By Blanche Schaefer

Competing against the top cowboys and cowgirls in the nation for a slice of a $2 million pie has set the bar high for many rodeo contestants since RFD-TV’s inaugural The American Rodeo in 2014. Each year, hundreds of barrel racers enter various qualifiers across the United States, gunning for their shot at a run under the bright lights of famed AT&T Stadium. In the end, only four will remain. The path to Arlington, Texas, is crowded with the nation’s fastest horses and handiest riders, but the qualification process gives anyone a chance to outrun them. Barrel racers run at designated qualifier races throughout the fall and winter to advance to The American semi-finals in Fort Worth, Texas, from February 15–17, 2017, where they will compete against several “exemption” riders invited by The American. A slack round followed by a shootout round determine who advances to AT&T Stadium in Arlington for The American on February 19, 2017. Qualifiers compete in the long round against the top 10 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel racers in the country, who receive an automatic invitation to The American. Out of the long round, only four will advance to the final shootout match to battle for a hefty championship purse: $100,000 if the winner is a rider invited by The American or $1 million to a champion who qualified through the semi-finals. With qualifier season well under way, we spoke to several winners who’ve solidified a spot in The American semi-finals.

VictoriaWilliams eventbox

You’ve had a lot of success rodeoing on your mare; how did Three Jets Olena come into your life? I first saw “Three Jets” as a yearling with Bill Williamson, a guy I’ve gotten all my horses from. I saw her again as a 4-year-old, and he told me he didn’t think I was quite ready to ride a horse like her. About a year or two later, he called and asked if I was ready to ride her, and it went from there. I was probably 16 or 17; I started rodeoing on her [in 2013] when I was 19.VictoriaWilliams FesslerwebVictoria Williams and Three Jets Olena overcame their differences to post a winning time at the American qualifier in Memphis, Tennessee, on December 3, 2016. Photo credit Fessler Photography.

How was your run at the Memphis qualifier? It was a very smooth run. I haven’t been running her a lot lately—for the first time ever, I’ve let somebody else run her. My boyfriend, Brandon Halterlein, has been riding her the past few months. Three Jets and I butted heads and needed a break from each other. We were still doing great in the arena, but outside the arena, we were having some issues. I thought it was best for him to ride her and let her have a change. We threw me on her for the Friday night run, and Friday didn’t go very good, but by Saturday [in the qualifier] we figured each other back out. Everything was good with her in the arena. She has the same pattern every time she runs. I felt confident pretty confident jumping on her, but outside the arena is not really something you can get past—that’ll mess up everything else.

You and Three Jets won the Jacksonville, Florida, qualifier in 2014 and made it to the semifinals. Have you gained any insights heading into the semifinals for the second time? Honestly, I’m taking it day by day—I wish I felt more confident. Three Jets excels in little pens, but we pulled over the second barrel to run an awesome time at the semifinals the year I qualified. I’m just going to have to be on top of my game. I know she’ll do her job, but I’ve got to do mine. The Jacksonville win a few years ago was really special. We had an amazing year pro-rodeoing; we almost qualified for the NFR. Then we hit some tough luck; Three Jets got hurt and our truck and trailer broke down. It turned into such a hard year. My father never gets to see me run except in Jacksonville. We had just won the circuit finals—the average and year-end—and I was nervous about running in front of my dad. I really wanted to make him proud. I won that qualifier and then turned Three Jets out for the rest of the year. My dad has only gotten to watch me run a handful of times, so I try to work extra hard when he does get to watch.

VictoriaWilliams qualifierbox Where does advancing to The American Rodeo rank on your list of career goals? It’s definitely right up there with the top. Anybody who knows me knows my ultimate goal is to make the NFR. I realized that was a goal I needed to set aside for the time being and focus on my horse and me for a while. It’s a really amazing opportunity that I still have the chance to do something like this and take my family with, because they’ve been there every step of the way. I’ve always wanted to give them that kind of atmosphere. My mom has been to every single pro rodeo—she’s never missed a run. It would mean a lot to her to go to something like The American.

What does it mean to you to win a qualifier for the second time against so many tough horses? My boyfriend worked really hard with Jets. He put in a lot of time he does not have to get her ready for me. It meant a lot to me to have a good run on her for him and his family and my family, because everybody knew how hard he had been working. I knew she would do her job, I just needed to step up and do mine.

Do you have any special words of thanks? Big thanks to my horseshoer, Brian Wheeler. He does a great job with Three Jets. Her feet have been her downfall her entire life, so anybody who can keep a shoe on her deserves credit.

Blanche Schaefer is associate editor of Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected].


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