In 1976, Marion Gramith and Cindy Smith became the first mother-daughter duo to qualify together for the National Finals Rodeo. Now, more than 40 years later, they still stand alone on that record.
In the early days of the Girl’s Rodeo Association, members weren’t restricted by age, so it wasn’t uncommon for mothers and their young daughters to hold GRA card membership to go down the road together. Yet, Marion Gramith and her daughter Cindy (Witcher) Smith remain the only mother-daughter duo to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo.
“I kind of keep an eye on it,” Smith said with a laugh. “I don’t think anyone’s done it again yet.”
Ironically, one of the first memories that pops into Smith’s head about making the NFR with her mother was getting in trouble.
Since the country was celebrating the United States’ bicentennial, all qualifiers received red, white and blue painted breast collars.
“I thought that looked so corny, so I painted mine black,” Smith said with a laugh. “I got in so much trouble. My mom was like, ‘This is special, you shouldn’t have done that.’”
Although Gramith didn’t recall admonishing Smith, she did admit her patriotic breast collar is still safely stored amongst her mementos.
First & Only
In 1976, Gramith and then-15-year-old Smith qualified for the NFR, held in Oklahoma City, riding two Vegas Hard Way geldings. Gramith rode Montana Brandy (“Brandy”) and Smith rode Vegas Go Way (“Salty”), who took Gramith to the NFR in 1971 and 1972.
“When I got my back hurt, I put Cindy on Salty and got a brother to him for myself,” Gramith said.
Smith says she was only 12 when she first climbed aboard Salty. Their first run together at Fort Smith, Arkansas, was admittedly terrifying.
“Salty always wants to leave, so [my mother] was leading me down the alleyway,” said Smith, who along with her mother called Urbana, Missouri, home at the time. “Mom got slung into the bucking chutes, and I went to the first barrel sitting in front of the saddle horn. I bent my thumb backward. I cried. It scared me terribly.”
Salty made Smith a better horsewoman and competitor in the long run.
“I was getting behind him,” Smith said. “Mom took me home one summer and said, ‘You’re going to learn to ride bareback.’ She had me loping up hills, and I got it. I remember loping up the hill one day, and I felt that feel you need to stay up with one and I told my mom, ‘I’ve got it! I know what you mean.’ We took off rodeoing again.”
After almost making the NFR twice as a 13- and 14-year-old, Smith learned a valuable lesson about the mental game of rodeo.
“When I was 14 I was really close, and I went to trying too hard,” Smith said. “That’s where I learned a lesson—you can definitely overdo it. Trying too hard can get in your way just as bad as anything.”
The 1976 NFR
Going into the 1976 NFR, Smith was 10th in the world with $6,505, while Gramith was 15th with $5,866. Jimmie (Gibbs) Munroe and Connie Combs were in a dogfight at the top with earnings of $22,557 and $21,528, respectively.
Yet, every contestant had a chance at the world championship that year as the GRA changed their rules to match the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, which began awarding titles based on the NFR only. It remained that way through the 1978 season.
Combs ended up winning the world championship based on her NFR performances, earning $3,665. Gramith split fifth and sixth with Dammy Johnson with $1,352 each. Smith finished 11th in the world with $315.
“I only hit one barrel all year, but I hit three at the Finals,” Smith said. “I hadn’t run indoors much and probably didn’t ride aggressively enough. Salty would always turn his barrels. I had to paddle him the whole way.”
During the 1977 season, both Brandy and Salty sold. Ironically, Gramith placed an advertisement in the GRA News offering the two horses for sale at the start of the 1976 season.
Gramith was ready to make the next batch of horses.
“It was just one of those deals of seeing how far your horse could go, and then I was ready to move on to another horse,” Gramith said. “I was more interested in what the horse could go do than in rodeo itself. We sold them and started on some new ones.”
The Next Batch
Gramith, who grew up in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana, started barrel racing in high school. She later followed her sister Karen Galemba down to Arizona and joined the GRA. “We started rodeoing, because that seemed to be where we were doing OK and making a little money, supporting ourselves,” Gramith said. “We had to join to go where we wanted to go. We both found ourselves in the standings and went from there. We didn’t even know much about the association when we started.”
The sisters each qualified for three NFRs, having qualified together in 1971 and 1972. They made their living by training horses, rodeoing, selling the horse and repeating the process.
“I usually trained a couple and the ones I really liked sold pretty quick, so I didn’t get to run too much,” Gramith said. Gramith said it would take a book to list all the things she wanted to see in a barrel horse, but she made a number of nice ones over the years.
“I’d like a horse with a little bit of brains to it—where you’d teach them something and they’d retain it,” Gramith said. “A lot of times I’d take them straight to the pattern even if they were really green, before I even got them broke. If I took a horse three or four times and he realized something was going to happen at a barrel, that showed a tendency to learn. If you went to the pattern 14 times and they’re still looking out across the country…ah…you know. When I went to hauling one, I liked one that could handle the ground, one that could stand up and take care of itself. You could write a book on all the little things.”
One of the last great horses she trained was Slewparonion, who took Charmayne James to the 1997 NFR. “Slewpy” and James turned in the fastest time of the NFR that year.
“I bought him as a yearling, raised and trained him and ran him for quite a few years,” Gramith said. “I won the American Quarter Horse Association shows at Fort Worth and Houston on him.”
A few years after selling Slewpy, Gramith sold all her horses and moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where she’s lived for the past 18 years.
“I needed a change in lifestyle,” said Gramith, who is currently in the process of moving back south. “I was burned out, training and riding. Too many horses for too long a time.”
You Do Horses
Unbeknownst to Smith at the time, she crossed paths with her future during her run to the NFR.
“I remember going to New Mexico to rodeo. I was riding in the back in the camper and the wind was blowing us around. We get to Clovis, and they had “a” tree. I remember thinking, ‘Who would want to live here?’” Smith said with a laugh—she now lives down the road in Hobbs, New Mexico.
At Cheyenne the same year, she also met some of her future husband, Tommy’s, friends while at a dance.
“We had gone to dance that night, and my future husband was outside in the camper asleep,” Smith said. “I didn’t meet him until nearly two years later.”
The couple had a son, Taylor, and Smith made sure he didn’t have to grow up on the rodeo trail.
“I went a lot as a kid, and I didn’t want to go a lot when Taylor was little,” Smith said. “Tommy was going a bunch, and I had a lot of young horses. Taylor wanted to ride motocross, and that’s what we did for several years. Now he ropes calves.”
Smith also worked toward a nursing degree, but good horses had a way of derailing that career.
“When I was a kid I actually thought I wasn’t going to do this,” Cindy Smith said. “I was going to do something else. I was going to be a nurse.”
Although she had a lot of hours, when the oil field work dropped off and the economy around Hobbs got tough, Smith was making too much money with horses to stay in school.
“I had to withdraw because I had a horse that was winning stupid,” Smith said. “I was bringing home a lot of money every weekend. I’ve gone back [to school] three times but have never been able to finish. I have a friend here who said ‘Cindy, quit fighting it. You do horses.’”
Smith’s not about to stop, either. With her mother focusing on the breeding side of things, Smith has more horses than she can ride. She’s currently prepping two for the futurities, including a full brother to Wood B Smokinfame (“Brees”) that transitioned from a top futurity horse to rodeo mount before Smith lost him. She also has two rodeo horses to season, a full sister to Brees, Wood B Asmokinbarbie, and Kris Cranes’ Powder Girl Shakem.
“I told Mom—she’s in such good shape—that I need to get one of these horses a touch more finished and she can crawl up on one,” Smith said with a laugh. “Years ago, [her response] would be absolutely not, and it probably still is. But I hope when I’m 78 I’m still getting around as well as she does. When she comes to visit, everyone’s like ‘Oh, here
comes Grandma!’ She wears us out.”
Gramith says the odds of her competing again are highly unlikely. She’d rather focus on her stallion Utah Pistol—a grandson of First Down Dash and Proudest Effort—and her broodmares.
“I might trail ride a little,” Gramith said with a laugh. “But I’m not interested beyond the mares and babies.”
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Barrel Horse News.