The equine athletes carrying the top riders in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association are the most integral pieces to a competitor’s success. Each year, the PRCA and American Quarter Horse Association honor these elite speed-event mounts with the Horse of the Year Award. The top 25-ranked contestants in barrel racing, tie-down roping, heading, heeling, steer wrestling and steer roping vote for the most deserving horse. In 2017, Nellie Miller’s home-raised and -trained Rafter W Minnie Reba earned the Barrel Horse of the Year title, besting second-place MCM Imasharpguy, owned by Matt and Bendi Dunn and ridden by Stevi Hillman, and Tiany Schuster’s Show Mance in third place.
“It’s so rewarding, because you put so much time and effort into getting them to that point, and to have one you can go that far on that is yours, you know everything about it, you were there for every detail of its life, it’s just so rewarding to make it that far on something you’ve put so much effort into,” Miller said, who finished the regular season ranked No. 3 in the world with $130,537 earned from 47 rodeos.
“Sister” is a 9-year-old mare by KS Cash N Fame and out of Espuela Roan by Blue Light Ike, and she is owned by Miller’s father, Sam Williams, who raised and trained her. Sister is out of the same mare as Miller’s 2010 National Finals Rodeo mount, Rebas Smokey Joe.
“We raised [Sister] from a baby—I ran her mom in high school rodeo,” Miller said. “My dad broke [Sister] and trained her, and I started running barrels on her when she was probably 6. You can do anything on her—work cattle, my dad has branded on her, done a lot of ranch work on her, you can rope on her. She’s good at everything she does.”
Miller says Sister’s consistency on the pattern coupled with her drive to perform and strong work ethic set her apart as a competitor. The Cottonwood, California, cowgirl remembers exactly when she realized just how special the gritty blue roan mare was going to be as a barrel horse.
“There are two things that always stick out for me,” Miller said. “I remember the first time I ever rode her. I was out visiting my parents, and my dad said ‘Go get on that mare, go make a run on her.’ She was maybe 5 or pretty young, and she just about turned out from under me. I almost fell off her, because I was not expecting it. I was expecting her to be more like a colt, and she just did it from day one. When I started taking her to a few rodeos, she placed in two go-rounds at Salinas (California), and it was only her second rodeo ever. I knew right then she was going to have what it took.”
The rest is history. Sister quickly took to life on the road—especially the pampering and care of an elite athlete.
“She’s sometimes a little too smart for her own good,” Miller said with a laugh. “Once in a while if she’s not in a good mood she’ll nip at me when I’m saddling her. She has a little attitude like that. She loves her nebulizer—it’ll put her to sleep. Pretty soon her eyes are droopy and closing, so I think that’s pretty funny.”
On a day-to-day basis, Miller rides to keep Sister exercised, but she doesn’t work the pattern. Come December, Sister will test her mettle in the Thomas and Mack Center—Miller’s second NFR and Sister’s first. Miller is excited for the chance she never thought she’d have again after “Blue Duck.” But thanks to a tough little mare, her father’s training and a year of hard-earned dollars, another 10 runs await Miller in Vegas.
“I remember thinking the first time I made it on Blue Duck, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime horse, this might never happen for me again.’ So now here we are, and I want to make the most of it and try to do the best I can,” Miller said. “[I thank] my family in general, my husband James Miller; everyone helps tremendously keeping the horse happy. I want to make sure I give my dad (Sam Williams) a lot of credit, because he really helped me. He trained her and was a big part of making her the horse she is today.”