National High School Finals Rodeo, Lancaster Event Center, Lincoln, Nebraska, July 24, 2021:
“Ladies and gentlemen, starting off today’s barrel racing competition is Florida Reserve State Champion Ava Grayce Sanders, riding Tampa Bay Rey Deal,” the announcer’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker.
The excited crowd was on its feet cheering as 15-year-old Ava Grayce and her horse “King” flew around the arena as the seconds ticked by, circling a trio of barrels spaced several hundred feet apart. If you blinked twice, you missed it.
Would her time be good enough to win the NHSFR championship? Ava Grayce wouldn’t know until the other 19 competitors had made their final runs. They had come from all over the United States, Canada and Mexico to compete for cash prizes.
“It’s kind of like the Super Bowl for us youth,” Ava Grayce says.
In order to take her mind off what was happening inside the arena, she kept busy behind the scenes. “I had no idea what was going on. I remember King looked at me, I looked at him, and I said, ‘You did so good,’” says Ava Grayce, recalling a tender post-race moment the two shared.
“There I was, back at the stalls tending to my horse, my shirt was untucked, my jeans were stuck in my boots, and my cowboy hat was up on the top of my head when my mom and best friend, Kassidy, came around the corner, looked at me, then smiled and said, ‘You won—you’re the national high school barrel racing champion!’ I couldn’t believe it!
“Together they picked me up and we started twirling round and round. It was the most wonderful experience; everything we had worked so hard for. It’s just so amazing to even get to this level—the competition is so tough. Winning was a Cinderella moment for me.”
That Cinderella moment didn’t just happen overnight; it has taken years of hard work, determination, commitment and heart. Not only has the Vero Beach High School junior competed at state, regional and national rodeos for the past several years, consistently rising through the ranks, she maintains a 3.6 grade point average.
While other girls her age were going to the mall after school and on weekends, Ava Grayce was with King, grooming, riding and practicing lightning-quick turns that would shave thousandths of a second off their barrel racing times.
“I’m really passionate about what I do. Very few people at school are involved with horses, so most of them really don’t know that what I do even exists,” Ava Grayce says, reflecting on a particularly busy weekend. “I had a rodeo Saturday morning and had to hurry back for Homecoming. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Never could anyone in the Sanders family have imagined 11 summers ago, when Ava Grayce went to a Dude Ranch in Montana and fell in love with a horse named Bucky, how her equestrian journey would turn out. When it came time to leave for home, she begged her parents to buy Bucky and bring him with them on the plane. Knowing that wasn’t possible, they figured their daughter would soon forget all about Bucky and outgrow her newfound love for horses.
She didn’t, and not a day went by without Ava Grayce letting everyone know, which prompted her mother, Cathy, to check out local horseback riding facilities. She found one in Fellsmere, met the owners, liked what she saw and heard, and signed her daughter up, thinking it would never turn into anything serious. Ava Grayce had other ideas.
“After I was just there for two weeks they told my mom I had more confidence than a 13-year-old and they thought I could really excel and be on the barrel racing competition team,” says Ava Grayce, who continued to plead for a horse of her own.
She finally got her wish. His name was Hickory; he was 5, Ava Grayce was 5, and they literally grew up together, competing in rodeo barrel racing events. The ground rules are simple: A horse and rider who can make it around three offset barrels and leave them all standing while having the fastest time advances to the buckle ceremony. Ava Grayce and Hickory soon began winning buckles and moving up the youth division rankings. The speedy twosome quickly became known as a team to be reckoned with.
As Ava Grayce’s ability advanced, other horses made their way into the barn. There were Jetta, Amigo and Trouble, all of whom allowed her to grow in her horsemanship and led her along the path to finding King.
“My mom found him through an ad on the internet. We met the owner at his farm and were introduced to this adorable sorrel gelding. He stood 14.2 hands high and had the biggest white blaze on his face; his disposition made him easy to fall in love with. King and I had instant chemistry. We really hit it off big. I knew right away he was the horse for me,” says Ava Grayce, a smile in her voice.
“Initially we rode in his arena, and when that went well we asked the owner if we could try him again that weekend at a barrel racing event, and he agreed. During our first race together, King and I won, almost setting a new arena record. He raised the bar for me. He was phenomenal from the start, always doing his job. Honestly, it’s crazy how good he was at 3 and 4 years old. Our partnership has been a true labor of love. I don’t think I would have been as successful as I have without him.”
That success is highlighted in Ava Grayce’s two-page curriculum vitae that notes her many accomplishments over the last five years. In 2021 alone, she won five championships, was an American and Junior American qualifier, and was ranked seventh in the USA with the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association junior barrel racing program.
On the curriculum vitae under “objective” and just above a list of her current sponsors, Ava Grayce has written, “To be a loyal and positive brand ambassador for those products and services that help my horse perform at his best.”
Yes, the little 5-year-old who fell in love with a horse named Bucky has come a long way, and winning the NHSFR barrel racing championship in July 2021 was an achievement that holds the promise of more to come.
“I had set goals for myself,” Ava Grayce says. “One was to make it to the finals that weekend, which meant qualifying through two go-rounds with about 200 contestants in the average all vying to be in the top 20
She explains her strategy: “In order to prepare for a race, I like to go up in the arena and study the setup so I can calculate the best approach for my run. Honestly, it’s like an art form where you evaluate everything that’s going on. King and I had two solid, clean runs, seating us first in the average and making it back to the finals. Then the goal was ‘Let’s go and win this thing!’ I was on my game, King was on his game; we were both on the same page!” Since then, they have continued to compete in rodeos around the country, racing into arenas and circling barrels, doing what they love.
Ava Grayce has ambitious goals for the future. After graduating from high school next year, she hopes to attend Oklahoma State, a Division I school with a rodeo team that competes on the national college circuit. “Mom and I actually met the coaches out at nationals, we talked, and I really liked what they had to say. I’d love to continue to rodeo during college and possibly set my sights on making a run for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas,” she enthuses.
“I’ve met a ton of people through rodeo, formed so many relationships over the years. No matter where you go or whether you’re competing with youth or adults, the competition is really stacked. It’s always tough. You have to be at your best, mentally strong, all the time.
“I believe I really thrive under pressure. It’s one of my strong suits, and an advantage to making sure everything goes right. One of the things that keeps me strong is that if you have a bad run, you just let it go; tomorrow’s a new day, and we go from there.”
As for Hickory, the horse she calls her “first love,” he has happily taken the role of teaching the younger generation of horses coming through the barn and is still competing as Ava Grayce’s mount for running the pole speed event at high school rodeos. “Hickory is family, he’s woven into the fabric of who I am. He’s the horse of my whole heart.”
To see Ava Grayce and King in top racing form, check out her social media pages as well as YouTube videos. You’ll be impressed.