Shayla Staab buried the brim of her suede hat into her phone, pushing through disappointment to see what went wrong. The 16-year-old barrel racer had just completed her first run of the competition and was already analyzing videos. 

“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Shayla signed to her dad before brushing off her light denim jeans and walking away in search of advice. 

Despite her disappointment, Shayla left the Lancaster County event center on March 9 with a first place win in her division. Not bad for someone who is mostly self-taught.

Unlike most of her fellow competitors, Shayla comes from a family with no rodeo experience. Her father, Russell Staab, owns a locksmith company in Broken Bow and her mother, Daisy, is a rural mail carrier. Neither grew up with horses. 

Shayla has relied on YouTube tutorials and mentorship from other riders to learn the art of barrel racing. 

Now three years in, the girl from Broken Bow – the proud daughter of deaf parents who taught herself to race – has her sights on reaching the Cinch Junior World Championships in Las Vegas later this year. 

I want to be someone that other people can look to and know you can start from nothing and be something, especially when my parents are deaf,” Shayla said.

Broken Bow beginnings

Russell and Daisy Staab didn’t need words to notice their daughter’s love for horses. When she was around 2 years old, they watched Shayla gravitate toward horse-themed Lego sets and cowgirl Barbies. 

“I was everything horses,” she recalled. “I wanted a horse so bad, even my shirts had horses on them.” 

Noticing her daughter’s fascination, Daisy Staab tried to bring Shayla around horses whenever she could. That wasn’t too challenging in a community with deep rodeo roots. 

All-Around Champion Cowboy Paul Tierny and State All-Around Cowgirl Jayde Atkins both grew up in Broken Bow, a frequent host of the Mid-States Finals Rodeo.

“We were very fortunate to have wonderful neighbors and friends that would let her ride their horses and interact with them,” Daisy Staab wrote. “She was in heaven every time.” 

In 2013, the Staabs started building a home and barn on the outskirts of town. They dreamed of the day Shayla would have her own horse.

During the build, neighbors John and Dorsett Sennett let Shayla borrow their horse Vinny. They also let her use the riding arena on their property, which has become a practice ground for the next generation of riders.

She comes over in good weather, bad weather,” said John Sennett, a former professional rodeo rider. “She's a really dedicated young woman.”

When the Staabs were finally able to buy Shayla her first horse in 2015, they unknowingly purchased a performance horse. The horse, Tega, was too aggressive and unpredictable for 7-year-old Shayla. 

“I was just so intimidated by her,” she recalled.

Shayla and her mom started selling bath bombs, soaps, and homemade deodorants so they could buy a gentler horse. They raised nearly $2,000 and bought Crowbar, an older bay gelding. Shayla’s confidence soared, and after about a year she was ready to return to Tega.

“We've had the opportunity to see her move from riding a dog-gentle horse to now,” Sennett said. “It's refreshing to see somebody progress like her.”

Shayla became intrigued with barrel racing in 2020 when a cousin started entering races. 

She started studying countless YouTube videos on barrel racing and training horses. She picked up on the subtle interactions between horse and rider – the softness of the horse's ribs in competitions and the ways horses responded to their owners. 

“She was literally obsessed,” Daisy Staab wrote. “It was all she would watch.”

The Sennetts noticed Shayla setting up barrels and practicing runs in the arena. They assumed someone had taught her.

“I honestly don't know who taught her to ride,” Sennett said. “Whoever it was did a really good job, in my opinion.”

When the Sennetts learned that Shayla had only attended one clinic and learned the rest herself, they weren’t surprised.

“Because of the uniqueness of her family, she does a lot of things that young ladies her age don't do, or don't try to do,” Sennett said. “So no, that doesn’t shock us at all.”

Daisy Staab said she still struggles at times to believe the confident and skilled racer is her daughter. 

“She got herself here because she taught herself to barrel race,” she wrote. 

Shayla has suffered her share of bumps and bruises. She fell off Vinny, knocking a tooth out. She has been bucked three times. Her newest mare, Kitty, shoved her in a corner and kicked her in the hip. She could barely walk.

“I sat in the chair all day crying,” Shayla said. “My mom was scared to death, but I still got back on her. Nothing is going to take me away from them.” 

Shayla’s mornings are often spent riding horses and tending to chores before heading to her part-time job at a local fabric store. Afternoons are spent cleaning pens. She fits in homeschooling either in the morning or evening, depending on her schedule. By the weekend, she’s ready to hit the road.

‘My weekends are like my home’

Shayla bolted across the gravel parking lot when she saw Jaden Claire’s trailer roll into the event center. 

Jaden, 16, lives in Palmyra, Iowa, and met Shayla at another Lincoln competition in 2022.

“I made the first move by telling her I liked her shirt,” Jaden said. “From there we started hanging out and became part of the same friend group.”

The two spend most of their time together at competitions, videoing each other's practice runs, picking out racing outfits and warming up together.

A typical competition includes an exhibition run on Friday, followed by races on Saturday and Sunday. Times are divided into divisions and winners in each division share the jackpot money. Most racers finish the runs between 15 and 18 seconds, depending on the arena’s size. If a barrel is knocked over, the run is disqualified.

In the seconds leading up to a run, Shayla said her mind goes blank. Freshly groomed dirt awaits her. The stop clock hanging above the gates counts to a thousandth of a second.

I mean, you're looking at that first barrel thinking about what you need to do,” Shayla said. “But you don’t want to think so much because then you’re not going to do any of it.” 

While Shayla tries to lock in, her parents watch nervously.

"Always butterflies in our stomach when she is ready to make her run,” the Staabs wrote. “The most important part is Shayla and the mare running get home safe.”

The Staabs have poured a lot into Shayla’s passion – time, money, effort. With entry fees, gas and hotel expenses, a weekend competition usually costs the family over $600. Sometimes they leave with nothing.

“They're putting all their money into me and when I don't bring back home money, I feel guilty about it,” Shayla said. “But I know they are proud of me no matter what I do.”

In her recent competitions in Lincoln, Shayla's hard work paid off. Her first and second place finishes netted her almost $400 in prize money.

“You come here and it's all your time and effort, but it's not only the money that makes me happy. It's being here in general,” Shayla said. “My weekends are like my home.” 

Racing toward the future 

While Shayla sprints toward her racing dreams, her parents are doing their best to keep up.

“Shayla will have to sign for us because I want to learn as much as I can,” Daisy Staab wrote. At times, it can feel like she’s burdening her daughter.

Shayla often finds herself in the role of interpreter during competition announcements, vet appointments and other verbal interactions. It’s just part of her life, she said. Her younger brother, Ryker, is hard of hearing and two of her grandparents are deaf. 

Daisy Staab said the rodeo community has been welcoming and supportive as the Staabs navigate the barrel racing world.

People like the Claire family. They were the first to lend a hand when Tega was injured at a competition in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The Claires don’t know sign language, but the families are able to understand each other through reading lips and typing on a phone.

Barrel racing has brought Shayla closer to her parents.

“And my dad is with me every weekend,” Shayla said. “So we always get kicks and giggles together.”

Daisy Staab is grateful her daughter found barrel racing. Had her interests taken her in a different direction, such as basketball, they wouldn’t have all the time together as a family. 

“We cherish the traveling time we have with her,” Daisy Staab wrote.

When Shayla first started barrel racing in 2020, she clocked a 19.8. She now runs around 16 seconds. She sees this as just the beginning.  

Shayla wants to keep working on Kitty, get her time down, and start qualifying for bigger competitions.

“Sometimes I have to remember I’m only 16,” Shayla said. “Everybody starts somewhere.” 

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