Kylie Whiteside

KEEPING IT 100

Charles McKay believes it’s important to continue evolving the conversation around inclusivity in barrel racing as a professional sport. Sheila Armstrong Photography.

This model slash influencer, slash broker and barrel racer has an impressive list of credentials on his resume. His positive attitude and continued conversation around inclusivity in barrel racing makes him a game-changer for the ages.

By Aleesha Harris

Charles McKay of Vancouver, BC, recalls with a laugh, the transaction that garnered him his first horse. 

“My mom traded our neighbour up the street a case of beer for this 26-year-old, half-dead horse that they had,” McKay says. “Her name was Shelly.”

Introduced to horses by his aunt and uncle, Sandy Douglas, an avid barrel racer and her husband, Lincoln Douglas, a professional chuckwagon racer, McKay and his sister Megan fell in love with horseback riding. Eventually they tagged along with their aunt and uncle to ride at the variety of events throughout British Columbia they hauled to.
 
“We travelled to all the Little Britches rodeos and my aunt and uncle took us all over BC, wherever my uncle was competing at the time with the chuckwagons” McKay recalls of his introduction to rodeo and gymkhana events. Noting the siblings’ horse hobby wasn’t likely to lessen any time soon, the horses were moved from the Douglas’ farm to the McKay family home in Chilliwack, BC, so the kids could focus even more on their horsemanship. 

“It kind of just took off from there,” McKay says of his involvement in the horse industry. “I’ve never really looked back since.”

McKay got Shelly when he was in the third grade. He’s 33 now. Safe to say, his horsepower has evolved from that first, senior-aged mare, though. 

“Quite a bit,” McKay confirms with a laugh.

Like many young riders, McKay’s evolution in horsepower was a gradual one. From that bought-for-a-beer sorrel Appaloosa mare, he was given an old Arabian show horse by long-time Chilliwack horse trainer and family friend, Tom Berry. 

“He was super broke,” McKay recalls of the gelding. “And I ended up training that horse for all the gymkhana events. I won all the year-end high points and whatever there was to win in the Chilliwack Riding Club.”

It was at that point that McKay says “the bug for barrel racing” was firmly seeded. When McKay’s sister Megan briefly stepped away from riding, McKay began riding a horse that she had named CJ. 

“I jumped on CJ and started competing,” McKay says.” I won a saddle and buckles and everything on him. He took me pretty far. I went to the BRN4D Finals on him. And that’s kind of how it all evolved for me.”

While the speed and level of competition in the sport of barrel racing, which sees a horse and rider run a pattern around three barrels set up in a cloverleaf pattern, is enticing, McKay says he’s always been more drawn to the development of young horses — and the incommunicable bond that comes with. 

“I love training horses and I love bringing a young horse along and seeing them progress,” McKay says. “And seeing what they’re learning and how far they come in the time that you work with them. Becoming a team with your horse, that’s really what I’ve always loved.” 

Being a man in barrel racing, McKay admits he feels there’s a “bit of a stigma” that lingers around male competitors in the sport.  

“I think it stems from the rodeo world, where only women are allowed to compete at the professional level and go to the National Finals Rodeo (NFR),” McKay says. “When you’re a fan and you’re watching rodeo, whether it’s the National Finals Rodeo or the Calgary Stampede, it’s referred to as Ladies Barrel Racing.”

That designation has to do with the fact that barrel racing in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) events is run by the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA). Riders competing in PRCA barrel racing events must also be a WPRA membership permit holder.

While McKay acknowledges the significance of the history and triumphs of the WPRA, which began in 1948 as the Girl’s Rodeo Association before becoming the WPRA in 1981, he says it’s important to continue evolving the conversation around inclusivity in barrel racing as a professional sport. 

“I understand why it has been preserved that way,” McKay says. “But I feel like some of the best barrel racers in the world are, in fact, men. There are many male barrel racers. Lance Graves, Troy Crumrine and Brandon Cullins, they’ve won millions of dollars in futurities and derbies barrel racing.  

“I think that men should be given a shot to compete at the highest level of barrel racing.”

The topic, of course, isn’t new. In fact, in a 1989 lawsuit, Graves v. Women’s Professional Rodeo Ass’n, Inc., barrel racer Lance Graves challenged the inclusivity standards of the WPRA, stating the rules “discriminated against him by reason of his sex.” He lost the case.

Men are allowed to compete in the various association open 4D races, slot races, futurities and derbies. Some barrel racing associations have also amended the membership eligibility criteria in order to embrace all riders. McKay points to Valley Girls Barrel Racing Association in the U.S. as an example of a group within the sport that has “evolved” beyond gender restrictions, allowing everyone to compete. The well-known The American rodeo holds qualifiers throughout North America, which are also open to both men and women. 

“Many men have qualified and made it to the final round. No man has won it yet,” McKay says of the competition. “But I think it has been received really well, having men compete in that. So, I don’t know why it should be any different for the rest of the pro rodeos.”

The seasoned barrel racer also points to the apparent double standard in professional rodeo, which sees women allowed to compete alongside men in roughstock and roping events at PRCA rodeos, pointing to Chilliwack saddle bronc rider Kaila Mussell as a prime example. 

“Men are competing alongside women at the professional level in almost every other equestrian event, so why not the barrel racing?” McKay says. “Let’s not limit the sport to just one gender. Let’s have inclusivity for everyone.”

McKay at work in his other profession, modelling. CREDIT: Mark Stout.

Being one of the only male barrel racers in his area, McKay says people often look to him as a kind of “influencer” in the sport. His presence on social media platforms including Instagram (he goes by the handle @_cowboyken), where he shares many images running the barrel pattern, also undoubtedly helps with that. 

“I want to be able to use my voice for good,” McKay says. “And I really want to see this sport grow and evolve.”

On his social media channels, McKay also offers a glimpse into his other resumé-padding project: modelling. 

“With any of the modelling stuff too, you never know who is looking,” McKay says of the fashionable photography on his feeds. “I’m always on the lookout for different work with that, too.”

McKay started modelling in 2016, after a breakup saw him step away from horses in order to leave the Fraser Valley in an attempt to start fresh in Vancouver. 

“Being single and young and having these horses, I kept finding myself looking for more and wanting to make more friends. I was at a bit of a crossroads where I loved the horses so much, but I wanted to travel and do other things,” McKay recalls. 

Not long after that transition was made, McKay packed up and moved to Australia, where he lived for about a year. Upon his return to BC, McKay moved back to downtown Vancouver, taking over as a manager at Joey Restaurants. Through the company, he was transferred to Los Angeles. And that’s where he was living before the pandemic hit. 

“I was on a five-year work visa. I would have probably stayed on that career path with the company, because we were so rapidly growing,” McKay says. “But, once the pandemic hit, it changed the course of my life and I realized how much I missed having horses.”

McKay moved back to Canada and bought a few young horses. While his travels and career had taken him away from horses physically, McKay had maintained a connection within the industry through his business Horse Brokers International (www.facebook.com/Horsebrokersint), which sees him curate a virtual sale feed of barrel racing horses for buyers throughout North America. 

“I had a friend of mine who had this really nice horse that she just couldn’t seem to click with. She said, why don’t you just take him and ride him and see how he is?” McKays says of his first foray into brokering. “So, I brought him to my barn in Langley at the time and started riding him and he was awesome.”

He helped his friend sell the horse by posting him on his personal Facebook page. The horse sold within an hour. Seeing how quickly the horse sold, another friend approached McKay to help sell her horse. It also sold in the same day. 

“I love training horses and I love bringing a young horse along and seeing them progress. And seeing what they’re learning and how far they come in the time that you work with them. Becoming a team with your horse – that’s really what I’ve always loved.” – Charles McKay. Sheila Armstrong Photography

“It kind of just snowballed from there. I just happened to have a lot of great connections on my Facebook through friends and I ended up selling a whole bunch of horses,” McKay recalls. “Before long, I was busy full-time selling horses.”
 
He focuses on offering performance prospects or proven competition horse that he can personally vouch for. 

“I want to be known for representing quality animals,” McKay says. “That’s my primary focus.”

McKay also recently purchased a stallion prospect out of Texas to add to his growing program.  

“He’s by Epic Leader, out of a daughter of Darkelly that sired Paige (CP Dark Moon), the horse of Amber Moore’s that she went to the NFR multiple times on,” McKay says of the horse, named Epic Ruler, that he purchased from barrel futurity trainer Kassie Mowry. “The bloodlines are amazing on this stallion. And I’m really excited to have him in Canada.”

This new direction of his horse business, will soon see ‘breeder’ added to his already unique resume. 

“I guess I’m a model, a horse broker, a barrel racer, and an influencer in the horse world, as well,” McKay summarizes with a laugh. “I’m all of the above.”