By Jolee Jordan
Spanish Fork, Utah — This time a year ago, Stevi Hillman was at a crossroads in her attempt to qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR). With just over $15,000 won, the Weatherford, Texas cowgirl was making plans for one more push through the Reno Rodeo and the big Fourth of July run, knowing that it was make or break time and that she was headed home to regroup unless she could start putting some checks together.
As it turned out, Hillman and her big brown gelding Truck, who is registered Cuatro Fame, went on a big run, winning Reno and shooting into the top 15 by the end of the Fourth. Hillman would go on to compete in her first Wrangler NFR in December, finishing 11th in the final 2016 WPRA World standings.
Fast forward a year and the story is completely different for the former radiologic technician, who took a chance on chasing her barrel racing dreams. As the big summer run begins, Hillman is secure at fifth in the WPRA World standings with nearly $70,000 in the bank.
“This year has been so awesome,” notes Hillman. “Ty and I were just talking about this … at this time last year I had maybe $15,000 won and now we are at $67,000. It has just been a blessing.”
Hillman jump started her year with a big finish at the All American Pro Rodeo Finals in Waco, Texas last fall aboard the tough young mare Martini and then added a mid-winter win at Tucson, Ariz., on Sharpie, another young gelding that Hillman is seasoning to the rodeo road in 2017.
Meanwhile, Truck just kept trucking for Hillman throughout the winter, picking up checks steadily and earning a win at the Wrangler Silver Tour rodeo in Red Bluff, Calif.
With the Wrangler Champions Challenge (WCC) regular season coming to a close with three events at the end of May and first of June, Hillman elected to leave Truck in California with husband Ty while she flew home to Texas to compete on Sharpie.
“We had some off runs,” admits Hillman of the 10-year old gelding Truck, who is owned by Jason and Melissa Mouton. “I want to rest him some but he does better when it’s run after run after run. I think he gets kind of lazy!”
Picking up a pair of checks at the Redding Rodeo as well as the Redding WCC event, Hillman again left Truck in Ty’s hands as she went to work at the Old Fort Days in Fort Smith, Ark., running in both the aged events and the rodeo. In fact, she was named Reserve Derby Champ aboard Sharpie, who is owned by Matt and Bendi Dunn, and picked up a nice rodeo check as well.
Hillman returned to the West Coast in time for Santa Maria’s stop of the WCC tour. Held on Thursday, June 1, the WCC kicked off the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo.
Though they picked up a third place finish behind Lisa Lockhart and Tiany Schuster, Hillman felt her run was one of those “off runs,” just a tick from where she thought he could be. Then, the pair took a barrel penalty during their rodeo run the following day in slack.
A long drive to Utah followed as Hillman and her fellow WCC competitors headed for Spanish Fork, the final regular season stop on the five-city tour. The Finale will be held in September, on the final weekend of the 2017 regular season in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Spanish Fork is known throughout the WPRA for having one of the fastest tracks in the sport and Hillman was excited to compete there. Her excitement ratcheted up a notch after she saw the draw for Saturday night’s performance.
“I was so excited to draw up first on the ground as I had been drawing toward the bottom at most of them,” notes Hillman. “I just tried to take advantage.”
In front of the packed house, Hillman set a blistering pace, stopping the clock at 16.84 seconds on the full WPRA pattern.
“After three runs, he finally felt like he really fired,” Hillman says. “He felt like himself.”
Though the field really tested her with six of the eleven cowgirls breaking the 17-second barrier, Hillman held off for her first win on the WCC tour of the season.
“Holy cow, it was tough!”
After placing in the final three stops, Hillman finished second in the WCC standings behind Schuster with $8,352. Schuster was the only competitor to place at every stop, winning three and running second in the final two rodeos; she earned $17,864 in her five WCC runs.
For her part, Hillman had high praise for the WCC tour.
“They’re awesome,” she says. “I have to say thank you to all the committees and sponsors who put them on … not only are they good money for us, but there are so many kids and we get to sign autographs and meet so many of them.”
She posted to Facebook about the experience as well: “Makes my heart happy to see so many excited kids getting autographs, stickers and back numbers from the contestants, what an incredible thing to be a part of.”
“We have the chance to impact so many people,” says Hillman of the WCC events. “I’m so thankful to get to run in them.”
Having a platform is a big piece of what the Hillmans hope to achieve through Stevi’s success. Her husband Ty offers coaching services and has seen his business take off as well.
“God never ceases to amaze me,” Hillman says.
Though much of what the Hillmans do revolves around the jockey and trainer herself, she is quick to point out all the behind-the-scenes heroes.
“It takes an Army [for us to be on the road].”
From good friend and neighbor Carrie Reed, who keeps the Hillmans home in good shape while they’re on the road, to family like Hillman’s mother-in-law Ceri Archer and best friend Stevie Perkins, everybody pitches in. Hillman’s mother Sheila Salzbrenner often serves as horse hauler too.
“I couldn’t do this without them,” Hillman notes emphatically.
With her help all lined up, Hillman is looking forward to the summer run with Truck and Sharpie going different directions. The five year old who is registered MCM Imasharpguy will start in Texas while Truck tries to repeat in Reno. Then it is on to Greeley (Colo.) and Montana rodeos for Sharpie, while Truck tackles the Northwest run, eventually ending up in Calgary.
Perhaps no one is looking forward to the summer run as much as Lisa Lockhart. The two-time WPRA Reserve World Champ and $2 million winner has been without the services of her steady partner Louie, aka An Oakie with Cash, since the 2016 Wrangler NFR. Louie underwent surgery following the end of the season and will make his return just prior to the Fourth of July.
In the meantime, Lockhart has called upon the 19 year old, “semi-retired” Chisum and newcomer Rosa to meet her obligations in the WCC line up. Lockhart placed in Rapid City, the closest stop to her home in Oelrichs, S.D., back in February with Chisum but she and Rosa had not yet found the winning combination before they arrived on the West Coast.
“I’ve had her about a year and she had a little experience in the futurity world, not a lot,” notes Lockhart, adding that Rosa had been in the breeding shed before coming to her.
“It’s just kind of a menagerie,” she laughs. “I took her to some circuit rodeos in August and then just threw her into it this winter.”
With Chisum on the injured list most of last summer and just making a few runs this winter, the bulk of the work fell to Rosa. Lockhart noted that she would have preferred to keep the mare at smaller rodeos for now but the timing of the winter run didn’t allow that.
“She got thrown into some big venues … she made one run at San Antonio; I ran her at Houston and the Ram Finals (RNCFR in Kissimmee, Fla.).”
Used to riding horses she trained herself, Lockhart has been working to improve the lines of communication between herself and Rosa.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” she says of riding a horse she did not train. “Three people have ridden her and it’s taken me a long time to figure out what others have done with her and get our communication where she knows what I’m asking and I know how to ask.”
Along the way, Lockhart switched the electric running mare to the left barrel first.
“We made the switch before Houston and I think it’s made us both happy,” she laughs. “The ability is definitely there, it’s just keeping things tunneled in the right direction.”
Competing in Santa Maria, Lockhart and Rosa were breathtaking, with lightning fast turns and jaw dropping speed between the corners. Lockhart’s time of 17.13 seconds was nearly three tenths ahead of Schuster in second place.
“She was just flying down there to the first barrel,” Lockhart says. “It’s hard not to be over reactive with her. I actually caused a bobble before the first because I shut her down too soon.
“But we muddled through it and she was just absolutely flying around the second two.”
Rosa was bred and is owned by Alan Woodbury of Woody’s Performance Horse Feeds and came to Lockhart’s barn about a year ago.
Another pretty buckskin, rodeo announcers often still mistake the seven year old mare for her more famous stablemate.
“It’s funny, at Spanish Fork, we were running to the first barrel and I heard the Louie, Louie song,” Lockhart notes, adding with a chuckle that she shouldn’t hear the announcer. When Rosa made a huge move behind the turn, actually turning back on the same side, Lockhart heard the announcer say, ‘well, that’s not Louie!’ “I thought to myself, no kidding!”
Lockhart is happy with the mare’s progress, noting that she takes it slow with everything she rides, not getting in a hurry to make any artificial deadlines. She also notes that while some horses find consistency in their pattern early, it takes a lot more time for others.
“She’s like a bolt of electricity. Everything that happens, everything she does, is electric. So, it’s a lot of timing and seasoning … just keeping it all under wraps and going in the same direction.”
Her speed is no surprise given her pedigree. By Corona Cartel, Rosas Cantina CC is out of the Wrangler NFR qualifying mare Dash Ta Vanila, who carried Nikki Steffes-Hansen to Vegas in 2012.
With just Rosa for the winter, Lockhart has only been to 16 rodeos but made her first trip to Santa Maria in more than a decade to compete in the WCC event.
“I think I was there the first year it was in the new arena (Unocal Events Center), maybe 15 years ago,” Lockhart says. Rosa earned money in Hayward and was one out of the money in the Redding WCC event before striking it big in Santa Maria.
Though Lockhart ran into a little trouble in Spanish Fork, she still finished fourth in the WCC regular season event standings with $6,960. She is currently ranked 32nd in the WPRA World standings. She will have Louie and Rosa on the road beginning around the Fourth of July and will be in the field at the Calgary Stampede as well. Lockhart will be looking to repeat last year’s July run, where she went from outside the top fifteen to securely into her 10th Wrangler NFR in just over a month.
For more information on the Wrangler Champions Challenge and to see a broadcast schedule for the events on CBS Sports Network, visit prorodeo.com. For more information on the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo, visit them at www.elksrec.com.
Santa Maria Elks Rodeo & Parade
June 1, 2017, Santa Maria, CA
1. Lisa Lockhart, Rosas Cantina CC, 17.13, $3,944
2. Tiany Schuster, Show Mance, 17.42, $3,016
3. Stevi Hillman, Cuatro Fame, 17.63, $2,204
4. Kimmie Wall, TKW Bullysfamous Fox, 17.65, $1,508
5. Ivy Conrado, CFour Tibbie Stinson, 17.82, $928
6. Spanish Fork Champions Challenge
June 3, 2017, Spanish Fork, UT
1. Hillman, Cuatro Fame, 16.84, $3,944
2. Schuster, Show Mance, 16.88, $3,016
3. Conrado, CFour Tibbie Stinson, 16.91, $2,204
4. Amberleigh Moore, CP Dark Moon, 16.92, $1,508
5. Jackie Ganter, Cartels Fame, 16.94, $928
1. Schuster, $17,864
2. Hillman, $8,352
3. Conrado, $7,656
4. Lockhart, $6,960
5. Wall, $3,944
6. Kathy Grimes, $3,016
7. Ganter, $2,900
8. Jordan Moore/Pam Capper, $2,204
9. Amberleigh Moore, $1,508
10. Calyssa Thomas, $928
11. Nellie Miller, $464
Courtesy of WPRA