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An Unforgettable Story of a Girl and her Horse Jill Welsh’s “Custer” Named AQHA Horse of the Year

By Laura Lambert
11/12/15

Photo by Dale Miller

Although every one of us has a story, few have one quite like Jill Welsh. To say that she is an amazing competitor doesn’t even begin to describe the Parker, Ariz., cowgirl. Welsh has competed in more than just the rodeo arena for years now and she is a winner at each and every competition.

Life hasn’t handed Welsh an easy go. Since age 20, she has been dealing with controlling the crippling Rheumatoid Arthritis that effects her joints. Medicines to help ease the pain were hard on the young girl’s body and made her sick. Then if that wasn’t enough at the young age of 26, Welsh took on the fight of her life – kidney cancer. Spending the next 18 months doing chemotherapy and radiation probably weren’t exactly what Welsh had in mind but she didn’t have a choice. A migraine is what started the whole process and she’s lucky that she was in such excruciating pain. Lucky? Who would think that was lucky? She does.

After bearing about a week of a migraine, Welsh had all she could stand and went to the Emergency Room. Within an hour of getting there, she went into cardiac arrest. Her kidneys were failing and her body was shutting down. The hospital got her stable enough to make the life flight to Phoenix. Within minutes of landing, her body went into cardiac arrest again. That means within about 12 hours, she had two heart attacks. All of this lead to her finding out she had kidney cancer and would need to start treatments immediately. Eighteen months later, she finished up her treatments.

Having a new outlook on life, Welsh decided she wanted to get back into barrel racing. About eight months after finishing her first set of treatments, Welsh made a trip to her friend Rachael Myllymaki’s.

“I saw on the internet that Rachael had been winning some rodeos on a horse and when she agreed that she might consider selling him, I went. I was still in a wheelchair and pretty weak so I just had her show him to me and make sure he made a nice pattern. That was it, I bought him,” Welsh recalled.

It was three more weeks before she even got on his back. When she did, it was with great care.

“My brother was there every step. It seems kind of funny looking back that I was actually like a small child but, my brother walked right beside me to make sure I stayed on. He hand walked me around the place on him so that I could ride him, and we just gradually built it up,” Welsh said.

It took several more months before she made her first competitive run and as she explains it, “We got a no time.” She just wasn’t quite ready for the speed and quickness of her great partner, French First Watch, also known as Custer. They turned the first barrel and it set her back. Welsh pulled him up and went out of the arena. She was entered in three rodeos that weekend and by the end of it, she won the last rodeo she went to by winning all three rounds and the average.

Photo by Dale Miller

Just as she and Custer were really starting to get together, Welsh was handed another blow. Ovarian cancer. Actually it was a bit more than that, the cancer had spread to her GI tract and her ovaries. She was back to fighting just for her life. Eight more long grueling months of treatments totaled about three years of cancer fighting. Now at 11 months out of treatments (October 2015), Welsh is feeling good and doing well. She gets check-ups every month, and so far so good.

“I just have a different outlook on life. I know it’s not all about just putting your nose to the grindstone and working hard. I know it’s about doing what you enjoy and living a good life,” Welsh said.

“Custer has done so much for me. It is so much more than just what he does inside the arena. I’m not saying that he doesn’t do great things inside the arena because he does. What he has done for me outside the arena though is priceless,” she said.

Custer has done great things inside the arena. In fact, the 11-year-old palomino gelding by Frenchmans Guy and out of Dashing Ta Fame has done so many incredible things, he has earned the respect of the top 15 girls. Custer was named the WPRA/AQHA Horse of the Year for 2015. An amazing feat given that he didn’t finish inside the top 15 standings for the year and normally the award goes to a horse that will be making a trip to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

“I literally almost wrecked my car when I got the news. A friend of mine sent me a text congratulating me and I didn’t even know what to say. My response was something along the lines of, ‘the real horse of the year award?’ I was completely shocked. What an awesome honor and I am just so thankful and amazed that the girls all thought that much of Custer and I to vote for him,” she said.

“He deserves this award for sure, but for me it’s about so much more. When I first got him, I was still in a wheelchair and my family would wheel me out to see him. He would let me go right up to him and brush him without ever being scared or nervous. He has taken care of me from day one and that’s not something I take for granted. He knows when I have bad days and he slows down for me in the runs. Somehow, he just knows. When I’m having a good day, he will smoke a run. He always walks up to the gate and when we are done, no matter how good or bad the run, he just eases out. He truly is my once in a lifetime horse. He’s so gentle and kind-hearted. Honestly, he is the reason I kept getting up every day and trying to get moving,” Welsh said.

The pair was well on the way to making their first appearance at the Wrangler NFR after being the high money winner over the Fourth of July run. Things were falling into place and Welsh was living out her dream.

“I just went where I wanted to. Honestly, the rodeos I got to go to this year were my dream places. I picked the ones I wanted to go to and then just tried to do my best,” she said.

Late in the competition year, tragedy struck when the great duo came tumbling down to the ground. Some bad ground caused the pair to take a pretty nasty fall and took Custer out of competition for three weeks. Both horse and competitor were lucky to walk away without major injury. Unfortunately though, those three weeks were important ones on her quest to Las Vegas.

“I was blessed that my friend, Megan Lewis let me borrow her good horse for Omaha and a few other rodeos. That horse is amazing and super tough. I was just a little slow everywhere and it sure wasn’t the horse. I just needed another week or so to get the hang of it and I didn’t have that time. I guess I knew at Omaha that my chances were probably shot but you know, that’s rodeo. It just wasn’t meant to be this year.

“I’m starting this year with the same dream, and I’ll keep that dream until something else tells me different. I want to be at the Wrangler NFR. I am excited that I get to go to the winter rodeos this year and we will just see where it all takes me. I’m so thankful for all the good that has come. I had an exceptional year this year. I can’t say enough about how honored I am and thankful to all the girls who voted for Custer. It is truly incredible,” Welsh said.

For a young girl who has overcome so much, you can bet her extraordinary attitude and amazing amount of try will get her anywhere her heart chooses.

Courtesy of WPRA