AUBREY, Texas – From the first day she swung her leg over a horse, Gretchen Benbenek has had a love affair with the majestic animals.
These days, she chases that passion while riding racehorses on the ProRodeo trail, and she’s pretty good at it, too. Raised on Montana, Benbenek was part of two women’s national championship teams at Oklahoma State University and now lives in Aubrey.
She also is the 2013 Prairie Circuit champion barrel racer, a title she earned over the course of the season at rodeos primarily in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.
“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 he liked deep, sandy ground, we’d probably run more in the Texas Circuit.”
That horse is Maverick, a 10-year-old bay gelding whose registered name is Shot of Firewater, and he is a big part of Benbenek’s life, in and out of the rodeo arena. You see, Maverick’s mom, Miss Willie Ada, blazed around the cloverleaf pattern with Benbenek on her back. Now that’s Maverick’s job.
“It means everything to have a second-generation horse like this,” said Benbenek, who was part of OSU’s title teams in 2001 and 2004. “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.”
It’s an amazing relationship, but the genetics passed along to Maverick are just as incredible
“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.”
She’s happy. In addition to winning the Prairie Circuit title, Benbenek and Maverick performed well enough through the 2013 campaign to finish 45th in the final world standings with a little more than $22,000. That means the tandem’s strong run has earned them the right to compete at many of the limited-entry rodeos that are scheduled for early in 2014.
Now she’s got her sites set firmly on the future and seeing where Maverick can take her.
“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.”
Fun comes from playing, but rodeo is a business. For Benbenek, it’s one of two she has; in addition to traveling tens of thousands of miles a year to compete for prize money, she also is a real estate appraiser for Merit Advisors of Gainesville, Texas.
“I’m an independent contractor so I can leave when I want, but I’m not making money as an appraiser when I’m gone,” she said. “I’ve got to be making money somewhere.”
That’s why the rodeo business is such an important part of Benbenek’s life. With her year-end championship in the Oklahoma-Kansas-Nebraska region, the Montanan-turned-Oklahoman-turned-Texan has qualified for the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo, which will take place next spring in Oklahoma City.
That event – known as ProRodeo’s national championship – will feature a large purse, and winners in each event earn a $20,000 voucher toward the purchase of a new Ram truck.
“I need a new truck, so I’m really looking forward to that,” Benbenek said with a laugh.
The reality, though, is none of this would be in place if it weren’t for a little cowgirl assistance toward the end of the circuit season. It was mid-July, and the north Texas cowgirl was in search of ways to step up her game; she found them in words spoken by a barrel racing veteran.
“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,” she said, pointing to wins in Vinita, Okla., Hastings, Neb., and Dayton, Iowa; she also earned a nice paycheck in Fort Madison, Iowa.
The push of first-place paydays was incredible for Benbenek’s confidence, and she parlayed that into the circuit championship and a solid run at the All American ProRodeo Finals, which took place in early October. She closed out her 2013 season a week later in Duncan, Okla., during the Ram Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo, collecting an additional $2,210 and the trophy buckle for being crowned the circuit champ.
“This is such a big thing for me because it’s been such a goal of mine,” she said of the Prairie Circuit title. “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, and the future looks quite bright for Benbenek.