Ilyssa Riley is riding the wave of success that took her to her first NFR qualification while focusing on being the best rider she can be for her horses.

Following her first National Finals Rodeo qualification where she finished the year in 10th place in 2023, Ilyssa Riley is stepping into the spotlight to run at some of the industry’s most iconic events. Already the 26-year-old from Hico, Texas, has clocked the top spot to win the 2024 RodeoHouston Super Series III champion guitar as well as earned money in the Texas Circuit Finals, the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo and Rodeo Austin. She’s aiming at another year chasing her professional dream. 

Riley attended West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas, and competed on the rodeo team. She filled her card in 2018 and has been steadily rising in the year-end rankings since then. Yet, it was a horse called Mistys Money Blurr that truly upped her game. 

“I got ‘Money’ from Kassie [Mowry], and he was the horse that took me from being average to a competitor,” Riley says.

When Ilyssa Riley started running “Money,” registered as Mistys Money Blurr, she had to step up her own riding to be the pilot the gelding needed to win. Photo Courtesy of Ilyssa Riley.

Here, Barrel Horse News chats with Riley about her trail up through Women’s Professional Rodeo Association’s barrel racing ranks and what she’s looking forward to on the 2024 rodeo road. 

Barrel Horse NewsTell us how you go into horses and what drew you to running barrels.

Ilyssa Riley: I grew up in a ranching family in Southeastern New Mexico; my grandparents and great grandparents were ranchers. I’ve gotten to ride horses since I was pretty little. My mom and grand mom ran barrels, and it was my lifestyle, running barrels and junior rodeoing since I was pretty little. 

My mom college rodeoed a little bit, but they didn’t push it on me. Rodeo sounded like fun to me, and all my friends did it, so I did it. I only ran barrels so college rodeoing was something else to do instead of only going to jackpots. I didn’t amateur or pro rodeo until I got older. 

BHN: You competed at the CNFR and steadily have risen in the ranks since 2020, your first year to finish top 100 in the world. Tell me how you’ve worked to get to where you are, with a 2023 NFR qualification under your belt.

Riley: I’ve had some really good horses come into my life. The horse I rode in college, Take A Ride Guys, was the one I rode at the [College National Finals Rodeo] and he helped me fill my [WPRA] permit; he’s a big part of my story. I got him from Lacey Donegan [Harmon] and I gained a friend, too. ‘Blue,’  who I rode in college, was great for me at the time, but Money took me on to be more of a winner. 

I always laugh about Money; he can give you all the confidence in the world or make you feel like you need to try something else. He made me a winner and he made me have to step up, figure out how to ride better and he is the best horse I’ve ever ridden. I had to change a lot of my riding and my mindset. Money needed me to show up every time I ran down the alley, and for him to do his best job, I had to do my best. I love running that horse; he gives me so much confidence. I feel like we have really grown together. 

BHN: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a professional barrel racer?

Riley: I can be so hard on myself. My entire life, my mom has said that there is always another run, but I want to have the best run I can every time. I don’t want to have the mindset that there is a better rodeo tomorrow. I have had to not relax but learn to let go of what bothered me each run. You learn from your mistakes, but you also have to leave them in the past so that you can go on to the next one. That also is the same way to look at life. 

BHN: While I can read the list of your career highlights can you tell me what was a personal best moment for you?

Riley: Money won back-to-back rounds in Houston and won our [Series] and got to take home a guitar! I really wanted it but I drew up in a tough set. I knew that we had to make solid runs, and winning my Super Series was so much fun! Of course, making the NFR was huge for me and changed my life. My family has always dreamt of me being there. 

The thing that stands out the most in my professional career is that last year [in 2023], Money and I won the average in the Texas Circuit Finals. I always say that kick-started my year, gave me confidence and a jump. I don’t feel like it was a huge win, but it pulled my chin up and showed me that we can compete. 

BHN: What rodeo or series are you looking forward to most this year? 

Riley: Calgary! We got into Calgary and I am so excited; I’ve never been to Canada. I’m so excited for the Stampede and to hit some Canadian rodeos. My friends say they are the best so I am excited to go up north for a few weeks. 

BHN: What are some things you have to keep with you on the road?

Riley: I try to keep everything the same, especially for Money. I keep notes in my phone for his runs he feels good, and I take notes and keep his breathing treatments consistent because he has bleeding problems. If something stops working, we change it, but overall, it needs to be consistent. 

If I have a really good run, I keep wearing my socks until I have a bad run. My husband always tells me to change my socks but I don’t until they become bad luck socks.

BHN: What advice do you have to other barrel racers chasing their first NFR qualification and chasing this dream? 

Riley: You can only control what you can control, especially in barrel racing. Weather plays into it a lot, and that is stuff you can’t control but it is frustrating. Understand you do all you can and God takes care of the rest. If it is your time to shine, nothing will stop it. If it is not your time, that is ok, too, just keep trying, smiling and doing the best you can. 

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