EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a story that appears in the November 2013 edition of Women’s Pro Rodeo News, the official publication of the WPRA.
June Holeman was giddy.
It was Saturday, Oct. 19, and she stood inside the Stephens County Fair and Expo Center in Duncan, Okla., with as big a smile as the 70-year-old cowgirl could muster.
“I just can’t believe it,” Holeman said, referring to her Ram Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo average championship. “This hors just started running right a week or two ago. It’s just crazy.”
Holeman and Hopes Money Boy rounded the cloverleaf pattern three times in a cumulative time of 48.69 seconds to claim the title and earn the right to compete at the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo, which will take place next spring in Oklahoma City. They won the second round with the fastest run of the weekend, 16.03 seconds, and placed in the other two.
In all, Holeman earned $4,713 in the southern Oklahoma community, and more than doubled her season earnings in the Oklahoma-Kansas-Nebraska region.
“I raised him,” said Holeman, the oldest Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier in the sport’s history, earning that record in 2005 when she raced inside the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas at the age of 62. “He was hurt for two years, so he’s late getting going.”
It looks like Tall Boy is catching up for lost time. The 6-year-old sorrel gelding first began in competition in June at the Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte, Neb., just two hours from Holeman’s Arcadia, Neb., home. Holeman mustered less than $4,000 through the circuit’s regular season, so the big sorrel’s big performance in Duncan was especially significant.
“I’ve won the average a few times,” she said. “I still go to rodeos for my fans. It’s much harder than it used to be on me, and every year is harder for me. I turned 70 in June. I can hardly saddle this horse; I’ve got to get on a bucket.”
That’s because the smaller Holeman is mounted on a 16.2-hand-tall horse, which is why the gelding carries such a barn name. It doesn’t help that Holeman has a little trouble hoisting the saddle over the horse’s back because of an injured shoulder.
Still, she loves the opportunity she has with the young horse.
“This is just very exciting,” she said.
The three-round circuit finale also served as a punctuation point for year-end champion Gretchen Benbenek of Aubrey, Texas, who had clinched that title before opening night. Still, Benbenek earned a check in every go-round and finished third in the average, pocketing $2,210.
“This is such a big thing for me because it’s been such a goal of mine,” she said. “This is something that I’ve been working for every single day and have been thinking about every single day since this rodeo ended last year, because it was such a heartache for me last year.”
The heartache is over, thanks to Shot of Firewater, a 10-year-old bay gelding out of Miss Willie Ada by Firem Jet. Maverick is carrying on a family tradition for Benbenek, who rode his mother while competing in college rodeo at Oklahoma State University a decade ago. In fact, Benbenek was part of the two women’s national title teams the Cowgirls had in 2001 and 2004.
“It means everything to have a second-generation horse like this,” she said. “I guess I would keep going if I had to buy something and start over, but this means a lot. His mother meant the world to me, so to be able to keep going on her baby is just special to me.”
So is competing in ProRodeo. Though she lives south of the Red River, Benbenek prefers to compete in the Prairie Circuit for a number of reasons.
“My house is about 40 miles south of the border, plus I went to OSU for five years,” Benbenek said. “I know a lot of these rodeos, and I know a lot of the people up here. I love the people, and my horse gets along with the ground real good. I guess if I liked deep, sandy ground, we’d probably run more in the Texas Circuit.”
It worked out just fine for Benbenek. Of course, she got a little help in mid-July while visiting with one of ProRodeo’s veterans.
“I was just placing along, like I always do,” she said. “I actually sat and talked to Layna Kight at Pretty Prairie (Kan.). She said something that hit me. I don’t need to go in there thinking I need to just make money, but I need to go in there with the mind-set that I need to win.”
Though she placed a lot throughout the season, she found herself in the winner’s circle a little more toward the end of the season.
“My big push was around Labor Day weekend,” Benbenek said. “I won Vinita (Okla.) and won Hastings (Neb.). Even though they weren’t in our circuit, I won Dayton (Iowa) and won some money at Fort Madison (Iowa).”
All that winning became contagious, which is the mentality Benbenek took into the circuit finals. Of course, having a great horse like Maverick helped a ton.
“He’s got his mom’s mind and her heart,” she said. “She had the biggest heart in the world. She was cutting bred; she shouldn’t have been a barrel horse, but she did really well for me because she has such big heart.
“He tries every time. It sounds funny, but I think he just wants to do whatever I want him to do. He just wants to make me happy.”
He’s done his job well.
In October, Benbenek and Maverick were more than solid. In addition to placing in three rounds in Duncan, the duo finished second at the All American Finals in Waco, Texas, beating a field of talented players, including Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifiers like reigning world champion Mary Walker, Michele McLeod, Kaley Bass and Fallon Taylor.
“Our circuit finals has been really tough,” said Benbenek, who works as a real estate appraiser for Merit Advisors out of Gainesville, Texas. “I just got done at the All American, and this is tougher than that.”
Now that she and Holeman are qualified to compete in Oklahoma City next spring, she’s looking forward to the opportunity and the payout that is available. She also is looking forward to seeing how well Maverick performs inside Jim Norick Arena, which once served as the NFR’s home.
“I’m spoiled rotten,” Benbenek said. “His mom was easy, and he is easy. I switched his feed on him; he’s feeding Bluebonnet now, which is doing a lot for him. It used to be that he did fine at home, but on the road, I had trouble keeping weight on him. Now I actually have to make sure I don’t feed him too much. I also give him Oxy Boost every time before I run, and while we’re on the road, about as much alfalfa hay as he wants.
“He’s so fun to ride. He can scoot across the ground pretty good, but he’s not the thing out there. He doesn’t turn quite as sharp as my mare does, but he’s pretty quick around the turns, too. I just have to put him in the right spot going into that first barrel.”
Whatever they’re doing together, it’s working. She may as well stay with it.