Loving and Losing Horses (Part 2)

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

photo by Matt Cohen / Cowboy Journal

I put away childish things.

by Sarah Rose McDonald

This concludes “Loving and Losing Horses.” Start this epic journey with Part 1, available here.

I was such a homebody growing up. I never traveled much. The farthest I ever went for a horse show was probably Jackson, Mississippi. I didn’t know where any of the western states were. Still, something just came over me in 2014. I knew I needed to give rodeoing a shot.

I got my pro card in the summer of 2014. I entered a circuit rodeo back East and filled my permit the very first weekend. I was like, Alright, this is going pretty good. I visited my friend, Erika, in North Georgia, and we made our plan to head West.

I remember telling Uncle Stephen and Larry, who owned Bling, that I wanted to go on the road, even though I didn’t have a truck and trailer. They were super hesitant.

“Bling’s petite,” Uncle Stephen said. “She’s not going to hold up rodeoing. She’s so special to all of us in different ways.”

“I gotta do this,” I said. “Please let me take her.”

I knew Bling and knew she could handle it. She was sensitive and finicky. At first, she wouldn’t let people touch her. Once I started riding her, I was the one she came to. I figured out what she liked and what she didn’t. She started trusting me. Once we started traveling to barrel races, we really bonded.

There was something else, too. For so many years, barrel racing kept us together—me, my uncle, Larry, my Dad. It was hard for them to understand why I was going away to rodeo. Rodeo isn’t really understood where I’m from. They were probably picturing the kind of rodeos around Brunswick, where they set up a portable arena and till up the grass. I’m sure they thought I was crazy taking off. It was pretty crazy. But I was determined to try.

Uncle Stephen and Larry eventually agreed to let me take Bling. My parents were supportive, as they always are. They were like, All you can do is try. And if it goes bad, just come home.

I didn’t know where to start. By chance, one day at a barrel race a lady told me I should call Ann Thompson. “She enters tons of girls,” she said. Ann lives in Texas. She made the NFR back in the 1970s and helps barrel racers plan their rodeo calendar.

I called Ann, and she agreed to help. For some reason that I still don’t understand, I set my sites on the rodeo in Casper, Wyoming, nineteen-hundred miles away. “Start driving,” Ann said after entering me. “And call me when you get there.”

By the time of Casper, Cowboy Christmas was already over, and I didn’t even have five grand won. I wasn’t thinking about making the National Finals Rodeo, like everybody else. I was just trying to figure out where we should park the trailer and hoping I didn’t embarrass myself.

At Casper, me and Bling placed in the first go-round. We won the finals round. And we finished high in the average. People told me I had a good rodeo, but I didn’t know what a good rodeo was!

Okay, let’s go to the next rodeo!

We drove 450 miles west to Spanish Fork, Utah, for the Fiesta Days Rodeo, a rich one-header. Bling and I won! We set a new arena record—16.77—and added nearly six grand to my growing total.

Ann kept sending me to rodeos, and I kept running and winning. By the middle of August, me and Erika drove home to Georgia. Ann called. “Don’t stay home,” she said. “Get back out there! Keep going. You’ve got a shot at winning WPRA Rookie of the Year!”

Bling and I went back out West with another friend, Casey, and her rig.

By the last weekend of the season, I was more than twelve thousand dollars behind Kimmie Wall, who was in the lead for Rookie of the Year. Catching her seemed impossible, but so had everything else I had accomplished in my first summer rodeoing.

I had one last shot at Omaha, Nebraska. In addition to the rodeo, I had a chance at two more purses because of the Justin Boots Championships, which I qualified for by being in the top twenty-four in the world. I won the rodeo at Omaha. That allowed me to advance to the Justin Boots Champions Challenge. I remember getting ready for that final run. Kimmie, who did not advance to the Champions Challenge, came by and wished me good luck. I told her thanks and tried not to let the stress get to me. It was crazy to think that it all came down to that last run. I needed to finish in the top three.

I finished second!

Ten weeks earlier, when I struck out for Casper, it was because of a feeling I had. Now, I was walking away from my brief 2014 season with sixty-four thousand dollars won and the Rookie of the Year belt buckle. And I almost made the NFR! I ended up nineteenth, six grand behind the fifteenth spot. I was headed back to Georgia with so many people I need to thank—people that God sent. There’s no other way it could have happened.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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On a Roll

Bling and I only had a few weeks of down time before the 2015 season started. That fall, we won the All-American Pro Rodeo Finals in Waco, Texas, and placed second in my circuit. Back when I was competing and winning on Jerry, my mindset was always, I want to do the best I can on the horse that I have at the show that I’m at. Now, for the first time ever, I thought, If I do this all year long I can make the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

January rolled around, and we went to the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver. We didn’t do so great. I remember thinking, Oh no, what am I going to do? This was my first time at the big winter rodeos. Had last summer been a fluke?

At the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, we won the first go-round. At the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, we won all three rounds in our set. We were on a roll. Back at Fort Worth, we won the second go-round. Then, we won the Fort Worth short-go—and the finals and the average! I was so new to rodeo, I didn’t realize how rare that was. Looking back, it’s like, Wow, I can’t believe that happened.

I was really getting to know Bling and how she ran. Warming up, I could tell a lot about how we were going to do. If I tried to lope a circle and she ran off, I’d point her to the nearest fence and get off and know we were going to do good. I wouldn’t pick on her about it, because she always turned the barrels. Other people might have corrected her. I guess because I had so much trust in her, I just kind of smiled. It was a sign she was ready to win some money.

Bling loved crowds. And the crowds loved her. She was one of these horses that catch your eye, starting with her color. She was a bay roan, but she changed with the seasons. In summer, she’d get really light. In winter, she would darken, and her bay would come back on her legs and face. And she was super athletic. I could feel that when I rode her. She would make moves that other horses can’t even think about making.

She drew off the energy of the spectators. She preferred running in the perfs over the slacks. I think that’s one reason she did so well at the big winter rodeos. At Rodeo Houston, I finished in the top four. We were hitting twenty-grand licks at these rodeos. By the end of March, I was first in the world and almost had enough to make the National Finals. I decided to go home and turn Bling out. Some people were surprised, but I thought she deserved a rest.

We started back in the summer. The winning streak continued. We did good at Reno. I only went to three rodeos during Cowboy Christmas—Greeley, Cody and Livingston—but we made it count, winning over ten grand. If I made a short round somewhere that I ran early that week and was entered in other rodeos, I would turn out of those to stay where I made the short round.

Even after taking time off, I went into my first NFR at third in the world. I was nervous. On the first night, we tipped the first barrel. I was pretty upset. I didn’t want that to be how my week went. But I relaxed and put it behind me. The next night, we placed.

In Vegas, I focused all my attention on taking care of Bling. Dr. Marty Tanner looked at her every day. We were giving her magnetic-pulse therapy, putting poultices on her legs, packing her hooves with Magic Cushion—everything I could think of to pamper her.

By the end of the ten rounds, Bling and I won three go-rounds—and more money than any other barrel racer. I finished the 2015 season third in the world.

Considering how big her heart was, I think she would have kept running ten more rounds if I’d have asked her to.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen

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A Hiccup

I started the 2016 season feeling way more comfortable rodeoing. But something was wrong with Bling. At Fort Worth, we placed in the first go-round, but we didn’t make the finals. I could just tell she wasn’t one-hundred percent. I had her checked out, but the vet didn’t find anything wrong with her bones or ligaments.

We went to San Antonio, my favorite arena to run Bling in. It’s really small, and I could push Bling past the barrels. But during our first go, Bling was a half-second off. I knew her so well. I was like, She doesn’t seem right. We went straight to the vet. He found an ulcer on her epiglottis. She was having trouble getting enough air. He put her on antibiotics and let her rest. Fortunately, this year I had a good backup horse named Jewel that Trip duPerier and his daughter, Callie, let me haul.

Bling had helped me get through all kind of difficult times in my life. I always imagined Bling growing old and retiring. We were going to raise her babies.

By early March, I only had about ten thousand won, compared to six times that the previous year. Three days before The American in Arlington, Texas, I still didn’t know which horse I was running. This was my chance to win $100,000. It didn’t count towards my PRCA winnings, but I still needed the money. The vet said Bling was healthy enough, but I hadn’t been running her. Bling got me to The American, I thought. She deserved to run there. I’m just gonna do it.

I can’t really explain it, but when we showed up at AT&T Stadium, I knew we were going to do good. I wasn’t worried about anything. I felt at peace. That’s what it was like being back on Bling.

My intuition was right. We won The American! The money was great, but mostly I was excited to have my horse back. It was such a relief to know that she was going to be okay and we could start getting back in our groove.

Right before the summer, I started hauling with Taylor Jacob. She taught me a ton about entering and planning the rodeo season. With her help, I had a strong Fourth of July run. She had her rig. I had my rig. We sent Bling and her horse, Bo, up to Canada with Taylor’s mom. Our backup horses took the southern route—down to Pecos, Texas, and Prescott, Arizona—and later to St. Paul, Oregon. We were chartering planes. It was crazy!

No matter how crazy things got, I always made taking care of Bling a priority. It was hard sending her off. I wasn’t sure I wanted to keep doing that. Normally, I didn’t even leave Bling to go to town to eat. I was always with her. If she didn’t like a certain feed, I had a backup feed she would like. I did things that some people might think are extreme. But when your horse tries that hard for you, and you’re winning, you do whatever it takes to keep them happy.

All the attention must have worked. By the end of the season, I was eighth in the world and looking forward to another trip to the Thomas & Mack.

That fall, I tried to keep Bling as fresh as possible. She looked good every time I checked. There was nothing wrong with her.

At the NFR, I didn’t do as good as the year before. I didn’t win any go-rounds, but I placed in some and got second a couple times. That’s just how it goes when you’re up against the best in the world.

All in all, we had another great year, and I was looking forward to 2017.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


One Minute, My World Was Great

After the NFR, we went home to rest. I decided to give Bling a break until the rodeo in Fort Worth, which start in mid-January. Uncle Stephen and Larry wanted to use that down time to get some embryos from Bling. They already had a baby on the ground from her and wanted a couple more.

The week after the NFR, I dropped Bling off at a breeding facility in Oklahoma. That was kind of hard for me, but she had been there before, and when I left her in a big grass lot, she seemed happy. Back home, every time I called to check on Bling, they said she was doing great. I was planning to pick her up the first week of January and haul her to Denver for the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo.

On January the 5th at nine o’clock at night, the phone rang. It was the vet from the breeding facility.

“Bling’s down,” he said. “She’s tying up.”

My mind started racing. Okay she’s tying up. Have you given her Banamine? What all have you done? They wouldn’t really say how bad it was.

“Let me call you right back. I’m going to call my vet, Dr. Tanner,” I said. “He knows her really well. I’ll have him call you.”

I knew Dr. Tanner would be honest with me about the situation. Bling had tied up a couple times in the past, but it was never anything that Banamine didn’t fix. I don’t know how much time passed, but Dr. Tanner eventually called.

“I’m sorry, Sarah, but it’s really bad,” he said. She was dehydrated. Her kidneys were failing.

My whole body got weak. I broke down in tears. I turned to my boyfriend, Tyler Waguespack. “I have to see Bling,” I said. “We have to go right now!”

The ranch was eight hours away. Tyler and I jumped in his truck and took off. I was still holding out hope. If I can just get there, I thought. She might feel better if she sees me.

About halfway there, my phone rang again. It was the vet. “I’m sorry,” he said. “We tried everything, but Bling didn’t make it.”

“I’m still coming,” I said. “Please don’t do anything with her until I get there.”

It was early the next morning when we arrived. They had waited up for me. I sat with Bling for a while. I collected her shoes and cut a strand of her hair. I wanted to save more of her hair, but she was just so beautiful I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

What just happened? One minute, my world was great. My horse was happy. I was planning to haul her to Denver in a few days. The next minute, she was dead.

I know other people lose horses and it hurts, but I had a really hard time when Bling died. It wasn’t so much the competing and winning. I was around that horse all the time. She had helped me get through all kind of difficult times in my life. I always imagined Bling growing old and retiring. We were going to raise her babies. She was only ten. That’s when horses start to reach their prime. Bling wasn’t even to her best yet.

Nothing could prepare me for losing Bling. It was hard when Bones and Flicka died. I was just a girl. But this was different. I cried so much. I would be doing things, and it would all just hit me again, and I would get super sick. I went through that for a while. Then I would feel angry. Why did this happen? Why in the world would this happen?

I came close to giving up on rodeoing. It would have been the easy thing to say, I can’t do it. I don’t want to do anything with horses at all. But when I thought of how hard we had worked to get where we did, I knew I had to keep going. I had to keep trying.

I’ve been fortunate to ride some very good horses, and they all had really strong personalities. They have to. To rodeo you have to be tough, physically and mentally. I remember my rookie year, especially towards the end, when me and Bling were really hustling. We would travel so far. We were both exhausted. I was like, Okay, Bling, a couple more rodeos, and I promise you’ll get a break. You can do it. She always delivered. I was just as exhausted, but she lifted me up.

I think back on all the doors that have opened and the people I met through Bling that are such a big part of my life now. If it weren’t for Bling, I wouldn’t have taken a chance in the rodeo. And then where would I be?

I remember back to when I first started rodeoing, back when the only thing driving me was a deep, deep feeling. When you don’t even understand but still keep trying—that’s the definition of faith.

photo by Matt Cohen

photo by Matt Cohen


Finding Dutch

It was hard at first, going on the road after Bling died. That winter, I was entered in all the big rodeos. Bling got me there. I didn’t want to waste everything we worked for. But I didn’t really have a horse to keep going on, only a five-year-old mare, Diamond, who was green, green, green. For some crazy reason, I took her to Denver, to the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo. We got there, and it was snowing. There was ice everywhere. I didn’t have any place to warm up. This was Colorado vs. The World Rodeo. I was crying in the back before our run, remembering the times I ran Bling there. Why am I doing this? It’s way to early to try this. I was a mess.

But as the months passed, the hurt softened. I found more strength. I would show up somewhere and start remembering being there with Bling, but instead of crying I would smile. Like at Fort Worth, I sat there in the alleyway remembering Bling, and I felt a calmness settle over me. I wasn’t sad anymore. It was more like, Wow, I can’t believe we won this rodeo.

Considering how young she was, Diamond did really good. She was upbeat and had a lot of try. But I needed a more seasoned horse. I turned to Taylor a lot for help. We tried a lot of horses, but none of them felt right. I was about to give up, when Taylor called. It was the end of October, 2017.

“You need to try this horse,” she told me. She was talking about a thirteen-year-old sorrel gelding named Dutch. A lady in North Dakota was selling him.

“I’m kind of over that,” I said. “I’ve looked at so many horses. I need a break.”

“Whatever, but I’m going to enter you on him in the Casper rodeo,” she said. “You just buy your flight.”

“No! I don’t want to enter. Don’t enter me.”

Later that afternoon I looked at my email, and I had the callback for Casper. I was like, Gosh dangit! I told you not to enter me. But I booked a flight anyway.

I landed and met Jackie Shaw and her horse, Dutch. He was standing there in his stall, eating hay, the calmest horse I could ever imagine. The next morning, I was up in the slack. We were getting ready, and Jackie handed me his bit—a smooth mouthpiece O-ring. That’s the lightest bit you can have. Already, I knew Dutch was different.

When I agreed to come, I told Taylor, “I’m going to run him, and if I’m in the top of placing in the rodeo, then I’ll buy him. But if I don’t do awesome in this one run, I’m done looking.”

We barely hit the second barrel, but otherwise his time would have been fast enough to win. That was enough of a sign for me. I was like, Okay, I have to buy him.

Photo by Matt Cohen   

Photo by Matt Cohen


Dutch is my only horse now. We pretty much had to start over rodeoing after not qualifying for much during 2017, but I’m really excited about where he’s taking me.

Dutch is not super flashy, but he’s built well. He’s stout, not petite. He’s built to last. He’s the opposite of every horse I ever ran or rode. He’s super calm. You just sit up there, and it’s like he’s saying, I’ll take care of us. He doesn’t want you to be in his way. I’m used to running horses that turn barrels super tight, but you have to push them to clock. Dutch is super fast. He can go past a barrel a stride and still clock good.

I don’t want people to think when you buy a seasoned horse it’s gonna be a fairy tale. It’s been a difficult transition. Jackie had Dutch for thirteen years. He was used to her. She was used to him. At first, he wouldn’t let me touch him on his face. I’m sure he was like, You’re not my mom. Where is she? But he got used to me and is real personal with me. I also had to learn his timing. He’s so different from Bling.

I got Dutch right after Thanksgiving of 2017. One of the first places I took him was to a big barrel race in Memphis. I was nervous. I felt over my head. I wasn’t totally confident on Dutch yet.

During the first run, there were something like six-hundred people entered in the go-round, and we won! That was the moment. I was like, Okay, I need to trust him. We can be a good team. I can go far on Dutch.

Because I spent 2017 seasoning Diamond, I didn’t do good enough to make it into the 2018 winter rodeos. Instead, I started at the circuit rodeos in Florida and me and Dutch have been slowly climbing the ladder back to the top.

Dutch is a super cool horse. He was the horse that I needed. It’s funny, when I look back at all the horses I’ve ridden, they all seemed to have a personality and style that fit exactly how my life was at the time. That’s what I take from all this—that things happen when they’re meant to happen. You just have to pay attention.

And if a feeling deep inside you says go, you go.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen