A ride with a mind of its own

Mellisa Hollingsworth says the biggest difference between piloting her horse Rascal around barrels and navigating a sliding track with her sled is that her sled doesn’t have personality.

Olympic skeleton racer Mellissa Hollingsworth and her horse Rascal compete in the barrel racing event at the Airdrie Pro Rodeo in Airdrie on Wednesday.

Olympic skeleton racer Mellissa Hollingsworth and her horse Rascal compete in the barrel racing event at the Airdrie Pro Rodeo in Airdrie on Wednesday.

Mellisa Hollingsworth says the biggest difference between piloting her horse Rascal around barrels and navigating a sliding track with her sled is that her sled doesn’t have personality.

Hollingsworth, a bronze medallist at this year’s world skeleton championship and former overall World Cup champ, is competing on the professional rodeo circuit this summer in barrel racing.

She’s the latest Olympian to delve into a second sport at an elite level. World champion ski cross racer Chris Del Bosco is racing downhill World Cup mountain bike races this summer.

Hollingsworth’s reasons echo Del Bosco’s in that she wants to keep her competitive edge sharp over the summer, when she would normally do off-season training for skeleton.

“I just felt like I needed to be in more pressure, competitive situations,” Hollingsworth says. “You only get eight opportunities throughout the winter time. I’ve been doing this sport a long time and I just feel like I needed more opportunity to be in that mental competitive state.”

Hollingsworth, from Eckville, had barrel raced at a local level in recent years, but the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association (CPRA) circuit is a major step up.

“It’s really big actually,” she admits.

“It’s probably not the most conventional way to go about this. Usually, you would buy an amateur card and continue to jackpot, but I just decided to go and buy my pro card.”

The 29-year-old has raced skeleton in two Winter Olympics, winning bronze in 2006 and finishing fifth in 2010. Hollingsworth intends to compete in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

The parallels between riding a sled and sitting on a horse are many, she says, as both require finding the fastest angles, having good balance and not making mistakes.

“With the speed and the lines you are trying to take and your self-awareness — how I am on my sled and compare that to my state on my horse — you feel all those consequences if you are not balanced,” she explained.

While she travels with an exercise bike and continues the core-strength workouts designed for skeleton, Hollingsworth says barrel racing is keeping her in shape for the upcoming skeleton season.

“I find riding, I feel in great shape and I feel so strong,” she said.

“We’re throwing bales around and I’m moving a 90-pound generator around a couple times a day. It’s grunt, ranch-type work that we’re doing all the time.”

Hollingsworth competed at the Airdrie Pro Rodeo north of Calgary on Wednesday and had an unofficial time of 21.07 seconds in her opening event. She won’t find out if she has won any money until competition wraps up on Saturday.

Hollingsworth attended a barrel-racing clinic in March conducted by Dee Butterfield, a former Canadian champion who says Hollingsworth and Rascal have made big strides in the sport.

“I’m actually amazed how much she’s improved in that time, both she and her horse,” Butterfield said from Ponoka, Alta. “She’s improved her skill level a lot, more than you would normally see in that time.”

Butterfield attributes Hollingsworth’s rapid improvement to the fact she’s among the world’s best in another sport.

“I would contribute it to that fact, that she is an athlete, and her determination to improve,” Butterfield said. “She takes something on and she gets serious about it.”

Hollingsworth and Rascal didn’t win a cheque at their first seven pro rodeos.

“It’s an expensive way to maintain my mental training,” Hollingsworth laughed.

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