As early as she can remember, Sierra Spratt has been practicing her barrel pattern.
Right turn. Left turn. Left turn, then straight home as fast as possible.
When Sierra was 3, her mom arranged soup cans on the living room floor in the triangle that would become so familiar to her. Her sister, 3 years older, placed Tootsie Rolls on the sides of the cans where she was supposed to turn.
First she walked, then jogged the cloverleaf pattern. Before she rode it on a living, breathing horse, she rode it on her stick horse.
And now, 17 years later, as Sierra competed in her first College National Finals Rodeo over the past week, both her sister and her mom were there to watch her turn barrels – the little girl who used to ride a stick horse around soup cans now competing in the college sport’s top competition.
For those unacquainted with rodeo, the event itself may seem glitzy and theatrical. The announcers’ voices boom, the jeans sparkle and the chaps are brightly colored. There are clowns and music and a dramatic opening to every evening’s performance.
But the long road to compete is anything but glamorous. For months, the college students have woken early to feed horses. They’ve painstakingly rehabilitated their mounts from injuries and saved up for equipment. They’ve broken bones, washed dirty jeans and worn holes in boots.
Many of them didn’t do it alone, however. For many, a love of rodeo was born of family tradition. Parents accompanied them on the hundreds of miles of road between competitions. There are dads who have helped rouse the sleepy calf roper at 3 a.m. to load the horses. There are moms who have held a barrel horse while its rider uses the bathroom and sisters who have waited anxiously for their brother to get up after a nasty fall.
Or as Sierra Spratt put it: Rodeo’s a lifestyle.
Her sister, K.L., also competed at CNFR this year, her third time qualifying. Both women credit their mom — a former CNFR rider herself — for their success. She was the one who taught them how to ride and continues to train some of their horses.
“She’s been our everything,” Sierra Spratt said. “She’s the first person we have to talk to after a run.”
“It’s pretty cool following in her footsteps,” K.L. Spratt said.
For some, unsuspecting parents were suddenly drawn into rodeo life by a child’s sudden interest in the sport. For others, like the Spratt sisters, rodeo is in their blood.
Either way, it takes a team to get a competitor to CNFR. Here are some of those family’s stories.
‘I wouldn’t be here without them’
Steer wrestler Chet Boren is soft-spoken, but when he talks about his parents he becomes more animated.
“It means everything to me” to have his parents at CNFR to watch him ride, he said. “They’ve been my support system my whole life. I wouldn’t be here without them”
Chet, like his three siblings, started competing in rodeos when he was 8. Together, the family of five has traveled to countless competitions across the region.
And through all those long days and countless miles, Boren’s dad, Kent, specifically remembers one of his son’s rides.
While competing in goat tying at a junior rodeo, Chet fell while running toward the goat and twisted his knee. But the boy didn’t stop. Instead, he crawled on his arms and one leg to the goat and finished the ride.
“He was a tough little fart,” Kent said Wednesday. “There’s no stopping him.”
Chet’s parents have watched him compete hundreds of times, and yet watching their son compete still thrills them — in fact it’s become even more so as he’s gotten older, they said. The excitement is so much that almost every video his mom shoots is shaky.
“They say I hyperventilate,” she said, laughing.
The ‘pony girls’ all grown up
While Chet’s parents were old hands when they started rodeo, Madison Crow’s parents were thrust into the sport and its unique culture when their twin daughters attended Rodeo Houston and decided they wanted to be barrel riders.
The twins — known as the “pony girls” when they were young — have since competed all over the country. While the girls were in college over the past four years, their parents attended all 40 of their major competitions.
Now that the girls are grown, there’s less for their parents to do. Their mom, Patty, no longer holds their belts while they get ready or helps them saddle their mounts. The young women now feed their own horses and haul them to appointments.
But their dad, Roger, still likes to drive the twins and their horses to competitions. He doesn’t mind the long hours. It gives his daughters time to rest and study.
Plus, he said, it’s a way he can spend weekends with his two daughters who, like most kids, have grown up too fast.
A season of empty seats
But for one goat tier, it’s an empty pair of seats where her parents should be sitting that reminds her of her roots.
Like her mother and father before her, Tawny Berry has competed in rodeos her entire life. She was so young when her parents taught her to ride on their cattle ranch in Carter, South Dakota, that her memories of the experience are fuzzy.
She does remember her mom teaching her how to tie goats and cheering her on at many rodeos in her youth. But cancer has largely kept Tawny’s mom from watching her daughter compete during her final college years.
Nine years ago, doctors diagnosed Tawny’s mom with breast cancer. Although she beat it the first time, it returned two years ago and spread quickly to her liver and lung cavity.
The constant regimen of chemotherapy, surgery and other treatments has kept her mom from watching Tawny compete all of this past season. At times, the recent graduate of Eastern New Mexico University has wanted to give up on competing and school and just return home.
But her mom made her promise she would graduate. And her mom made a promise as well — she would drive the six hours to watch Tawny ride if she made it to the Saturday finals. Her parents already came out to watch her ride on Wednesday — the first time they saw her compete all season — but had to return home.
The chance to have her mom watch her ride as a college rodeo athlete one more time has pushed Tawny to qualify for Saturday’s performance.
“I know that my mom’s proud of me no matter what,” she said through tears on Thursday. “But she’s been my biggest drive to get to Saturday.”
The 21-year-old draws strength from her mom. A number of times, doctors told her she had only a few months to live. Despite the prognosis, her mom kept fighting. It’s been faith and grit that has kept her mom alive, Tawny said. She only hopes to emulate that strength.
“She hates to lose. And I’m not a very good loser, either,” she said. “I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”