By Patrick Yost
As Gillian Ray, an 18-year-old, soon-to-be graduate of Morgan County High School, sits on a bench inside a barn with sawdust whipping in the wind, her lipstick seems out of place.
Not that it’s smeared or the wrong color, but for this lean girl with long straight hair wearing broken-in blue jeans and pointed cowboy boots, the makeup appears unnecessary.
This same girl is a master in an arena. Her mother, Ronnie Jo Shelnutt, beams as she shows a video of Gillian’s craft, her work. There she is, astride a 1,200-pound quarterhorse named Mayes Sweetheart that Gillian bought in 2016 as a 3-year-old and has been training to run barrels ever since. And there she goes, ripping across a starting line under the glaring lights of a rodeo arena, commanding the horse to cut tight corners and then lurching way forward on her way to the finish line. In the video, Gillian roars by in a blur.
You can’t see her lipstick in the video but you can see the heart in both the girl and the horse.
Gillian was raised in a “big ‘ol barn,” her mother says, off Bethany Road. Chickens escape a fence and run under foot and two spotted cow dogs lounge in a lush field watching cars and trucks arrive. The “big ‘ol barn” has been where countless girls and boys have learned to ride, care for animals and where Gillian says she was literally raised among the sawdust stalls filled with horses.
Somewhere along the way, she learned some valuable skills.
Gillian has earned a spot on the Erskine College rodeo team. Last Wednesday, Erskine College Head Coach Kelly McAlhaney drove to the barn on Bethany Road, set up an Erskine College banner on a table in the barn and welcomed Gillian to the team. Surrounded by saddles, her spurs and her dusty cowboy hat, Gillian signed an agreement to join the college and the team. Her mother and father, Billy W. Ray, and grandparents, Ronnie and Jeanie Shelnutt and Paula and Ronnie Ray, along with Gillian’s brother, Sam, attended the ceremony.
“She’s a down-to-earth girl,” McAlhaney said of Gillian. “We can’t wait to watch her compete.”
Gillian will be one of 12 members of the school’s rodeo team. The “Flying Fleet” competes in the Ozark Region of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. Gillian and her horse Mayes Sweetheart and a second horse, Bayou, will travel to Due West, S.C. in the fall, in a horse trailer given to Gillian as an 18th birthday present, to begin preparing for the rodeo season. McAlhaney said the team competes in five rodeos each semester ranging from local events to travels to Arkansas and farther west.
As part of the agreement, Gillian will also work in the school’s barn while she works on a forensics degree with a minor in art.
She will compete for the Flying Fleet in barrel racing and break-away roping, a discipline she started to learn last September.
And she’s ready to go, she says, to learn and compete on a national stage. Growing up around the animals under the tutelage of her family, she says, has been grounding and, frankly, fun. “It’s like an amusement park,” she says. “It’s like riding a roller coaster.”
On Wednesday, her ride was ascending.