Ashley Edmunds spurs her horse Spirit to a gallop toward a barrel at the other end of the barn Friday, April 3, at Townline Farms in rural Cloquet.
Spirit kicks up dirt on the barn floor as Ashley rounds the final barrel and heads back toward the stables at the other end.
Spirit’s 14-year-old rider is practicing in the hope that one day barrel racing and riding can become a full-time job for her.
Last month, as the COVID-19 crisis was kicking into high gear, Ashley, her sister Kylee Edmunds, Jenelle Engstad and several other Minnesota natives road-tripped down to Waco, Texas, to compete in the Elite Barrel Racing Extravaganza March 12-15.
The event exploded in size, Engstad said, because the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was canceled after cases of COVID-19 were found in Houston March 11. Many of those who planned to compete in Houston made the 200-mile trip to compete in Waco.
Ashley, Kylee and Jenelle had already made the 1,200 mile trip from Townline Farms to Waco to compete when the coronavirus pandemic burst into headlines across the country. Seven local riders, including Jenelle and Ashley, rode in the expanded competition. Jenelle, 31, finished just outside the money-winners in several events.
Kylee didn’t compete in Waco, but the experience has the 22-year-old nursing student planning a return trip in 2021. She has competed in smaller events in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but the Texas-sized competition was a different animal.
“Even just being there and watching our girls, it was just an unbelievable experience,” Kylee said. “You’re competing against the best of the best in one of the bigger arenas around. Where here, locally, it’s smaller. Smaller money, smaller jackpots. There you’re competing against world renowned barrel racers.”
Riding is a passion for all three. They stayed on in Waco because there was an opportunity to ride — and gain sponsors — in such a large field and because there is an increasing likelihood that the competitive season ended with the Extravaganza.
Jill Dryke, owner and founder of Townline and Jenelle's mother, built the barn to help support the riding community — particularly during the long northern Minnesota winters, when practicing outside isn’t an option.
Ashley, an eighth-grader at Ordean East Middle School, like Jenelle and her older sister, has developed a passion for riding. Her mother, Gwen Knute, said her younger daughter has asked to be homeschooled so she can ride more often.
To accommodate riders, Dryke has opened her barn to riders 24 hours a day, seven days a week to ride and practice. Knute said she has brought her daughter down to ride late in the evenings after school to take advantage of the barn. The Edmunds sisters try to go to Townline to ride in the arena almost every day, Kylee said, especially with more time on their hands because of the coronavirus outbreak.
“It’s a big asset,” Kylee said. “It’s a great place to be. In Minnesota it’s pretty hard to find something like this that’s open all year round and not packed with storage ... You can get off of work at 9 p.m. and come here and ride.”
Dryke, who also works as a nurse with Essentia Health, said she has gone out in the barn at midnight or later after getting off work to ride and relax.
Dryke continues to give riding lessons to people who want them, despite Gov. Tim Walz’s Stay at Home order. Dryke said during lessons, riders are asked to keep at least 10 feet of distance between each other to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.