AWENDAW – Tiffany Chavis is, in many ways, a typical teenager. She likes music, has a boyfriend and has big plans for the future.
A closer look, however, and you realize the Wando High School senior is one of a kind. It’s not that she likes wearing jeans, T-shirt and cowboy boots designed to look like a shark, or that she drives a Ford F250 pickup, or that her favorite country song is George Strait’s “I Can Still Make Cheyenne.” All those are clues, though, about her passion.
Chavis is one of the state’s top barrel racers, and as far as she knows the only one of the 3,700 Wando students who participates in rodeos.
Her sport is a 14- to 16-second dash that tests the athleticism of the horse and the rider’s skills as they complete a circuit around three barrels. There are occasional spills, Chavis said, and cutting too close to a barrel can lead to bruised knees but “you just have to cowgirl up and get over it.”
“It’s not just running around the barrels, though. It’s a bond with a 1,200-pound animal, a connection between something that can’t understand you and the ability to make them understand,” she said.
The 17-year-old senior has won her fair share of money and prizes competing in South Carolina’s District 04 of the National Barrel Horse Association (nbhasc04.com). Since acquiring her new horse Fred in February, Chavis has won approximately $2,500 in weekend competitions.
When she’s not at school, Chavis can usually be found helping to care for the 20 horses that are kept at the family’s barn.
“Cleaning stalls, that’s my life,” she said with a laugh.
Barrel races are usually part of a rodeo which also will include bull riding, bronco riding, pole bending, steer wrestling and other events. Standalone barrel races are called shows and there may be as many as 20 shows during the year for riders in South Carolina District 04. Three remain on this year’s schedule, including an event at 1 p.m. Saturday at her family’s Southern Star Arena, located off Seewee Road in Awendaw.
Barrel racing is an all-or-nothing competition. Rider and horse get one shot to post a time and luck of the draw can play a factor. The racing surface is dragged every five horses and if you are one of the first couple of riders your chances at winning are greatly improved. Competitions are graded on four levels, from 1D featuring the fastest horses and riders down to 1D. There also are divisions — youth, open, jackpot, senior and pee wee. Riders can enter different horses for each class in which they are eligible.
Barrel racing has become a worldwide event and has become especially popular in China and Brazil. The recent world show in Perry, Ga., drew approximately 3,000 entries. It’s not uncommon for top barrel racing horses to sell for $100,000, but it’s also a sport where a rider can compete in local events on a $500 horse.
Chavis’s father, Murray Chavis Jr., introduced his only child to horses at a very early age. Her mother Phyllis still recalls a day when she heard Murray yelling for her to look out the front door where he was holding 6-month-old Tiffany in the saddle of the horse he was riding.
“He rode bulls and barrel raced (in high school),” Chavis said of her father. “My momma, you’re lucky to get her on a horse.”
Chavis competed in horse shows when she was younger but grew to dislike those competitions because results were based on a judge’s opinion. She also was a standout pitcher in travel softball but gave that up when she took up barrel racing, a sport where she said the only judge is the clock.
“She does a great job and I’m very proud of her and what she’s accomplished over the last 5 or 6 years,” Phyllis said. “I don’t worry about her as much as I did when she was 4, 5 or 6 years old. Accidents do happen but she’s more experienced and knows what she’s doing.”
Chavis said her father is the reason she has been so successful in the sport. They work hard together and when she rides he is there to offer constructive criticism.
“I wouldn’t have any of this without my daddy. And I don’t tell him like I should,” she said.
When Chavis wanted to begin competing at a higher level in February, they bought Fred, a 10-year-old quarter horse from a distinguished bloodline. The offspring of Fred’s sire have won close to $4 million in barrel racing.
“She can run in the top five horses about anywhere she goes on Fred,” Murray said.
After graduating from high school, Chavis said she hopes to study to become an anesthesiologist “so I can afford to keep doing this.”
“As long as I can do it,” she said, “as long as I’ve got the ability to have the horses, I’ll keep doing it.”