By Jolee Jordan
Pendleton, Oregon — The long course at the Pendleton Round-Up can challenge the nerves of even the most seasoned of riders—WPRA barrel racers navigate the huge course from grass to dirt and back again as they sprint across the football field which makes up the Round-Up arena while taking each corner on the surrounding dirt track. The sheer length of the pattern can be enough to give pause as runs take more than half a minute to complete.
The cowgirls who qualified to the Championship Round on Saturday, September 17, 2016 were challenged even more when a threatening rain storm which had parked over the arena for most of the day finally let loose just as the barrel course was being set up.
But as the 2016 regular season has almost reached its conclusion, one thing has become apparent: Texas cowgirl Stevi Hillman is unflappable.
The runner-up for 2012’s WPRA Rookie of the Year title, Hillman has shown nerves of steel this summer as she gathered up big time wins at places like Reno, Casper and Pueblo, a stop on the Wrangler Champions Challenge Tour presented by Justin Boots.
Hillman decided to give the world famous Pendleton Round-Up a try for the first time in 2016.
“It was on my bucket list to come here and have fun,” says the cowgirl, who is ranked seventh in the WPRA World standings and has virtually assured herself a spot in the 2016 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR).
After spending much of her summer aboard Cuatro Fame, Hillman had been relying more heavily on the young gun, Morning Traffic as the summer crept into fall.
“She was my back up horse; she came out here just to help him [Cuatro],” says Hillman. “He got a little tired so it was nice for her to step up.”
Martini as the mare is known, is a five year old daughter of PESI stallion Frenchmans Guy out of the Dash thru Traffic mare, Evening Traffic. Hillman trained the pretty palomino for owners Cody and Michelle Darling and campaigned her through her four year old futurity season last year.
“They’ve allowed me to ride her [this summer] and it’s been fun to have her out here with us,” notes Hillman. Martini has piled on her share of winnings, from the Pueblo win to a third place finish at the Justin Boots Playoffs at Puyallup just last week.
“She likes to be the No. 1 horse and she’s taken up the slack for sure,” Hillman says. “She’s amazing.”
Hillman make her opening run at Pendleton during the Monday afternoon slack, seizing the lead with a 29.64 second run. That mark would hold up throughout the entire rodeo, winning the long round and putting Hillman in the Championship round.
“I knew she could run,” Hillman says of transitioning from the 14-second pattern at Puyallup to Pendleton overnight. “She likes to run, so I figured it was either going to be the fastest runaway anybody’s ever seen or it’s going to be really good.”
“She was in my hands and paying attention,” Hillman notes humbly of her round winning run. “She was totally listening to me.”
Hot on her heels was reigning Pendleton champ Kimmie Wall who stopped the clock at 29.77 followed by Columbia River Circuit cowgirl Terri Bangart, the only other barrel racer to clock less than 30 seconds in the long go. She posted a 29.85 second run.
The ladies make one round before the field of 12 is set for the finals. With its huge committee purse of $35,000 and 83 barrel racing entries, the Round-Up’s total payoff lands at nearly $50,000.
The 11 cowgirls who came back Saturday (the 12th position was split and therefore the ties were dropped per WPRA rules) faced a long wait. With the dawning of Saturday came overcast skies and intermittent rain storms through the morning. By the beginning of Military Day at the Round-Up, the rain had paused but the skies remained gloomy.
Pendleton is a rodeo steeped in history and tradition, dating back to the first Round-Up 106 years ago. As such, it’s a long performance full of rodeo action and Native American pageantry from Indian relay races to the daily dancing during intermission. The WPRA barrel racing is the last pro rodeo event of the rodeo, coming after the bull riding and steer roping contests, usually more than three hours into the show.
After a long day of watching the skies, the barrel racers were invited out onto the Round-Up infield just as the rains began to come steadily down. As the steer roping and all around champions were crowned, the ladies waited.
“That was very nerve wracking,” laughs Hillman. “I saw the forecast earlier, that there was a percentage for rain, and I was just hoping it would hold off.”
As Hillman prepared for her run, she made a decision.
“I had to mentally block it all out and know that my horse stands up. I had to just go make my same run,” she notes. “It worked out for me.”
Drawing ninth to run, Hillman watched as first Carmel Wright and then Wall were able to break 30 seconds. Wright and her five year old mare Luna clocked in at 29.94 and then the ever consistent Wall and Foxy put up 29.77 seconds, the exact same time she ran in the opening round.
Pam Capper would test Wall’s lead hard, posting a 29.69 second run aboard Jesse, a run that surely cinched up her first trip to Las Vegas in December. Her two-run total landed .17 hundredths behind Wall.
When Hillman’s name was called, she and Martini came running at the course the barrel racers call “the green mile.” Scampering across the grass in straight lines, the mare made three beautiful turns and finished strong down the very long run home. The clock showed 29.72 seconds and Hillman’s name immediately went to the top of the two run average with 59.36 seconds.
“She was great,” Hillman says. “Today, it may have been me, but she set a little sooner than I wanted [into the second]. You over think it when you’ve already been there . . . it was easy on the first run.”
“She did great, I’m incredibly blessed,” says Hillman, who thanked not only the Darlings but also Cuatro’s owners Melissa and Jason Mouton. “It’s been an amazing year.”
After waiting out the final two runners, Hillman was named 2016 Round-Up champ and received all the loot that goes with the big payoff including a new saddle, buckle, clothes, boots, a leather jacket, Pendleton wool blanket, pocket watch, Yeti cooler and of course a bottle of Pendleton Whiskey. Luckily, her husband Ty was along to help pack the goods home.
But the excitement doesn’t end with the winner’s photo session on the track—each champion has her new saddle thrown on a horse so that she can make a wrap around the Pendleton arena . . . usually at break neck speed.
“I was still out of breathe from my run, I was almost last out anyway. Then I had to run to the other horse and I was still out of breathe,” she laughs. “And the stirrups were too long . . . and it was raining. It was just all kinds of excitement!”
After adding another $11,391 to her bank account, Hillman now heads home to Texas. She will finish the final week of 2016 aboard Martini, giving Cuatro a rest, and will regroup back to indoor runs after a summer spent in big outdoor arenas. Saying she feels both her horses do well indoors, Hillman is now focused on Las Vegas.
“I have the best team of horses I could ask for,” she notes.
“It’s been a dream come true,” Hillman says of winning prestigious titles. “I have no words for things like winning Reno or Pendleton.”
Wall finished second, giving her a three year total of more than $24,000 in earnings in Pendleton. Capper won the finals here for the second straight year and she has won nearly as much as Wall in that same time frame. Like Hillman, both cowgirls will be in Las Vegas in December for their first WNFR’s.
For more information on the Pendleton Round Up, visit them on-line at www.pendletonroundup.com.
Stevi Hillman, Morning Traffic, 29.64 seconds, $4,915
Kimmie Wall, TKW Bullys Famous Fox, 29.77, $4,213
Teri Bangart, Streaking Honor Kid, 29.85, $3,511
Pam Capper, Sheza Smooth Flight, 30.02, $3,043
Jana Bean, UR One Famous Rebel, 30.28, $2,341
Darby Fox, Always on Go, 30.29, $1,873
Carmel Wright, Fortunes Last Xtreme, 30.31, $1,404
Sydni Blanchard, Mr. Famous Jess, 30.33, $936
Cayla Melby, Docs Frosty Blue Bar, 30.39, $702
Paige Willis, Goodfrenchmanfriday, 30.45, $468
Mindy Goemmer, Cuchara Fancy N Fast, 30.48
Capper, 29.69, $2,081
Hillman, 29.72, $1,560
Wall, 29.77, $1,040
Wright, 29.94, $520
Hillman, 59.36, $4,915
Wall, 59.54, $4,213
Capper, 59.71, $3,511
Wright, 60.25, $3,043
Bangart, 60.68, $2,341
Melby, 60.79, $1,873
Blanchard, 61.00, $1,404
Bean, 61.41, $936
Fox, 62.09, $702
Willis, 64.33, $468
Total Money Won
Courtesy of WPRA