Seven-year-old Austyn Shell (left) and 9-year-old Haven Huffstuttler on two of the five horses they use in training for the rodeo circuit. Both compete in three events: barrel racing, pole racing, and goat roping. Staff photos by Dakota Morrissiey
Not once during the entire interview for this story did 7-year-old Austyn Shell of Marble Falls or 9-year-old Haven Huffstuttler of Burnet get off their horses.
They did move around in the saddles a bit. Austyn demonstrated how she once flipped over the pommel onto the horse’s neck during a barrel race, and both swung their legs onto the same side of the horse, one foot in a stirrup, to illustrate other misadventures. The horses moved less, patiently waiting out this quiet and unusual break in their training routines.
“Sometimes these girls are so comfortable on a horse they scare me,” said Eddie Shell, grandfather to Austyn and rodeo trainer to both.
He, too, sat comfortably astride his ride as this reporter scribbled notes while sitting on a concrete porch that put her eye to eye with the horses.
The girls train every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon in a rodeo arena behind the Marble Falls home of Eddie and wife Dale. They compete almost every weekend and were running the barrels and poles this particular Tuesday in preparation for a rodeo in Goldthwaite that weekend and the American Junior Rodeo Association finals immediately after in Sweetwater. The later competed in the Marble Falls Rodeo.
Austyn shares a name but not the spelling of it with her father, Austin, which is why her grandpa, whom she calls “Big,” refers to her as “Little A.” She has been on a horse since she was 4 years old and began competing in rodeo arenas at the age of 6, adding her collection of awards to the Shell family “ribbon room.”
“Basically, it’s a generation thing,” said Austyn when asked how she became interested in rodeo competitions. “My daddy did it, my aunt did it, my cousins did it, now I’m doing it!”
Her grandfather/trainer was taught by his father, and he in turn taught three of his four children. Eddie stores the more than 20 world championship saddles they have won over the years in a nearby barn.
“When my three kids were competing, there was no one in the state of Texas that went to more rodeos than us,” he said.
After those three were grown, Eddie trained the first set of grandkids and now has Little A in the saddle along with her horse-loving best friend.
Haven has only been riding and training for about nine months but has long pined for the equestrian life. Her favorite books are about horses, and she wants to be a large animal veterinarian specializing in horses when she grows up.
With less than a year in training, she won the round in barrel racing in the 9- to 12-year-old category at a recent Llano rodeo. She was the youngest in the competition.
“She was the only little girl in the big girl race,” said Eddie with pride.
Austyn has reached “senior” status in her 4- to 8-year-old category and is stacking up the winnings from ribbons to cash prizes.
“Little A is at the top of her age group, so she is hitting the top pretty consistently in competition,” Eddie said. “If you shoot for first, second, or third, you get a paycheck.”
Haven and Austyn became best friends on the softball field, another passion they share. They both exude confidence and competence in the arena, striving to push their limits while following some sage advice passed down from Eddie’s father to Austyn’s father and now to them.
“Keep your mind in the middle and your legs on both sides (of the horse),” Eddie said.
“If your mind’s not here,” he continued, holding an index finger to the middle of his forehead, “and your legs aren’t on both sides, you’re usually on the ground.”
“We’ve been there before!” both girls chimed in laughing.
Their joy in the sport is apparent as they began the day’s session with a slow trot around the barrels before breaking into a sprint for a full-speed barrel run, listening intently as Eddie shouted out encouragement and instructions.
They offered some tips of their own to this reporter, who has only occasionally been on horseback.
“When you are going really fast, you have to get in the right spot at the right time,” Haven said. “Make sure your horse knows what you’re doing. You have to find the right time to reach and lift like this.”
With her hands on the reins, Haven tightened the right rein with a slight move to the left while loosely lifting the left rein out and away from the horse’s neck, which steers the animal around any obstacle. In this case, that was a bright blue barrel.
“You don’t have much time to turn and pull,” Austyn added. “You have to go around the barrels super fast, and you don’t have much time to react.”
Austyn also advised: “Don’t go straight at the barrel. The last time I did that I was on her neck. It happened during a rodeo, but I stayed on!”
“My dad tells me not to be scared and to stay on the horse,” Haven said.
“Ride the horse,” Austyn added.
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Eddie said. “I believe they could both start teaching.”
While Austyn prefers barrels, Haven likes running the poles. Both are still struggling a bit with goat roping, but with their grit and determination, they’ll soon be raking in awards with this skill, too.
Training also involves overcoming fear. As confident as Austyn and Haven appear in Big’s backyard arena, the anticipation and anxiety before competition can be fierce.
“You should stand in the alley when a kid is about to run,” Eddie said. “A year ago, Little A would tear up and be scared. She’s 60 pounds sitting on a 1,200-pound horse, and he’s jumping and snorting. She’s scared, but she’s practiced and trained and has muscle memory enough that once she gets to run it, she loves it. If you were to ask her if she wanted to run it, she would tell you no. So I don’t ask.”
The girls use five different horses in training and competition, quickly changing rides depending on the event. That Tuesday, several horses stood saddled and ready, all much bigger than these elfin elementary school students. That didn’t stop them. They both jumped off and back on quickly without the use of a step stool or human hand, grabbing onto both sides of the saddle as they pulled up with their left legs and threw their right legs over the horses’ broad backs.
Although a couple of ranch hands and Haven’s dad, Dalton, help get the horses ready, find lost goat ropes, and pick up knocked-over barrels and poles, Austyn and Haven have learned the most important rule of riding: Take care of the horse first.
“We feed them, clean them, we lift up their feet to make sure there’s nothing bad going on with them,” Haven said.
When asked what’s most important in rodeo competitions, the horse or the rider, both girls responded at the same time but with different answers.
“The horse,” Austyn said.
“The rider,” Haven said.
“Without a horse, how can we run?” Austyn asked her friend.
“Without the rider, how does the horse know what to do?” Haven answered.
While the consensus from the adults was that both riders were right, a possible third consideration came to mind: the enthusiastic, patient, and dedicated rodeo trainer.