Posted 12/15/15 (Tue)
By Sydney Glasoe Caraballo
Still my racing heart, she prays.
Her horse, so attuned, senses any physical response to nerves and will become more anxious and distracted if the rider doesn’t calm down.
She gathers herself and takes measure of her horse for one final second.
Then she nudges the horse with her knees and heels. She gives her rein and hisses; the horse lunges into a sprint. The pair race a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels. The horse leans hard into the turn, sand swirling at her hooves, as the rider turns her around the final barrel. The horse dashes toward the finish.
Denise (Roberts) Kanaman and her chestnut quarter horse, Dakota, finish with a time of 16.959 seconds, fast enough to win the 2015 National Barrel Horse Association World Seniors Championship competing against more than 300 teams in the fifth division in Perry, Ga.
“Unless you have the fastest horse, it’s just pure luck,” says Kanaman, a 1982 Divide County High School graduate.
Hard work and practice certainly factor, but Kanaman would never call riding a horse work.
“I thank God for giving me a life with the horse,” says the five-foot diminutive blond, who can be found in her arena – she leveled, graded and fenced it herself – working horses from late afternoon until sundown every evening year-round.
Kanaman, who works as a machinist at Sturm Foods near her home in New London, Wisc., loves her family – husband, adult children and grandchildren – and she considers horses an integral aspect of a healthy family life. She is mindful whenever she works the horse that her young grandchildren will eventually ride Dakota one day. One of her daughters and son-in-law also own horses. The couple served three military tours in the Middle East between them; Kanaman says riding horse is therapy.
When Kanaman was a young girl living in Florida, she dreamed of horses. After her family moved to Crosby (her mother, Lavonne Roberts, had grown up in rural Divide County), Kanaman began selling The Journal in junior high to earn money to buy a horse. Her parents promised to contribute half of the money toward a horse if she raised the rest.
Kanaman’s best friend, Heidi Lee, invited her almost daily to ride horses on the Lee farm as she worked toward her own horse. Kanaman rode a pony there named Kathy who pitched her off quite a few times; she only wanted a horse more.
She earned enough money to buy a horse by the age of 13. Her uncle, Lester Anderson, let her board the horse named Daisy at his farm. She either caught a ride or bicycled out to the farm to ride horse every day. Kanaman was devastated when Daisy died after being hit by a car. (The black horse, which Kanaman had secured at the Ambrose arena in the evening, had been let out of the arena by someone and started walking home. Kanaman said the horse would have been hard to see on the gravel road just below the ridge of the hill where she was hit.)
Her parents then bought her a horse for her high school graduation. The registered horse’s papered name was Deck A Cody, but Kanaman called her Blondie. They bought the horse from Danny Hanson. Kanaman adds that Hanson let her ride the horse all summer long before she actually owned it.
She competed with the horse at the Northwest shows in multiple competitions in North Dakota, which showcase the American quarter horse breed. Kanaman’s parents were always supportive; her father was the announcer at the show in Ambrose.
Kanaman chuckles as she recalls when Blondie got out of the pasture, and her mother tried to ride the horse home and got bucked off. Her father said riding the horse couldn’t be that hard, got on and was promptly thrown off himself.
Kanaman married at age 20. She met her husband, who grew up in Wisconsin, while he was working in the oil industry. They moved to California for a time before moving to Montana where the couple worked on several ranches and had three children. Kanaman loved the ranch life. She and her husband would saddle up their horses and ride into the mountains to round up cattle and bring them back down to the ranch for branding. She learned how to grab the calf’s flank and hog tie the calf so it could be branded and castrated. She broke horses in her spare time.
Ranch life could also be isolating, and the budget was always tight. “We had a lot of tough times,” Kanaman says, “But I really liked it.”
As the children grew older, though, the two decided it was best for their family’s future to move back to Wisconsin where they had extended family and job security.
They were without horses for several years until they bought their eldest daughter a horse for her 16th birthday. Kanaman trained her daughter’s horse and cared for the horse while she served in the Army. When her daughter was able to spend more time with her horse, Kanaman decided it was time to get her own.
Of course, she went back to the ranch in North Dakota where she had sold Blondie years ago. Deck A Girl, Blondie’s great granddaughter, stood in the pasture.
“She was totally wild,” says Kanaman of the young mare who had never even worn a halter. “She was scared nearly to death, but we got her in the trailer.”
Kanaman named the horse Dakota in honor of the state where they both grew up and hauled her back to Wisconsin and began the two-year process of training her (an injury delayed the horse from barrel racing until the age of four). By the time Dakota was six years old, the pair was qualifying for worlds at the NBHA.
Dakota, who is 8 years old, experienced an allergic reaction – possibly from the hay forage in Georgia – and experienced congestion, coughing and slower times during the several days leading up to the race. A veterinarian gave her steroids, but Kanaman says Dakota struggled.
“She still ran as best she could,” Kanaman says. “I am so proud of her; I could just cry some times.”
Kanaman, who won a saddle and blanket, boots and hat, horse feed and $1,000 for her race with Dakota, has bought and started training another two-year old horse named Solo every evening, as well as Dakota.
Kanaman, who says she thanks God every day for her life with the horse, adds that her human family and friends also provide incredible support.
“My husband has to fend for himself every evening, and it’s a lot of work,” Kanaman says. “But training horses is something I love. It’s my relaxation.”