DIXON — Day after day, 14-year-old Molly Weinzierl sat in the sand, a pile of hay on her lap, waiting for the perpetually spooked horse resting nearby to get hungry enough to come over.
“He was terrified of men in cowboy hats and damn near untouchable,” said Weinzierl, now 18 and a senior at Dixon High School.
She recalled multiples times Reno — an American quarter horse with the scars to prove past mistreatment — became so frightened that he ripped out the hitching post he was tied to and took off toward the nearby road, bringing the roughly 4-foot-long log with him. Weinzierl believes a past owner tried to train Reno to barrel race and beat him in an attempt get him to turn in the proper direction.
Aggression and terror are about the worst mixture one can get in a horse, said Weinzierl, who lives in Dixon Township with Sally Cooper in order to care for Reno and her other animals.
Cooper is a family friend and is the one who bought Reno for her. It was an unexpected purchase, as Weinzierl had gone with her to the sale barn where to look for tact, not a new horse.
But, the moment she saw Reno, she knew he would be hers.
The person selling Reno had pulled him and another horse out of the auction when they didn’t go for a good enough price, Weinzierl said. If she hadn’t bought him, there’s a chance Reno could have gone to slaughter.
“I knew that he was going to end up being a good horse, but there was something off about him,” she said. “I knew that there was something kind of deeper going on. And they almost seemed too calm, to a point where we think — I don’t know 100% for sure — but we think that they might have been drugged.”
Their behavior changed drastically following a few days of quarantine back at Cooper’s, Weinzierl said. The other horse couldn’t be saddled without bucking and ended up being resold as a bronc, while Reno’s fear and aggression came out.
It took several months to earn Reno’s trust, Weinzierl said. But today, she can put the 3-year-old neighbor on Reno and he’ll carry the girl around like a crate of eggs.
“[I was] just waiting for him to finally kind of click and start seeing some gears turn in his head, because he really was stubborn and he wanted to be his own thing,” she said. “But, from the beginning, I knew that there was something about him that was just going to be so awesome once I finally got his trust, and that’s how it has been.”
Weinzierl started riding in December 2016 and, by Day Three, was out riding by herself. As soon as she realized how much she enjoyed the sport, Weinzierl learned everything she could about horses and horseback riding.
“It’s a huge passion of mine, and I hope that I can do it for as long as possible,” she said.
Weinzierl is part of the Palmyra Hillbillies 4-H group in Lee County, as well as a member of the Ogle County 4-H Horse Drill Team. She joined the drill team with Reno after seeing them in the 2019 Autumn on Parade’s Harvest Time Parade.
Lee County doesn’t have a horse drill team, so 4-H’ers from surrounding counties can be part of the Ogle County team, Weinzierl explained.
The Ogle County 4-H Horse Drill Team is a group of 4-H members ages 8 to 18 who perform “with classic drill team precision while promoting good horse etiquette and riding skills,” according to an informational flyer from the Ogle County Extension office.
“It’s like a dance team, but on horses,” Weinzierl said. “It’s definitely something that I was like, ‘What is this?’ But it sounded like so much fun because it does have a speed aspect to it.”
The horse drill team didn’t practice or meet up in 2020, so it wasn’t until this year that she got a chance to know her four teammates. They practiced at the Ogle County Fairgrounds and took part in some exhibitions and parades in 2021, but didn’t participate in any competitions, Weinzierl said.
“The parades are a totally different ballgame,” she said. “You’re walking through crowds of screaming children, which was definitely a challenge for Reno at first. But now he’s just like, ‘OK, whatever. We’re just going to walk this way. All right, that’s fine.’”
Reno, whose registered name is Ebs Little Reno, is just like Sam Elliott’s character in the show “The Ranch,” Weinzierl said. The 16-year-old horse — whose height is 14.1 hands — is a like “burly grandpa” until it’s time to take part in speed events.
“Then he gets all excited and acts like a 5-year-old [human],” she said.
Both of them are fans of speed, Weinzierl said, so when searching for a riding event in which to take part, that factor was a must.
They tried to do mounted shooting, but Reno was too distracted when the balloons disappeared, she said. In the end, they landed on barrel racing.
A barrel race is an electronically timed event during which horses and their riders circle around three identical barrels set in a cloverleaf pattern. The barrels are not weighted. Participants must race around the barrels without knocking them over.
“Going almost 30 miles an hour on the back of a 1,000-pound animal? Oh, yeah, let’s just go do that for fun,” joked Weinzierl, a self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie. “It’s definitely an interesting hobby. On top of that, knowing how close Reno and I are now, kind of just our bond and knowing that it’s something that he loves, that then makes me happy too.”
Weinzierl said she looked through some of the videos she has from when she trained Reno to barrel race and the difference between then and now is “night and day.”
Because Reno had been abused while being trained to barrel race, there were some bumps in the road, Weinzierl said. However, he trusted her enough by that point to let it happen.
“It was really cool to see kind of the flip, the way he kind of turned his gears in his head and he was, ‘Oh, OK, this is kind of cool. She’s kind of cool. We’re going to hang out with her,’” she said.
By 2019, they were ready to perform and compete in rodeos and 4-H fairs. However, the COVID-19 pandemic kept them from doing so.
They went to their first barrel race in July, and Reno “did better than I could have ever asked him for,” Weinzierl said. She plans to take part in competitions with Reno next year, although they do have some kinks to work out before then.
It doesn’t really matter to her what kind of event they do, Weinzierl said. If Reno chose to do dressage one day, that’s what they’d do, she said.
“Whatever makes him happy is kind of where I’m going,” Weinzierl said. “I don’t care what it is. As long as my Bear [Reno’s nickname] is happy, I’m good with that.”