As Kay Whitaker Young becomes one of an elite group of barrel racers who have been inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame, she reflects on the human hardships, honest industry service and extraordinary horses that got her there.

By Breanne Hill, originally published in October 2009

It is a muggy, stifling morning in Southern Oklahoma. The red maples have begun their fall blush and rain puddles the drive, yet the air remains thick with humidity and heavy with ongoing summer. There will be no cool air today.

Buttoning the cuffs of her long-sleeved shirt, a petite figure steps out of the grey daylight and into the shadowy quiet of the barn. This is Kay Whittaker Young. She moves quickly, smoothly, her eyes scanning the stalls for signs of the horses that are in her care. As if on a rotating cue, six heads appear one at a time over the stall doors, ears up, eyes glittering.

Satisfied the animals are all there, Young reaches a hand out to the first horse on her right, a mare with a weathered scar that crosses her forehead and dead ends at her right eye.

“They said she ran into a tree when she was little,” Young explains, hugging the horse’s massive head against her own tiny torso. The mare closes her eyes as Young strokes her jaw. “She’s a bit of a handful, but she likes her job.”

The mare’s “job” is barrel racing, and she and Young have a great deal in common. Both are destined to circle three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern, always seeking that faster time, that better way of traveling. And both bear the burden of old scars, although Young’s are not visible to the naked eye.

Kay Young headshot
Over the course of her more than 50-year career, Kay Young has become one of the most respected names in the barrel racing industry.

A self-made cowgirl, who counts seven National Finals Rodeo appearances and high futurity earnings among her career accomplishments, Young has also made a name for herself in the barrel racing industry as a loyal colleague, honest political figure, insightful mentor and incomparable trainer. For all of these reasons, the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame has chosen Young to be one of its five inductees in 2009.

The induction is an honor that was 63 years in the making, for Young was not an overnight sensation thanks to one big win. Nor has she ever tried to be a glamorous superstar, or even sought to promote herself. She is simply a horsewoman, and as any good hand will tell you, horsewomen are not made. They are born.

Kay Whitaker Young was born in Valentine, Neb., in the late 1940s. This is her story.

The Girl
Bill and Mary Anne Whitaker’s new daughter was a fussy baby, prone to mysterious stomachaches and colic. Had she been born today, doctors would have quickly recognized the fact that Young was “tongue tied,” a malady in which the skin that connects the tongue to the bottom of the mouth is elongated, making it difficult to speak and causing air to get trapped in the throat and stomach.

As it happened, however, Young went undiagnosed, and the Whitakers were at a loss for to what to do to ease their daughter’s pain. After trying countless remedies, they found only one solution that seemed to help Young—horseback riding. The family owned a sale barn and quickly assigned one worker to ride with the baby down the barn aisles to stop her from crying.

“I’m sure the motion of the horse pushed the air out,” Young says. “But the only thing they knew was that the only time I wasn’t fussy was when I was on horseback, so I can’t remember not riding horses.”

When she was still a toddler, Young’s parents decided to move to Bill’s home state of Alabama. It was there in Selma that two of Young’s siblings, John and Marie, were born, but the family’s time in Alabama was full of unrest. Social discord surrounding the civil rights movement prompted Bill and Mary Anne to move their children back to Nebraska when Young was 4 years old.

The Whitaker’s brief stint in Selma would still have a great impact on Young’s life. While in Alabama, Bill gained local attention for training a palomino Standardbred stallion to perform what Young describes as “zillions” of tricks.

“He was like Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger,” Young says of the stallion. “He was beautiful, and there were big write ups about my father and him.”

Bill took the inspiration he found working with horses and encouraged the same trait in his children. He rallied Young to become competitive by taking part in local horse shows and rodeo events for her age group.

Young didn’t need much prompting. She was more than happy to drag their only Quarter Horse broodmare in from the pasture to compete in a local American Quarter Horse Association show, or ride bulls and bareback broncs in Little Britches rodeo.

But while Young seemed to have the physical talent for wrangling stock, she was also no dummy. It didn’t escape her attention that the only equine sport in which the adult females were taking part was barrel racing.

“I knew nothing about barrel racing really,” Young says. “I just knew that when you went to the rodeo, the only event that was available for the women was barrel racing, so if I was going to do something with horses for a living, I knew that I’d better become a barrel racer. It was as simple as that.

“By the time I was 7, I made up my mind that I was going to run barrels, and that became pretty much all I wanted to do.”

In response to his daughter’s determination, Bill gave Young a filly by his treasured palomino stud to train as a barrel horse. Young was only 8 years old when she broke the filly to ride.

“I had that filly broke by the time it was a yearling,” Young recalls. “I had her running barrels at 2, and by the time she was 3, I had ruined her.”

Young admits to knowing nothing about training a horse when she started that first filly under saddle. All she knew to do was run the barrel pattern over and over again until both she and the horse were ready to drop from exhaustion.

Kay Young sitting on hrose
Young began training barrel horses at age 8, after noticing that it was the only rodeo event in which adult women competed.

“I would just keep going,” Young says, “and a horse that age is a baby. They can’t take it. She got to where she hated her job.”

The failure of that first training experience would influence Young for the rest of her career. Years later, the patience she taught herself to have would even separate her from other riders as a top trainer for young horses. Of course, she didn’t realize the impact of the lesson at the time. She was already in a race with herself to become a barrel racing champion.

The Teenager
The rodeo world that Young knew as a teenager was fresh and rowdy. The men leaned toward the wild side. The women were mavericks, and everyone was having a grand old time doing what they loved.

Despite the friendship among the different players in the events, barrel racers were at the bottom of the rodeo food chain in earnings and competitive respect.

“Rodeo at that time was not, for the women, very organized,” Young says. “There were good riders, but they were considered amateurs. There was no such thing as a professional barrel racer.”

The lack of organization didn’t bother Young. She was there for the horses and to show what she could do. When Young participated in her first major rodeo in Nebraska at the age of 12, her fellow competitors included such future legends as Wanda Bush and Florence Youree. Competing in other events were men such as Jim Shoulders and Casey Tibbs. It was a who’s who of influential characters, and Young was accepted as one of their own.

“Those people were at the peaks of their careers when I started,” Young says, “so I got to meet all of them. I was really lucky.”

To Young, rodeo seemed like one big party. Competitors, who might have three runs in four days, were left with a lot of free time on their hands to be social behind the scenes.

“It was a different time back then,” Young says. “Everyone wasn’t running once and then rushing to the next rodeo. We all really got to know each other. It wasn’t as businesslike as it is today. It was more of a social thing, and it was a slower pace.

“Plus, you weren’t running against 100 girls every time. If there were 30 or 40 barrel racers there, it was a huge group.”

As she settled into the rodeo scene, Young developed her first successful barrel horse, a half Thoroughbred, half Welch pony mare she called “Little Sis.” Young’s parents paid what was back then the princely amount of $400 for the mare, who was a bulldogging horse in South Dakota, but had the reputation of being able to turn the barrels.

“I was 13 when I began working with Little Sis,” Young says. “She was the first horse I ever placed and got a good check on. I remember it seemed as if that check would never come. I’d go to the mailbox every day looking for it.”

Little Sis’s relationship with Young was not without its problems, though. In fact, it was on Little Sis that Young claims to have learned her second major lesson in training barrel horses. That lesson came during a Dale and Florence Youree clinic in Fort Collins, Colo. Young had in tow her first mare by her father’s palomino stallion and Little Sis.

“At the clinic, everyone would run their horses while the Yourees evaluated you,” Young explains. “Well, I took my palomino filly in first, and she went through the pattern and was wonderful, no problem. And then I get on Little Sis. She turns the first barrel, and as she’s going into the second, she ducks her head, bucks me off and then jumps up and down on top of me. I wasn’t injured, but I was not happy that people saw that.”

Young says that after the incident, the Yourees introduced her to what is known as form to function in training, the belief that everything you do as a rider has an effect on what your horse does as an athlete.

“It really brought home to me that there was an order to everything,” Young says. “You don’t just go out there and ride and ride just to get through the pattern. That will eventually come back and bite you. If you want a certain result, you have to train a certain way to get it.”

Form to function was something Young worked on throughout her teenage years. By the time she was a senior in high school, she had perfected her methods enough to take on a new potentially great mount, a big, broad, bay roping horse named “Skeeter.”

“We didn’t have much money, let alone enough money to buy him,” Young remembers, “so my parents traded a registered Angus bull for him.”

The trade, and Young’s training methods, worked out for the best. Young took Skeeter to the 1964 National High School Finals Rodeo— and won.

Winning the title was a hint of what was up ahead for Young, but it wasn’t the only important part of her last trip to the NHSFR. Another fateful event occurred on her way to the finals when she stopped at the racetrack in Sioux City, Iowa, to have Skeeter shod. While there, Young met the successful Thoroughbred racehorse breeder Frank Carver and asked to take a look at his horses.

“I was walking up the aisles of the barn at the racetrack looking at his horses, and I got to this blue roan who was just so pretty,” says Young. “I just fell in love with him. “I told Frank, ‘I’d really like to have that horse. How much do you want for him?’ He said, ‘Well, how much money do you have?’”

Young explained that she had $250 in savings and could probably sell her palomino mare for $100. Carver told her that if she could pay him that $350, the horse was hers.

“When I got back from the finals, the horse was at my house,” Young says. “He was 2-years-old, and I rode him in amateur rodeos for a couple of years.”

Purchasing “Blue” set in motion a career defining sequence of events in Young’s career. The next plot twist in the sequence came in 1966, when Young was asked to find a barrel horse for her sister, Marie.

“I had heard about this big, tall bay horse, and I went to look at him for my sister,” Young recalls. “Well, I got there, and the trainer wouldn’t let me ride him. I found out later that this was because he bucked. But I’d heard he had a lot of potential, so I recommended him to my parents, and they bought him for my sister for $1,500.”

Young took the bay horse home with the understanding that she was to get him tuned up for Marie—a task that became a lot more dangerous than Young anticipated. The horse’s name was “Tiger,” and that was a pretty good description of the 16.3-hand, 1,300-pound gelding’s attitude. He was hot and uncooperative. He tried so hard to buck Young off that she began taking him on a daily trip to the sand pit, just so she could have a fair shot at getting on him and warming him up.

“He had a harder time bucking me off in the sand,” Young explains. “It was the only way I could think of to get the kinks out of him.”

After two weeks of working with Tiger, Young was asked by her parents to take him to a rodeo in Sioux City, where she was to hand him over to her sister. Both siblings were scheduled to compete in the rodeo, Young on Blue, and Marie on Tiger. Young ended up soundly beating Marie, a fact that did not sit well with the girls’ mother.

“My mom thought I’d gotten my sister a bad deal,” Young says. “So I said, ‘Well, if you think that, I’ll trade you my blue horse for the bay.’ They didn’t hesitate. They threw the blue horse in the trailer and took off.”

And with that, a new day dawned on Young’s barrel racing career.

The Rodeo Competitor
In a surprising twist of fate, Young learned that Tiger, like Blue, had been raised by Frank Carver.

Kay Young turning the barrel on horse Blue
“Blue” was the first of a string of horses that Young rode that were raised by the successful Thoroughbred breeder Frank Carver. Photo Courtesy of Kay Young

“Frank had gone to Texas to buy broodmares to cross back with his stallions,” Young says. “Tiger was at the side of one of the broodmares when he bought her.”

Young also found out that the trainer who had originally had Tiger grew to dislike him because of his fondness for bucking. Young, who had her fair share of struggles with the gelding, developed a slightly different view of Tiger’s attitude.

“He was a handful,” she says, “but he sure was a barrel horse.”

Young claims she turned Tiger into an efficient competitor just by riding him and by “listening to what he had to say.” Whatever Young did, it worked. Tiger, the horse that had been passed over by his first trainer and by Young’s own family, helped Young qualify for her first National Finals Rodeo in 1967.

“I think you had to have only $1,500 to qualify for the Finals back then,” Young says, “but none of us were winning very much back then, so that was not easy.”

Young’s primary memories of competing at the NFR in 1967 were that it was the first year the women were allowed to compete with the men in Oklahoma City, and that she was up against groundbreaking riders such as Fay Ann Leach, Florence Youree, Sis Armstrong and Sammie Thurman.

The kid from Nebraska and her horse with attitude had a rocky introduction to the NFR ranks that year. They only placed in one round—second in round 9—for $109 in prize money. Still, Young was satisfied with her year. She finished 14th overall in the 1967 Girls Rodeo Association (later the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association) world standings with $2,360 in total money earned.

Luckily, that was only the first of two chapters in Tiger and Young’s joint NFR story. They once again qualified for the big show in 1968, and this time, they were one of the teams to beat. Young and Tiger tied for first in the first round and then tied again for a 2/3/4 in the second round. The duo scored second place in round three and then finished in a four-way tie in the fourth and fifth rounds. Young’s overall performance helped her slide into second place in the world standings for the year. The $518 she earned at the NFR combined with her yearly earnings to give her a grand total of $8,271 for 1968.

For Young, the finish was a justification that she was right in believing in her difficult horse.

“There weren’t as many good horses back then to compete against,” says Young, “but I truly believe that if I had Tiger, I could go out there on him today and still be right near the top. He was that good.”

Tiger and Young qualified for the NFR once more in 1969, but financial reality prompted Young to make a difficult decision before she could make it to the Finals. When Nebraskan Joyce White offered almost as much as Young’s total earnings from the previous year for Tiger, Young took the money and let him go.

“We were only getting about $150 for winning a round at the NFR then,” Young says. “They weren’t giving us equal money. They were giving us whatever they wanted, and it was very hard to make ends meet, so when I was offered $7,500 for Tiger, I had to sell him.”

The decision to sell Tiger left Young in a tight spot for the 1969 NFR. She had a qualification and no horse. With no other choice, Young borrowed a bulldogging mount named “Shorty” from her friends, Barry and Joyce Burke.

“I don’t think I ever got Shorty around the barrels,” Young says. “I don’t think I placed in any way at the finals that year.”

She didn’t. Young and Shorty earned $0 at the 1969 NFR and didn’t come close to placing in a round. Nevertheless, Young finished the year in sixth place in the world standings, thanks to her previous $5,051 worth of rides on Tiger.

For the next couple of years, Young was absent from the NFR scene as she searched for another champion. She found her next qualifier in another Frank Carver horse, a gelding named “Sand Burr,” on whom she made the finals in 1972. Once again, however, money was tight, and she sold Sand Burr before the Finals. This time, however, Young had a much better last-minute substitution, Sand Burr’s sister, “Suzie.”

Young and Suzie placed second in the first round, fourth in the third round, fourth in the seventh round, second in the eighth round, second in the ninth round, and tied for first in the tenth round. Although she only earned $158 at the NFR that year, Young secured the number seven spot in the 1972 world standings with earnings totaling $5,927.

It was on Suzie that Young also competed in the first Texas Barrel Racing Association Futurity in 1972. At the time, the TBRA was one of only two prominent futurities in the United States, the other being the Fort Smith Futurity. Young immediately found herself drawn to the idea of futurities, both for the challenge they presented trainers to prepare younger horses for competition and for the instant, and often impressive, purses they offered.

“I really loved the futurities from the start,” Young says. “If you liked training hoses, like I did, it seemed like a great avenue to go down. It was just a totally different mindset than the rodeos.”

Though she recognized the opportunities futurities presented, Young knew that to be successful in 1970s barrel racing, you had to work the rodeo circuit, so in 1973, she once again scored an NFR qualification with Suzie.

The duo won $79 at the NFR that year, placing only one time, fourth in the second round. They finished 13th in the world in 1973, with total earnings equaling $4,937.

“I sold that mare after that,” Young says, “and went back to the drawing board again for a horse.”

As was usually the case in Young’s career, the end of one horse relationship led to the chance to work with another talented equine athlete. Thus, Young’s last great rodeo horse to date was first brought to her attention in Pendleton, Ore. The gelding was a failed calf roping horse—failed because he couldn’t back up. Not knowing what else to do with him, his owner had turned him out to pasture.

Young heard about the horse, saw him and asked to ride him for a few days. She spent three days with the gelding, went to his owner and said, “I like the horse. I want to buy him.”

The price that the owner quoted Young was far too expensive for her budget, but Young had an ace in her pocket. She had a filly that the owner’s father coveted. A trade was arranged, and Young got her horse. His name was “Madruga.”

Paired with Madruga, Young made her final glorious runs at the NFR. In 1976, a year in which the world champion barrel racer was decided by NFR earnings, not yearly earnings, Young and Madruga made their first Finals appearance together. Their first run out was completed in 16.76 seconds— enough for top honors in round one. They also placed fourth in round four, first in round five, tied for first in round six and tied for 3/4 in the seventh round.

The change in how the world champion was decided didn’t really affect Young’s standings. She came in fourth in the NFR with $1,995 and fourth in the season standings with $10,464. She and Madruga were back again in 1977. That year was not as successful as the previous one. They only placed in two rounds (second in the fifth round and third in the eighth round) and came in ninth in the NFR standings with $950. But Madruga did help Young earn the highest annual rodeo salary of her career that year—$16,880—which sealed her in at second place in the season standings.

For nearly a decade, the Nebraska cowgirl had turned and burned with the best of them. She’d gathered pennies together to make it down the road to the next rodeo. She’d made a name for herself as a top barrel racer with a talent for finding one great horse after another. But by 1977, Young was weary of the rodeo roller coaster. After selling Madruga, she made the life-altering decision to quit rodeoing and become a stay-at-home trainer instead.

“I just got tired of going,” she says. “Back then, you couldn’t win that much. I’d sell my horses, and it would sound like a lot of money, but it never lasted long when you had to live on it and get another horse trained on it. Staying on the road is not cheap, and I was being pulled in another direction. I just followed the pull.”

The President
After retiring from the rodeo circuit, Young chose to concentrate on training horses, competing in futurities and serving the barrel racing industry. Although it was contrary to Young’s nature to “politic,” or even speak in public, she participated in the care and well being of the barrel racing world. For example, she joined the Barrel Futurities of America’s Board of Directors at its inception and held the position for a total of 19 years.

“I got into the politics because I believe in right,” she says. “I can honestly say that I’ve never made any decision while I was on any board that I thought was for my personal gain. Any decision I made, I always felt like it was for the good of the associations.”

Young’s biggest political challenge, however, came in 1977. That year, she was serving as vice president of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, when President Sammie Thurman resigned. Young accepted the role of President in Thurman’s stead and sought to do the best she could with the circumstances she’d been given.

For starters, when given the right to appoint her own vice president, Young chose the intelligent, charismatic former rodeo queen Pam Minnick. Together, Young and Minnick worked on what Young considered the biggest project of her presidency—a 20-minute film campaigning for equal money for barrel racers in rodeo.

“We were really trying to get equal money at the time,” Young says, “so we made this reel-to-reel film to show to the rodeo committees. Now, at the time, the committees didn’t care if they had amateur barrel racing or not. They really just wanted the women there to ride in the grand entry. To sell the sport and get equal money, we had to show that we were an asset.”

The WPRA film highlighted the rodeo crowd’s excited reaction to barrel racing and featured a survey that showed barrel racing was second only to bull riding in spectator popularity.

“We really promoted barrel racing,” Young says, “and we got a lot of equal money barrel races because of it.”

Despite the success of the film, Young feels that the best decision she made during her presidency was to say no when the company that owned the rights and licenses to the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association’s properties asked to buy the rights and licenses of the WPRA, as well.

“I wouldn’t do it,” Young says. “That’s probably the only smart decision I ever made is that we were able to hang on to those properties.”

Young’s time as the head of women’s rodeo was short and sweet. When her term was up, she turned in her gavel, electing to not try and serve another year on the board.

“I didn’t do it again because I didn’t feel I was a very good business person,” she says. “I’m not good at making speeches. I’m just not a real people person. I’m a horseperson.”

The Teacher
And so the horseperson went back to working full time with her horses. Young’s futurity career and her subsequent wins form a list that would make a good-sized book. Horses such as Too Quick Dude, or “Pitch,” on whom she won the 1985 BFA World Championship, made her an honest-to-goodness futurity star, and she hasn’t looked back since.

“She quickly made the transition from rodeo to futurity competition, and again landed at the top there where she’s stayed for decades,” says veteran barrel racing journalist and photographer Kenneth Springer, who has covered Young’s career. “And, of course, she’s a threat at any 4D she enters.”

These days, however, Young prefers to stick to competitions that keep her within driving range of her Overbrook, Okla., ranch. She has several reasons for tending to be a homebody, not the least of which is her family. Rocky romantic relationships dotted Young’s life when she was a young woman, but 25 years ago, she met and married a man who would end all that—Sam Young.

“I met him at a rodeo,” Young says. “He was a bulldogger who made the circuit finals, did really well and then tore his rotator cuff in his shoulder twice and had to quit.

“I think our marriage has made it this long because he’s tolerant. That’s important because I can be a pain in the butt.”

Sam not only brought stability to Young’s personal life, he gave her an opportunity she’d never anticipated having—the chance to be a mother. At age 41, Young became pregnant with her first child.

“I was the only rider in the Old Timers race who was pregnant,” she says.

Young rode horses almost until it was time to give birth to her son, Zachary Scott Young.

Although Young never planned on having children, she says now she doesn’t know what she would do without Zach.

“He’s a good rider and helps me with the horses,” she says. “I couldn’t do what I do now without him.”

Zach says even when he was learning to barrel race, his mother stayed in “patient trainer” mode, never screaming or becoming angry like some of the other parents.

“My mom is a great teacher,” he says. “She teaches her riding students that you learn from the horses. The more you ride, the more hands on you are and the more you listen, the more you learn.”

This respectful relationship with horses is one that permeates Young’s training program.

Kella Figueroa, who has owned a number of Young’s top futurity mounts, including her 2008 Jud Little Barrel Bash and 2009 PacWest Barrel Safari champion, First Z Aimee, says it is that understanding, honest thread of emotion that made her choose Young to work with her horses.

“Kay is a great horsewoman,” Figueroa says. “She can evaluate a horse pretty quickly, and she’ll tell you what she thinks, whether or not you want to hear it. As an owner, I really appreciate that about her.

“She also doesn’t treat her horses like machines. She works with them. She doesn’t make them work with her. You can pick up on the horses’ affection for her immediately. She’s a wonderful hand.”

Young is truly lion-hearted when it comes to her horses. She’s fierce about their healthcare, and she hasn’t forgotten the lesson she learned working with her first horse when she was 8.

“I’m probably not as aggressive or as intense as others might be,” she says, “because when I get through with them, I want finished horses that can go on to be good rodeo horses. So I might ride them intensely and then back off. I just take it slow, and I very seldom have any horse regress. I think this is because I only ask them what they’re capable of doing.”

Young treats each of her horses as an individual. She refuses to name favorites because, as she says, it would be like asking a mother to “name her favorite child.” And aside from correct conformation, she also claims to not look for a certain type of horse physically.

Kay Young riding horse Tiger around the barrel
Young and her first National Finals Rodeo qualifier, “Tiger.”

“All of my horses have been different, some tall and lanky, some short and stocky,” she says, “so I can’t say if one will be better than the other based on looks.”

There is only one trait that Young says all of her champion horses have had—heart.

“Some of them were hard to train, hard to work with,” she says, “but once you got them there, they had lots of heart and try.

“In the barrel industry today, we have a lot of opportunities to learn, we have so much knowledge. The days when you’d go to a futurity, like in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and everybody’s horse would be running off with them are over. We as riders and owners can learn how to get our horses through the basics of barrel racing because there is so much knowledge out there.

“But what makes one horse a champion after they know the basics and one not?” she asks. “That’s the burning question. I think it all comes back to heart and try. You can teach a horse to go around the barrels, and you might get them to win every once in a while, but that won’t last for long. They have to like what they’re doing, and they have to want to become a champion.”

When describing her horse career, Young believes that for all the roles she’s played, first and foremost she has been and continues to be a trainer.

“I think I’m a trainer, and I’d like to be considered a horsewoman,” she says. “I would be very flattered to be thought of as that. With horses, it’s a mind game as much as a physical game. They’re like people. They have their own personalities. They have their likes and dislikes. Some days, they don’t have good days. Being a horseperson means being able to recognize those traits and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to meet you halfway.’”

The Kay of Today
Five years ago, a breast cancer diagnosis put Young’s riding career temporarily on hold. Like most challenges in her life, Young faced the diagnosis practically and with single-minded determination, opting for a double mastectomy.

“I didn’t have any insurance, so I had a double mastectomy,” she says, shrugging. “I couldn’t afford chemotherapy or radiation, so it was the cheapest way for me to take care of it. The second thing was, the most likely place for it to come back would have been my other breast, and it was pretty fast growing, so it was the best choice for me.

“I was back riding 30 days later.”

Though she shies from talking about having cancer, Young will say that she feels lucky to have retained the range of motion in her arms and to have had very few side affects.

Anyone close to Young wouldn’t be surprised by her lack of dramatics, even when discussing something as potentially life-changing as cancer. She is, at her core, an introverted, tell-it-like-it-is cowgirl, who is still more comfortable with horses than with people.

These personality quirks came up again in May of 2009 when her son, Zach, had to inform her friends that she’d been chosen to become a member of the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

“Zach was the one who let it out,” Figueroa says. “Kay would never have said anything! She’s not at all boastful. That’s just Kay. She’s not going to tell you a whole lot about herself.”

And perhaps that is why her friends and family are so happy that she’s being recognized by the Hall of Fame.

“Kay is one of the most under-recognized icons of the sport,” Springer says. “She is tough, mentally and physically, yet soft and kind. Kay is a straight-shooter with a great wit. I feel privileged to call her my friend.”

Just in case her stoic sense of self fools anyone, Young claims she is excited about being inducted into the Hall of Fame, even if her mind does wander to her peers who have yet to be so recognized.

“I’m flattered to be inducted,” she says. “Who wouldn’t be?

“But I am surprised Sammie Thurman isn’t in there.”

Cowgirl Hall of Fame induction or not, come hell or high water, one thing is certain—Young will continue to make the walk down to her barn every morning, saddle her young horses and look deeply into each one of them for that next champion barrel racer.

“You know what I get out of being around horses?” she asks. “It’s not easy. If anybody could make a winner, what would the world be like? If you could go win first on every horse, what would the challenge be?

“It’s tough to make one want to do their job and win, to bring out the good points and put the bad points away. That’s the challenge—and I love it.”


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