By Jolee Jordan
Pendleton, Oregon — For 107 years, the Pendleton Round-Up has been entertaining fans and awarding professional rodeo titles during the second weekend of September. The rodeo has one of the longest and richest histories in the sport.
Though the women of pro rodeo played a role in the early days of the competition—ladies competed in Pendleton in ladies only events such as relay races and bronc riding as well as against their male counterparts in roping events—the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association’s relationship with the Round-up only began back in 2000.
Ladies competitive rodeo events largely disappeared from Pendleton following the tragic death of Bonnie McCarroll during a bronc riding exhibition at the 1929 Round-Up. The WPRA did not exist at the time but its formation in 1948 was born partly from the diminishing competitive opportunities that arose following McCarroll’s death.
The ladies returned to the famed grass of the Pendleton arena in 2000 in barrel racing, an event which has quickly become a favorite of the Round-Up spectators and contestants alike. Due to the conditions on the grass, the barrel racing pattern is set up with the barrels positioned on the dirt track which surrounds the infield, leaving competitors with a traditional cloverleaf stretched wide.
The pattern is so wide, in fact, the a WPRA standard pattern’s dimensions would barely get a contestant past the second barrel in Pendleton. Cowgirls and their horses negotiate the transitions from the grass to the dirt for each turn and the long run home, which is somewhat downhill thanks to the banked nature of the track at each end of the stadium.
Competitors have started calling it “The Green Mile.”
Joining the barrel racers in 2017, the WPRA breakaway ropers have been given their turn at the famed grass and incredible conditions here. The Round-Up invited the best 16 breakaway ropers from the Columbia River Circuit standings to compete in the opening two performances of the rodeo.
The ladies literally covered the long and short of it here in Pendleton. With the quickest and the longest events, the WPRA gave timed event competitors other than barrel racers their first shot at a Round-Up title in nearly a century.
The breakaway ropers in the Northwest states of Washington and Oregon have enjoyed a boom in their event at professional rodeos sanctioned with the PRCA. Thirty percent of the rodeos in the Columbia River Circuit hosted a WPRA approved breakaway roping in 2017 and membership is up nearly five-fold.
In Pendleton, the ladies roped under the same conditions as the cowboys of the PRCA. Pendleton has the long score—calves are not nestled into a chute to start the run from in front of the roper but are instead chased from the back pens down a long chute, sixty feet to the start line. Ropers back into a box at the top of the embankment on the track and wait for the calf to shoot by them, beginning their chase off the hill and hoping to gauge their position at the barrier just right.
It was a new experience for all 16 ladies to work such a score and to hit the grass infield once they’d cleared the barrier.
The 16 contestants were split into two groups, eight during the Wednesday opening performance and eight more in the Thursday, Tough Enough to Wear Pink performance.
Washington cowgirl Jennifer Casey—who has spearheaded much of the movement to bring breakaway roping to the pro rodeos—was the first lady off the hill and her competitors followed one by one over the two days of roping.
“WOW, what a day yesterday!” Casey posted to the Columbia River Circuit Breakaway Roping Updates Facebook page. “To get to run a calf off the hill, was like no other feeling! That paired with roping at Ellensburg last week on a long score and hard running cattle, were some of the best roping experiences of my life!”
When the dust had cleared, Outlook, Wash., cowgirl Gracie Wiersma took home the title. Wiersma roped last on day one and put up a time of 2.5 seconds to set a bar too high for anyone to match. There were two other runs under three seconds, Sarah Morrissey (2.7) and Danielle Jennings (2.9) and Kelli Wiersma’s 3.0 second run filled the fourth and final money hole.
Gracie Wiersma came to the Round-Up ranked eighth in the Columbia River standings and with just the Othello (WA) rodeo left to contest this Friday and Saturday, she moves to sixth after picking up $1,072 as the inaugural Pendleton Round-Up breakaway champion.
Jennings’ third place check moved her off the bubble spot of 12th and into a safer position at 10th while Kelli Wiersma moved to within about $40 of the 12th and final spot into the Ram Columbia River Circuit Finals Rodeo (RCRCFR).
At the end of the weekend, the top 12 in the standings will earn a spot at the circuit finals, annually held in Yakima, Wash.,the first weekend of November. They will get three full rounds, just like the other events, and a champion will be crowned.
The winner will earn a beautiful saddle donated by Hermann Bros Logging and Construction as well as JJ Harrison while all the competitors will vie for awards and prize money sponsored by the Last Stand Rodeo in Coulee City, the Wickenburg Downtown Arena in Arizona (Mike and Karen Fuller), the Scrivner Arena (Shelli and Joel Scrivner), La Cabana Restaurant in Royal City, Wash., and the Old Mill in Ellensburg, Wash.
New Plymouth, Idaho cowgirl Shelli Scrivner leads the circuit standings despite taking a no-time in Pendleton; she also competed in the barrel racing, the only cowgirl to double up this year. She has won $6,143 in the breakaway in the seven Columbia River Circuit rodeos which have hosted the event thus far. Those contests were held in Coulee City (WA), Canby (OR), Moses Lake (WA), Kennewick (WA), Coeur d’Alene (ID), Ellensburg (WA) and Pendleton.
Meanwhile, on the Green Mile, twenty-four more ladies took their shot at leader Kimmie Wall with none coming within a half a second of Wall’s extremely quick time of 28.54 seconds.
New Zealand cowgirl Carmel Wright was the fastest of the opening performance on Wednesday, September 13 with her run of 29.47 aboard her mare Luna. Wright landed in 12th position but was bumped from her spot on Thursday by Kennewick, Wash., cowgirl Jolene Douglas-Hoburg.
More than 100 ladies entered the Round-Up barrel race in 2017; each lady got one run, either in the Monday afternoon slack or in one of the three rodeo performances Wednesday through Friday. The twelve fastest from the opening go round advance to the finals on Saturday afternoon.
Douglas-Hoburg rode Yin My Eyes, aka Punky, an eight year old gelding who had never run the Green Mile before Thursday. Being nearly local, Douglas-Hoburg had made the trip herself several times. Punky was raised by her in-laws and was bred to be a race horse but, ironically, didn’t have the speed needed for the track.
Douglas-Hoburg landed 10th thus far with twelve cowgirls left to run on Friday. The final set includes Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR) bound Tillar Murray, former WNFR average winner Brenda Mays, three-time Pendleton champion Christy (Loflin) Hefley and Teri Bangart, the Washington cowgirl who has finished in the top five here the last two years.
Results (following slack)
1. Kimmie Wall, TKW Bullys Famous Fox, 28.54
2. Sydni Blanchard, Mr. Famous Jess, 28.81
3. Jackie Ganter, Cartels Fame, 28.91
4. Ericka Nelson, Goodfrenchmanfriday, 28.95
5. Courtney Frazier, Shall I Be First, 28.96
6. Jody Tucker, Streakin for Mama, 28.97
7. Nicole Laurence, Bullys Little Dash, 29.08
8. Ari-Anna Flynn, Tobys Pococ Misterio, 29.08
9. Tobi Richardson, 29.09
10. Jolene Douglas-Hoburg, Yin My Eyes, 29.18
11. Leah Crockett, 29.35
12. Jana Bean, It’s Complicated, 29.39
Courtesy of WPRA