So we have to sort out a bunch of supplements for each of them that’s going to suit their lifestyle best.

“Then as soon as we get home from school, we’ll go down there, and if we don’t ride the boy, then we’re either grooming him down really well, getting his hooves checked, or we’re doing some hard work in the arena or good trail rides to build the muscles up.”

Essie Mitchell brings Luke to a stop after a training run

All that effort leads to competition days. Mitchell and Luke travel to arenas throughout Western North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina, be it for NHBA or state association shows. Once on site, when Mitchell’s turn to ride arrives, her work to get Luke to the ring is nearly as rehearsed as what happens once inside it.

“For a typical run, I warm up, ride around a couple of circles, work on the small circles for agility,” she said. “When we’re about to run, I go up there and I set a line on the fence, and I do really small circles, just closing in the gaps.

“Then when I go into the arena, I have to walk him all the way up because he gets a little antsy. Then we’re working our first barrel right now, and it’s going. After our first barrel, then our second and third, they’re just beautiful.”

The long hours, the daily work – Mitchell has goals in mind that drive her through it all.

“I’d like to go to The American whenever I get out of high scool,” she said. “It’s a huge rodeo, and all the professionals go to it, and I want to build up to trying for a title at that. And I want to make it to worlds this year for high school rodeo. That is my main goal for this year.

“After that, I’m going to try to go as big as possible.”

And as quickly as possible, without a doubt.