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postheadericon Regular season winding to a close

Less than four weeks remain in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s regular season.

That means it’s a scramble for all the top players in the game to position themselves for the postseason. Only the top 15 cowboys in each event advance to ProRodeo’s grand finale, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Taos Muncy

Taos Muncy

For the cowboys “Riding for the Brand” of Tate Branch Auto Group, only a few rodeos remain for them to cash in. Success is vital if they want to play for the biggest pay in the game, especially for heeler Jim Ross Cooper of Monument, N.M.; tie-down roper Clint Cooper, who is originally from Lovington, N.M.; and Marty Jones, a steer roper from Hobbs, N.M.

Jim Ross Cooper sits 24th in the world standings with a little more than $42,000 in season earnings. He needs to move up nine spots in the standings to secure his sixth NFR qualification. He is $14,000 behind Quinn Kesler, who sits 15th; but Jim Ross Cooper knows he’ll need to earn $20,000 in the final month to make a serious run for Las Vegas.

Jake Cooper

Jake Cooper

Jones is 27th on the steer roping money list. He needs to at least double his 2015 money if he wants a shot at qualifying for his 15th Clem McSpadden National Finals Steer Roping. Clint Cooper is a little further down the standings, sitting 34th with a little more than $28,700. Like Jones, he’ll need to at least double his earnings if he has any hope to return to Sin City for the sixth time.

The outlook is considerably different for heeler Jake Cooper of Monument and saddle bronc rider Taos Muncy of Corona, N.M. Both sit inside the top 15 in their respective standings: Jake Cooper has pocketed $65,692 this season and is 11th, while Muncy has $91,732 and is fourth.

Still, there is plenty of money left on the table to help them improve their places in the world standings. The reality for Jake Cooper is that he’s less than $7,000 from moving into the top five. There are several big-money rodeos in which he could catch that kind of money in one fell swoop. The higher the cowboy is in the standings, the better the chances are to make a run at that elusive world title.

Muncy knows that well. Not only is he a two-time titlist, he’s heading to the NFR for the eighth time in his career. He is more than $20,000 behind the No. 1 bronc rider, Cody DeMoss of Heflin, La., but he can make up ground over the next few weeks.

Not only that, but NFR go-round winners will earn more than $26,000 a night. Over 10 Las Vegas nights, it all will make a difference.

Tate Branch-logo

postheadericon Inspirational messages part of upcoming fund-raising dinner

DUNCAN, Okla. – An evening of inspiration and good ol’ fashioned cowboy wisdom is just part of the agenda for a dinner and auction set for 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Simmons Center in Duncan.

ChisholmTrailRPCFThe organizers of the Chisholm Trail Ram Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo are conducting the event as a fund-raiser for the upcoming event, set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15-Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Stephens County Arena in Duncan.

“A portion of the proceeds we get from this evening will also go to the Stephens County Youth Shelter,” said Joe Henderson, chairman of the volunteer committee that produces the rodeo, the year-end championship for the ProRodeo region consisting of events and contestants primarily from Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.

“We set this up as a way to reach out to the community and give them an enjoyable evening while also supporting these community activities.”

The cost is $25 per person or $150 for a table of eight. Those interested need to RSVP by Monday, Sept. 7; call either Henderson (580-656-3701) or Sandy Bowden (580-656-0960) to do so.

This year’s featured guests are Kellie Lancaster and Jet McCoy. Lancaster is a north Texas chiropractor whose son, Dane Lancaster, was involved in a serious rodeo wreck in May 2015. He continues to recover from the injury – a traumatic brain injury and facial fractures – and has made great strides.

The Facebook page, Prayers for Dane Lancaster, was viral among the rodeo community last year, and Kellie Lancaster continues to provide updates.

McCoy, a five-time champion in the Oklahoma City-based International Professional Rodeo Association, shot into fame by teaming with his younger brother, Cord, as the Cowboys on the reality TV series, “The Amazing Race.” The McCoys became fan favorites while wearing their signature cowboy hats and utilizing their common-sense approach to the race around the world.

postheadericon Moving Forward

Waller County Fair and Rodeo continues making positive changes

HEMPSTEAD, Texas – The Waller County Fair Board has been working diligently over the past year with one goal in mind: Striving to make the experience even better for fairgoers.

That’s why members of the board are so excited for this year’s Waller County Fair and Rodeo, set for Friday, Sept. 25-Saturday, Oct. 3, at the Waller County Fairgrounds in Hempstead.

WallerLogo“We’ve added an additional 5,000 square feet of concrete to better serve our attendance in our entertainment pavilion,” said Larry Pershall, a member of the fair’s improvement committee. “In our sponsorship-VIP facility, we’ve added another 1,200-square-foot building, expanded our porch area to 1,200 square feet, poured it into concrete and added a tin roof.”

That’s just a small taste of the work that has been going on behind the scenes of one of the top fair’s in southeast Texas. The stage has been moved to the north end of the entertainment section of the fairgrounds, opening the south end of the dance hall and allowing for more room and overflow.

“We have fully renovated an old barn into our new Wagon Wheel,” said Chad Kersh, a member of the rodeo committee. “The new building has a Luckenback or Gruene Hall feel to it. It will be a great place to hang out and enjoy our nightly entertainment.”

In addition to an action-packed lineup of four top-level artists – Aaron Watson on Saturday, Sept. 26; Jeff Woolsey on Thursday, Oct. 1; John Conlee on Friday, Oct. 2; and Neal McCoy on Saturday, Oct. 3 – the Wagon Wheel also will host an evening of entertainment through most every evenings of the fair and rodeo:

  • Brian Loftin and Texas Reflections, 6:30-9:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26.
  • DJ and karaoke, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29, and Wednesday, Sept. 30
  • Aubrey Lynn Band, 5:30-8:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 1
  • Lacy Booth and Tim Nichols, 5:30-8:30 p.m., Friday, Oct. 2
  • Texas Special Band, 5:30-9:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 3

“We are constantly looking at ways to make our fair better, and we have worked really hard to make sure we are heading in the right direction,” Kersh said. “We believe that these changes reflect on our passion to continue to make the Waller County Fair and Rodeo the top event in southeast Texas every year.”

postheadericon Circuit contestants closing in on finale

DUNCAN, Okla. – Less than two weeks remain in the 2015 Prairie Circuit rodeo season.

Crunch time has fallen for a number of the top contestants in the region if they want to qualify for the year-end championship, the Chisholm Trail Ram Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15-Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Stephens County Arena in Duncan.

Gretchen Benbenek

Gretchen Benbenek

Only the top 12 contestants in each event at the conclusion of the circuit season advance to the finale, so doing well in the few rodeos that remain is vital.

For instance, less than $1,000 separates the 10th-15th barrel racers in the standings. Two-time reigning champion Gretchen Benbenek of Aubrey, Texas, sits 10th with $4,112 in regional earnings, while three-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier Tana Poppino of Big Cabin, Okla., is 15th with $3,148. A top finish in any of the final rodeos could make all the difference in the world.

Tana Poppino

Tana Poppino

Kim Couch of Rattan, Okla., has $12,680 in earnings and leads the barrel racing standings by nearly $4,000 over the No. 2 cowgirl, Bailee Snow of Miami, Okla. Emily Miller of Weatherford, Okla., sits third, less than $500 behind Snow.

Reigning world champion bull rider Sage Kimzey of Strong City, Okla., has the largest lead in the circuit standings with $18,951, nearly $7,000 ahead of his traveling partner, Brennon Eldred of Sulphur, Okla. The race will be for that coveted 12th spot, where less than $500 separates cowboys in the 11th to 16th positions on the money list.

Stockton Graves

Stockton Graves

Steer wrestler Riley Duvall of Checotah, Okla., has closed the gap he has behind the leader, Stockton Graves, a five-time regional champ from Alva, Okla. Graves has pocketed more than $20,000 in the circuit this season and is more than $4,000 ahead of Duvall, who has a $6,000 lead over the No. 3 cowboy, Ryan Swayze of Freedom, Okla.

Caine Riddle of Vernon, Texas, is a four-time Prairie Circuit champion who has won the last three titles, but he has a little bit of work remaining if he wants to win his fifth. He has earned $8,398 this season and has reserved his spot in Duncan, but his lead is just $728 ahead of Blaine Kaufman of Pretty Prairie, Kan.

Coleman Proctor

Coleman Proctor

NFR team ropers Coleman Proctor of Pryor, Okla., and Jake Long of Coffeyville, Kan., lead their respective standings by about $2,000 each. Header Sac Small of Welch, Okla., and heeler Tyler Worley of Nowata, Okla., sit just behind Proctor and Long.

Steven Dent of Mullen, Neb., a seven-time NFR qualifier in bareback riding, leads the circuit’s saddle bronc riding standings with more than $13,000 in earnings. He owns a $4,000 lead over another NFR qualifier, Wade Sundell of Coleman, Okla. Dent is now focusing his time on bronc riding.

Tie-down roper Cody Quaney of Cheney, Kan., has pocketed more than $14,800 and holds about a $900 lead over nine-time circuit champ Jerome Schneeberger of Ponca City, Okla., who has made a solid late-season push to make a run at his 10th title.

The races are heating up, making Duncan an even bigger destination in October.

postheadericon Tour finale will crown champs at Kansas Star

MULVANE, Kan. – The race for the 2015 Don Gay Bull Riding Tour championship will come down to the final weekend of the season.

The tour’s finale will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27, at the Kansas Star Arena in Mulvane.

“We’ve had a phenomenal race for the title,” said Randy Schmutz, general manager of United Bucking Bulls Inc., which is tied into the Don Gay Tour. “It’s been an exciting season, and it’s going to come down to the final three days to decide our champion.”

DonGayBullRidingTourThe tour features a 19-event regular season, and only the top 50 cowboys on the money list advance to the finals, where they will be matched with some of the top bulls in the industry. It makes for a wild three-day ride inside the Kansas Star Arena.

“We’ve got 17-year-old Koal Livingston leading the standings,” Schmutz said, referring to the cowboy from the north Texas community of Burleson. “Also in the race is our well-known veteran, Ronny Kitchens, who was our first finals champion and won the 2013 year-end title. He was the recipient of the first Don Gay Tour pickup.”

Kitchens, a 39-year-old bull rider that has been part of the game for the last two decades, sits second in the standings. He will head into the finale with a lot of momentum but will be in the mix for the title with Jory Markiss and Michael Earl. All four cowboys are within range to make a move on Livingston.

Events that are part of the Don Gay Tour also feature competitions for the bulls that are in the mix. Like the cowboys that ride for the money available, bull owners enlist their bulls in the contest with hopes of cashing in. Owners of the bull with the top score will win the lion’s share of the prize money.

“Our tour is different in that we have a Rank Rider Score System, wherein every rider receives a Rank Rider score regardless of an 8-second qualified ride based on the judges’ evaluation of the bull and the riding time by the cowboy,” Schmutz said. “The bonus is if they ride for eight seconds, they receive a Rank Rider score based on the same premise, then they get a traditional ride score and are eligible for two paychecks.

“This system is not to reward an unqualified ride, but it doubles the reward for those guys that do ride for a qualified ride. Our events are about the rankest bulls in the world and the guys that try their hearts out trying to ride them.”

It all adds to the mix for the final weekend of September. This marks the third straight year the Kansas Star Arena has hosted the Don Gay Tour finale.

“The arena and the amenities all being in one place is such a tremendous experience for all of our bull riders and our bull owners,” Schmutz said. “We’ve had a wonderful relationship with the staff and management there, and it’s been a phenomenal event each year.”

postheadericon Stewart bringing voice to KC

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Andy Stewart looks at his job from many angles.

He is a researcher, a statistician and an entertainer. He has the unique ability to put it all together as one of the top emcees in professional rodeo, a six-time nominee for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Announcer of the Year.

He will bring his talents to Kansas City as the voice of the American Royal PRCA Rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25, and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, at Hale Arena inside the American Royal Complex.

Andy Stewart

Andy Stewart

“I feel that production is extremely important in the world of rodeo,” said Stewart, now in his 20th year in the PRCA. “If people get a $20 ticket, then we need to give them $40 worth of entertainment and get the most bang for their buck.”

It’s something fans have come to expect with the American Royal Rodeo over the years.

“Anytime you can be part of rodeo history – and every great cowboy, every legend that has been associated with our sport has been to the American Royal – it’s pretty special,” he said. “There are not a whole lot of rodeos in our industry that can make that kind of statement.

“For those guys to put enough trust in me to bring me in there to be part of that rodeo is a thrill.”

The American Royal Rodeo takes place on the final weekend of the 2015 regular season. It is a major stop for contestants who are scrambling to finish the campaign in a position to qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the sport’s grand finale that features the top 15 cowboys and cowgirls in each event.

That just adds to the excitement that is Kansas City’s ProRodeo.

“It’s almost like being a wildcard game in the NFL or Major League Baseball,” Stewart said. “These guys might have one shot left to make it. It’s so important, because I’ve seen guys that go to rodeos like Kansas City with that much money in the pot at the end of the season, and they can win enough money to get them to the NFR or winning a world title.

“When you talk about the extensive travel these guys have to do, the money they have to spend to get up and down the road, a rodeo like the American Royal becomes extremely crucial because they make their money at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo – that’s where they put money in the bank for the winter and hold them over for the next year.”

That just adds to the atmosphere in Kansas City.

“It turns up the level of competition as well,” he said. “Hunger is a major motivator; it’s a financial motivation for these guys. They’ve got families, they’ve got bills, they’ve got things that they’ve got to pay. When it comes crunch time like that at a great rodeo, you see the intensity level and the competition level step up another notch.”

Stewart knows what it takes to work at an elite level. He works many of the biggest rodeos in the country, including the legendary Cheyenne (Wyo.) Frontier Days Rodeo. One reason is because of his energetic, booming voice. Another is the extra work he puts ahead of each rodeo performance so that he can be the perfect voice of the fans.

For every hour he’s on the microphone, Stewart spends many more going through biographies and background and looking over all the important statistics of each competitor in the show. He understands what it takes to compete at an elite level, and he wants fans to realize it, too. It is, after all, the perfect mix of world-class competition and true family-friendly entertainment.

“Rodeos like the American Royal are special to the best of the best, the world champions,” Stewart said. “It’s not necessarily for the money, but it’s an honor and a privilege to enter Kansas City. It’s another notch on your belt to win a rodeo like the American Royal.”

postheadericon ERA plans its first finale in Dallas

There seems to a buzz centered on the newly founded Elite Rodeo Athletes organization.

In fact, there was so much interest in tuning in online for a rebroadcast of Wednesday’s news conference at the American Airlines Center in Dallas that association’s website was overwhelmed, and the news conference was not available for more than two hours.

Much of the news was about the ERA’s first championship event, which will take place Nov. 9-13, 2015, at the American Airlines Center. In fact, the same information was shared by the Dallas Morning News in a story that was published Tuesday. You can read it HERE. To watch the news conference, click HERE.

ERA-Rodeo-logo-NEWThe ERA and the Dallas Sports Commission have entered into a five-year partnership for Dallas to host the finale, which will feature a $3 million purse.

“Dallas is no stranger to hosting world-class events,” said Tony Garritano, president and CEO of the organization. “Through the process, it became pretty evident they wanted the home to be here.”

Garritano discussed a 15-event regular season, but no schedule has been released on when and where those events will occur. According to the news conference, the ERA will focus its events on the top contestants in the game. Of those mentioned in the sizzle piece that accompanied the conference, 29 are world champions; the 21 others have been to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at least once, most multiple times.

“There is a more efficient and better way to showcase rodeo’s best,” Garritano said. “This is the first time in history that these folks here will compete the same night every event throughout the regular-season tour and be nationally televised from start to finish.”

He also indicated there will be a qualifying system to allow for rising stars the opportunity to compete with others at the ERA. Information on the qualifying system should be available to the public in October.

“You will have the same opportunity,” he said, pointing to contestants that are not part of the ERA at this time. “It is wide open for anyone who has the ability to make it to that level.”

Trevor Brazile

Trevor Brazile

The tour is scheduled to be aired on Fox Sports. Many who were part of the news conference pointed to that media relationship as a big step.

“I think the fans are going to be the biggest winners,” said Trevor Brazile, a 21-time world champion in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. “The sport is underdelivered to the fans; we’ve got such great fans, and they deserve more and they’re going to get more.

“There are a lot of story lines in rodeo that our fans miss out on. This is bringing rodeo to a modern day sports property, and that’s where it needs to be.”

postheadericon Graves inching toward another title

DUNCAN, Okla. – For a man who competes part-time, Stockton Graves is making a pretty good living on the ProRodeo trail.

Graves, a seven-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier in steer wrestling from Alva, Okla., has earned nearly $40,000 this season. He’s moved to No. 20 in this week’s world standings and needs to advance just five more spots on the money list by the end of the regular season to secure his eighth trip to the finale.

Stockton Graves

Stockton Graves

“The NFR is definitely on the back of our minds,” he said, referring to his traveling partner, J.D. Struxness of Appleton, Minn., who is 25th. “We’re not going to chase it to the point we’re going to break ourselves doing it. I’ve got it planned out to where we can go and make enough money to make it.”

A good portion of Graves’ earning came in the first couple weeks of August, where he pocketed just shy of $15,000. That was not only beneficial for his place in the world standings, but it cemented the Oklahoma cowboy’s spot at this year’s Chisholm Trail Ram Prairie Circuit Finals Rodeo, set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15-Saturday, Oct. 17, at the Stephens County Arena in Duncan.

In fact, Graves has pocketed $14,909 in the Prairie Circuit, a series of rodeos in the Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska region. That includes a big victory at the Dodge City (Kan.) Roundup Rodeo, the largest event in the circuit in terms of overall purse. He also collected cash in Lawton, Okla., Phillipsburg, Kan., and Coffeyville, Kan.; he also won the title Sidney, Iowa, but that $4,003 didn’t count toward the circuit standings.

“It’s definitely been good for a circuit rodeo cowboy,” said Graves, who also serves as the rodeo coach at his alma mater, Northwestern Oklahoma State University. “I’ve had a really good run the last few weeks. Hopefully we can keep it going.”

The biggest payday was in Dodge City the first weekend in August. Graves won the championship round and the three-run aggregate to pocket $5,704.

“I’ve always wanted to win Dodge since I started rodeoing,” said Graves, who has now earned titles at all the major events in the Prairie Circuit; he has won four year-end circuit titles, including the last two. “It just took me 20 years, but I got it won.

“It’s always been a goal of mine to win all the major rodeos in our circuit. This will dang sure boost me up there to contend for another circuit title.”

It’s provided an incredible streak of momentum. Graves holds a $4,735 over the No. 2 cowboy in the regional standings, Riley Duvall of Checotah, Okla. In addition to finishing among the top 12 in the region in order to qualify for the regional finale, moving on to the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo is a major part of being in the circuit system; only the year-end champs and the winners of each circuit finals rodeo in each event advance to the RNCFR, which takes place in Kissimmee, Fla.

“We had two goals when we set out: To make the All American Finals and to win our circuits and go to Kissimmee,” Graves said. “Last year it was phenomenal down there and something you want to go back to every year.”

It all starts with doing well through the season, and he has that part already covered.

postheadericon Injuries sideline NFR hopes

The last week of rodeos was tough on a couple of bareback riders who were battling for qualifications to the 2015 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

Canadian Luke Creasy suffered a broken left forearm that required surgery Tuesday, while Texan Matt Bright had a rib injury. It’s not the first bout with injuries this season for the two cowboys.

Luke Creasy

Luke Creasy

A few weeks ago, the right-handed riding Creasy broke the fifth metecarpal bone in his right hand and had surgery to repair the ailment. Sitting inside the top 20 all season, the cowboy – now living in Lovington, N.M. – knew he needed to keep riding if he wanted to earn his first trip to the NFR.

So he went back to work and tried to make a living riding bareback horses with his left hand. His plan was to do so until his injured finger was heeled enough so that he could begin riding with his primary hand wedged into the rigging. His return lasted just one event on the ProRodeo trail. Creasy broke his left arm in Douglas, Wyo., but not before earning an $85 check for finishing in a tie for sixth.

As of this week, he is 19th in the world standings. He still plans to make a run for the finals once his hand injury is ready.

Matt Bright

Matt Bright

Bright, of Fort Worth, Texas, had spent a considerable amount of time on the sidelines this season because of groin injuries. He returned with a vengeance in July and had rapidly moved up the money list. He finished second in Cheyenne, Wyo., and won the average championship in Dodge City, Kan. He suffered either a separated or cracked rib this past weekend in Hermiston, Ore.

With a little more than a month left in the regular season, Bright has realized that his chances at the NFR are minimal. He has returned home to heal. If things go better than expected, he may make a late-season run at this year’s NFR.

For now, though, he sits 26th in the world standings and knows he can start the 2016 campaign in good standings while also allowing himself the time it takes to heal completely.

As with any athlete, cowboys rely on their bodies. With no guaranteed income, dealing with injuries comes down to making important business decisions.

postheadericon Good Man Friday

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story appears in the August issue of Women’s Pro Rodeo News, the official publication of the WPRA. It is reproduced with the approval of the WPRA.

Paige Willis considered selling Good Frenchman Friday, a horse she had spent much of the winter and spring seasoning.

It’s a good thing she didn’t.

The 8-year-old sorrel gelding became the firepower she needed for one of the top money-winners through the WPRA’s Fourth of July run. Willis and Friday raced through six rodeos over the course of the lucrative series of rodeos, earning money in five.

WPRA-logoAll told, the duo pocketed $11,849 with solid finishes in Killdeer, N.D.; Belle Fourche, S.D.; Oakley City, Utah; Livingston, Mont; and Cody, Wyo.

“It’s pretty awesome considering it was all on my backup horse,” said Willis, the No. 1 rookie in the WPRA from Goshen, Ala. “We definitely were not expecting that.

Her good horse, Miss Gay Bar Abby, was sore, so Willis opted for Friday over the Fourth. It paid great dividends, moving her to No. 16 in the WPRA ProRodeo world standings. As of June 10, she had pocketed $35,594.

“We had talked about selling him before we came out on the road, but I’m glad we didn’t at this point,” she said, pointing to discussions she had with her boyfriend, Darren Scholl. “We knew we had the horsepower with her and with him coming along to be able to accomplish some things.”

So far, they are. Not bad for a young lady that was a kindergarten teacher for six months before deciding to chase her rodeo dreams.

The goal for the ProRodeo newcomer was to finish the 2015 campaign among the top 30 in the world standings so she would be eligible to compete at the big-money rodeos through the winter of the 2016 season. She’s making that happen in a big way, thanks to the gelding.

“My good mare was sore and wasn’t clocking, so we decided to give him a shot and see what would happen,” Willis said. “I never dreamed he would come out and work like he did.”

Her biggest paycheck came in Livingston, where she and Friday posted a 17.45-second run to finish second to Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier Taylor Jacob; Willis pocketed $4,288. She finished third in Belle Fourche to earn $2,528, then had solid finishes at the other three rodeos: sixth in Killdeer for $921, seventh in Oakley City for $1,257 and sixth in Cody for $2,855.

Knowing she has something special in Abby, Willis kicked off her 2015 campaign with Friday on the road, allowing him the opportunity to learn the rodeo trail and gain confidence. In fact, through the Fourth of July run, she had competed in more than 60 WPRA-sanctioned events

“The reason we have such a high rodeo count is because we took him out to get him seasoned, and he was not clocking like he is now,” she said.

With Friday having solid goes, he has officially moved out of his role as backup.

“He’s officially the A team until Abby decides she feels good and is ready to get back to work,” Willis said. “Winning that much money over the Fourth still doesn’t seem real.”

It’s almost like a dream come true for the Alabama cowgirl, who received her college education in Florida. She grew up riding horses and is carrying on a tradition that began before she entered elementary school.

“I’ve ridden horses since I was 4 years old,” she said. “I’ve always dreamed to come out on the road. It’s a hard thing to accomplish. My boyfriend is the support and the backbone behind it all. Without him, there’s no way I’d be out here right now.”

She began running barrels at an early age, too, and competed through all the levels of youth and junior rodeo, including testing her mettle at amateur rodeos in the Southeast.

Now, though, she is trying to test her own skills and those of her powerful horses against some of the greatest to have ever ridden in the WPRA. With Friday playing a key role in her success, she knows she has something special.

“He’s really a big baby,” she said of the sorrel speedster. “Sometimes he just lopes through, and sometimes he runs. His personally has changed drastically over the last two months.”

Maybe the young gelding has learned just how good he can be.

“I think he enjoys being on the road,” Willis said. “He eats better on the road than he does at home. I think he likes thinking he’s on the A team.”

Though a qualification to the Wrangler NFR is within reach, Willis and her team plan to keep their approach to ProRodeo quite simple.

“I’m not going to chase any of it,” she said. “We’re just going to see how it goes. We’ve accomplished our goals and exceeded what we thought we could accomplish. It’s been great so far.”