By Dale Cory
It really is the opportunity of a lifetime.
When the Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR) takes place at the South Point Equestrian Centre in Las Vegas Nov. 9 to 13, young Kristie Ward of Hobbema will be in attendance — ready to take on the best barrel racers in North America. And, she will not be the only member of the Ward family shooting for a buckle.
Ward, who attends Ponoka Composite High School, will compete in the junior barrels event after a successful season on the Northern Alberta Native Cowboys Association (NANCA) circuit that saw her finish near the top of the standings in both junior and ladies barrels.
Ward, who’s leaving for Las Vegas Nov. 5 along with her family, can’t wait to head state-side.
“I’m really excited to go to Las Vegas and to compete for a world championship, especially considering this is the first year that the INFR is taking junior barrel racers,” explains Ward, who placed in most rodeos, and in both events, during the season. “The NANCA finals were in Cold Lake. It wasn’t the best result I had hoped for, as my horse had two bad runs, knocking a barrel each day. But I still made money, and finished the season in fourth place for juniors and eighth in ladies.”
The result was good enough for Ward to qualify for nationals.
Ward, now 16, has been riding horses for as long as she can remember, and has been barrel racing since she was eight years old.
While some teenagers may have a tough time finding a hobby, Ward spends her days in school, and her evenings and weekends in the rodeo arena, practicing and competing.
“There is a lot of travelling and practicing, but I love it,” says Ward, who follows a strict routine when preparing for a competition. “Before a rodeo, I warm up my horse and concentrate or focus on my next run. I like to watch the other barrel racers to see how they do and how the ground is — and then hope we have a good run. It’s a great feeling when you make it to the pay window or win a buckle — and not so good if you knock a barrel or have a bad run. If we have a bad run we just work a little harder next time.”
Ward and her ride, Dreamer, must be a cohesive unit in order to succeed. That hasn’t come easy considering she has been working with a new mount this season.
“I have a new horse this year,” explains Ward. “We have had good days and bad days. We are still getting to know each other, but we are really starting to work well together. A good horse can be hard to find but I think we will do well together.
One of the reasons for Ward’s success may be attributed to the Broncs Rodeo Academy, a credit course now being offered at PCHS, and co-ordinated by teacher Alex Cripps. The program operates on the premise live animals must be incorporated into the curriculum, with weekly classes taking place at Galloway Ranch in the Usona district.
“If you want to learn, you have to teach using live animals. You can’t learn football playing video games,” quipped Cripps, who teaches steer wrestling and calf roping to the boys every Monday and Wednesday, and, with the help of a well-know local barrel racer, instructs the girls on barrels and pole bending every Tuesday and Thursday.
“We’ve got Dee Butterfield here instructing the girls. She’s done schools for a long time, and is one of the greatest instructors around. The kids are learning a lot of horsemanship — and by all accounts — they are loving the program.”
Butterfield, who this year is marking 40 years of holding barrel racing clinics, has taken the teaching of high school students to another level with her hands-on training techniques.
“Before you can compete in events such as barrel racing and pole bending, you have to get body control on your horse, which goes back to training. Riders are working on their horse, improving their schooling, and also working to become better riders. At that point, it doesn’t matter what event you go into — you’ll have the basics to build on,” offered Butterfield during a recent class. “It’s been an ongoing learning process my whole life. I’m learning from every horse I ride, and every student I teach. There’s no end to what you can learn out there — and as soon as you figure you know it all — you won’t progress.”
Ward is confident the skills she has learned attending these out-of-the-classroom training sessions at Galloway will pay dividends when she competes in the Indian National Finals Rodeo.
“Attending the Broncs Rodeo Academy is fun, and I have learned a lot of helpful things from Dee Butterfield,” says Ward. “It’s great that the school has this program and gives other kids the chance to learn more about rodeo.”
Ward has a wealth of knowledge at her disposal these days — from Cripps and Butterfield, to her father Dennis, who has taken part in the INFR championships in South Dakota and New Mexico in past years. The elder Ward will compete in the senior team roping, an event, like junior barrel racing, that will make its debut in the 2010 competition in Las Vegas.
Mr. Ward will do his best to pass on past experiences to his daughter.
“Some advice I can give Kristie? Try not being nervous in front of the big crowd, focus on your run, enjoy yourself, meet new people and learn from others and your mistakes,” offers up Mr. Ward. “You may not always make it to the pay window — and that’s okay too. It’s a great opportunity to compete with champions from around Canada and the USA and its nice to see the juniors at the INFR this year — as they are champions as well.”
Mr. Ward will team up with heeler Earl Littlechild at the INFR event in Vegas.
“We didn’t do so well in the open team roping — but in the 50-plus team roping, we placed first in the long go, first in the short go and first in the average at the Samson Tour Rodeo in August, which put us in first place in the standings,” he explained. “Then, at the NANCA finals in Cold Lake we also placed first — which earned us a spot to the INFR.”
Other local competitors at the INFR include: Lane Wolfe and Tye Yellowbird in team roping; Dennis Samson in 50-plus break-away roping; Marcel Saulteaux in team roping and 50-plus break-away roping; Merle Yellowbird in 50-plus team roping; Jason Rabbit in saddle bronc; Creighton Janvier in saddle bronc; and Chavez Buffalo in bull riding.