By Cowboys & Indians contributors Lindsay Whelchel and Wendy Wilkinson
They round the barrels at breakneck speed, flying across the dirt for home in a matter of hoof-pounding seconds. They drive gooseneck horse trailers cross-country, sleeping above the truck bed and showering at truck stops. They muck stalls and toss hay at dawn and dusk, and stay up late with sick foals and their own children. When it’s showtime, they glam it up in crystal-encrusted pearl snap shirts and with hair teased so big it can barely hold a hat.
And then it’s back to the road and the stalls and the next event.
Despite the difficulties, rodeo is a life worth living. But the rewards don’t come easy. To be successful at the sport, it takes a special blend of strength, bravery, and drive. Rising above the talented competition to really make a name for yourself requires something even more. Here are seven cowgirls who have an extra measure of that special quality we call … COWGIRL GRIT.
Simply put, Charmayne James is the Babe Ruth of barrel racing. She became the first-ever million-dollar professional cowgirl in 1990 and holds the record for the most consecutive women’s NFR qualifications — a whopping 19. With the help of her horse Scamper, she dominated the NFR in barrel racing for a decade, winning an unprecedented 10 consecutive championships from 1984 to 1993, plus another in 2002 on a different horse for good measure.
Despite the fact that she brought women’s rodeo into the money and the spotlight, James admits she didn’t understand the significance of her achievements during her rodeo reign. “Back then, Scamper was such an amazing horse, and it was so effortless for him,” says James, who won her first NFR finals aboard Scamper when she was only 14 — after his bridle broke during one of their runs.
“At the time, I really didn’t have any grasp of the impact, and I think as time goes on it seems to be a bigger feat. Every year it was like, ‘Well, they can’t keep going, they can’t do it another year.’ Every-thing we did was to prolong his career, but we never had any idea it would be 10 years.”
Growing up in northeast New Mexico, James rode horses every day, helping her family out on their farm and feedlot. The idea to go pro came to her when she was still a young teen, hoping that she might win enough money to buy a truck.
After her main horse broke his leg, Scamper came into her life, and the rest played out like a movie — at least from the public’s point of view. But behind the scenes, it took a lot of hard work to push James to the top.
“I think probably one of the biggest reasons for my success is that I was really driven,” she says. “I rode all the time, learning all I could about how to take care of my horse, how to do a better job. Even from a really young age, that’s kind of how I’ve been. You need to do this — just do it.”
She continues to share that philosophy with many up-and-coming barrel racers through her books and clinics across the country. “You can really make a difference just teaching them the right mechanics,” she says. “When they go out and win, and they change their horses to make them like what they do, that’s real rewarding.”
When she’s not teaching, James spends most of her time at home in Boerne, Texas, raising her two young sons and working with her colts. Although Scamper died in 2012 at age 35, don’t rule out seeing James at elite events in the near future. She came out of retirement to compete in The American rodeo in Arlington, Texas, in March.
Barrel racer Fallon Taylor is one of the little girls Charmayne James inspired. Taylor first saw the sport on a televised rodeo as a 7-year-old living in Florida. She was hooked.
For her birthday, Taylor’s parents took her to Texas to watch a rodeo, and they never came home.
“My parents are like me: We’re kind of a ‘go big or go home’ family, and so they bought me my permit while we were there on vacation,” Taylor says. “They got me a horse, and I loved it. They’d never seen me so passionate about anything.”
By the age of 9, she had won her first rodeo. At 13, she qualified for her first National Finals Rodeo.
“Going into it I didn’t realize the impact of what it would do to my career just to be a qualifier. I was just like, ‘Hey, what a cool rodeo. I get to go down a tunnel and wear sparkly stuff,” Taylor says with a laugh.
As a teen, she rode out of that tunnel four years in a row. Then the opportunity to try her hand at modeling in New York and acting in Los Angeles took her on an entirely different adventure. She became a model for Axe body spray and appeared in TV shows like Two and a Half Men. But the cowgirl was never far from Texas in her heart, and at 20, she returned to the Lone Star State.
But Taylor almost didn’t return to rodeo. In 2009, she was training a horse when he started to buck. As the horse came down, he hit her face and fractured her skull. When Taylor jumped off, she landed on her head, suffering the same broken neck injury that befell Christopher Reeve in the riding accident that left him completely paralyzed.
Though the injury didn’t leave Taylor paralyzed, it did leave her with trepidation about getting back in the saddle.
“I think injury keeps everyone a little bit more fearful than normal, even the people who think they don’t have any kind of hesitation, so that was something I had to overcome,” she says.
It took a horse named Babyflo, bred and trained by Taylor’s family, to get her back into barrel racing.
“Babyflo is not a horse that is just a tool for us,” Taylor says. “She’s a part of the family.”
When that family member walked away with 2013’s WPRA/AQHA Horse of the Year, it was especially rewarding. Having qualified for the 2013 NFR, Taylor and Babyflo are set to go again in 2014.
The road to NFR takes more than a great horse, of course. It takes a lot of work, Taylor admits.
“You have to be incredibly tough,” she says. “It’s not super-glamorous. You’ll have 14-hour days of driving. You’ve got to bas-ically rebuild your barn for your horses every single time you change locations; that’s probably physically the toughest part. Staying awake, staying fit, staying healthy on the road is a little tough, so we take extra time to cook our meals and try to do the best that we can nutritionally. You have to be able to fight through homesickness; if you can get through that, you can get through it all.”
Staying connected through social media also helps — and it’s a means by which Taylor has found that she can reach out and help others while on the road.
“I was young in rodeo, and I would have just given my right arm to see inside Charmayne’s world one time,” Taylor says. “A morsel of information would’ve been golden to me. So, in this age of social media I feel like it’s a responsibility that we have. I posted a picture of me in the laundromat just to let people know, ‘Hey, it’s not always roses and sunshine.’ We do some things that aren’t so great, but what makes a cowgirl a cowgirl is a lot of tenacity and perseverance.”
It’s been more than three years since Mary Walker’s only child, Reagon, was killed in a car accident at the age of 21, but she still feels his presence everywhere. At her ranch in Ennis, Texas, Reagon’s old horse and a few of his steers spend their retirement.
“He changed my life, and I wouldn’t take it any other way,” Walker says. “But once we lost him, I was like, What do I do? What do I do now?”
You get back up and keep on going, she decided.
But then, shortly after Reagon’s passing, she suffered a catastrophic fall aboard her new horse, Latte. It left her with a broken hip and pelvis, two fractured vertebrae, and two broken toes, which she says were the most painful of all. She was in a wheelchair for nearly four months.
“During those terrible, painful months, I asked myself what I’d done to deserve the worst two tragedies in my life,” Walker says. “My doctor told me I’d recover from my physical injuries, but it was up to me to recover from my emotional ones.”
After attending NFR in 2011 while still in a wheelchair, Walker remembers her husband of 31 years, world champion steer wrestler Byron Walker, telling her she was going to win the world championship the following year. And that’s exactly what she did — on the back of Latte, the 9-year-old gelding who had come into her life just weeks before what was almost a career-ending fall.
“I knew the first time I got on him that he was something special,” Walker says. “And then I asked myself if, at 53, I was really ready to try and make this happen.”
She must have been ready, because in December 2012 Walker became the world champion in barrel racing, achieving the title that had eluded her for so many years. “I remember looking up at the fifth go-around and thinking, It’s almost half over and I’m still at the National Finals,” Walker says. “At the end of the day you can either sit down and quit or go on. And I chose to go on.”
The following year she went on to make reserve world champion.
“It’s been an exciting adventure,” Walker says. “It’s been something you never believe that you’ll ever do.”
Along the way Walker has developed a dedicated following of fellow barrel racers and rodeo contestants who gravitate to her, stopping by her trailer for dinner or to use the shower when theirs is broken.
“I guess maybe we’re the mom and pop of the rodeo, and we really enjoy it,” she says. “We’ve had people at our home all winter long. Why they want to come hang out with us, I don’t know, but we love having them. They’re not kids, but they are to us. We love them.”
Rodeo has helped her heal in other ways, too. “You learn how strong you really are through the day in and day out of rodeoing. You start early in the morning and you don’t quit. It’s not the most beautiful lifestyle in the world because you’re filthy dirty cleaning stalls and feeding horses. You’re not in high heels and lipstick.”
All that hard work is invested for a fleeting moment. “We may drive 1,000 miles for 16 seconds,” she says. “In the end I’ve spent all this money and fuel, and I may win $1,000. I may win $500 and I may win nothing, but we’re out here and we do it because we love it.”
To read about the rest of the cowgirls featured in the November/December issue of Cowboys & Indians — on newsstands now! — visit www.cowboysindians.com.