Darby Conrad is now 17 years old.
With that age level comes many things, among them a certain degree of maturation — she no longer hangs her head when things don’t go her way.
Her father, Mark Conrad, first noticed it two months ago, as Darby was competing in a high school rodeo event in Virginia.
“The first day was horrible,” he recalled. “And she finally looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to put a nice run down here, dad.’ She went in and ran her fastest time that weekend on the barrels. It was one of the nicest runs I’ve ever seen Darby run. ... I think that’s where she’s grown the most this year, is handling that adversity.”
Darby Conrad, who just completed her junior year at Penn Manor High School, competes in high school rodeo events under the Maryland banner. And she just recently completed another highly successful 2018-19 high school rodeo campaign by finishing second in the overall points standings in barrels, poles, breakaway roping and team roping among all female riders for Maryland.
According to her father, Conrad didn’t hit one barrel all season, a first in her career. But she is quick to deflect praise.
“When it comes down to it, it’s how the horse runs,” she said.
The performances qualified her for the National High School Rodeo in Wyoming for the third year in a row.
It is arguably the most important event of her prep career to date since it will put her on a national stage in front of college rodeo coaches before she enters her senior year, when her college recruitment is expected to take off.
But here’s where Conrad is again facing adversity: She won’t be competing in the national event this year. The Conrads’ finances are tight, and the two-day, nearly 2,000-mile road trip to Wyoming is a bit expensive.
“It costs $3,000 to $5,000,” said Mark Conrad, who did all the driving when his family made the trek out west each of the last two summers.
Darby Conrad appears to be handling that setback just fine, and understands it may hamper her college recruiting.
“It could hurt,’’ she said. ‘’It could a little.”
Darby Conrad made those comments last week on an unseasonably chilly June morning while tending to her horses in Strasburg Borough. The family’s seven horses roam there among a pack of others on a grassy, 14-acre plot of land. Mark Conrad said he pays a fee to an Amish owner who allows the horses to stay there, and he also rents out half of a two-story, mostly empty former dairy barn on the property.
Three days a week, the Conrads make the 40-minute drive there from their Washington Boro home, staying for about two hours to feed the horses and supply them with water, while brushing down a few at a time.
There are also several weekend trips to rodeo competitions and, for Darby Conrad, the 20 hours or so she works each week as a hostess at George’s at Kendig Square restaurant in Willow Street on top of school and homework.
“If you want it, you have to work for it,” Conrad said of her packed schedule.
That drive was instilled in her by her father, who recently picked up a second job working in concrete to go along with his duties at Christ Covenant Church in Conestoga Township, where he has been the pastor since founding the church 14 years ago.
“You’ve got to teach these kids to have a work ethic,” Mark Conrad said.
While uncommon in the northeast, colleges in the south and west feature rodeo teams. Darby Conrad’s dream is to attend and ride for the University of Kentucky, although she’s not yet sure on her area of study.
To do so, however, Conrad will not only have to perform well in her last go-around on the National High School Rodeo circuit in the 2019-20 season, she’ll also have to keep up her grades and perform well on the SAT.
Those first two tasks shouldn’t be much of a problem. Conrad’s been one of Maryland’s top female riders since seventh grade. And she said she’s maintained a 3.25 grade-point average thus far, and served as a first-year chapter officer last school year for the Manor FFA, the Future Farmers of America group at Penn Manor.
However, mother Kim Conrad said her daughter must score at least a 900 on the SAT to meet the university’s admission standards.
“She had a combined score of 600 in her SAT prep course,” Kim Conrad said.
That’s partly because of learning comprehension issues Darby Conrad has faced her entire life. Essentially, she has difficulty taking tests, often going to a separate room to talk out the test problems in order to better understand and answer the questions.
“I think that’s why I like agriculture classes so much, because it is a lot of hands-on stuff,” she said.
Conrad took an official SAT test for the first time a few weeks ago. She’s still waiting to hear back on those results, but she said the experience wasn’t enjoyable.
“If you just ask me something, I can tell you or show you the answer,” she said. “Instead of writing it down on paper.”
It’s a lot of pressure, but she’s learning how to handle adversity.
“We’re just going with the flow, to be honest,” she said. “I’m just trying not to stress about it. It’s not worth the stress. It’s in God’s hands at the end of the day.”