The old worn-out pickup towing a stock trailer pulled between all the shiny aluminum living quarters horse trailers at a southeast Texas youth rodeo. For the first time, a young Taci Bettis noticed the disparity. Lupe Zepeda, her hard-working single mother, sagely told her, “It’s not what you pull in with, it’s what you pull out with.”
“I wanted to keep her mounted, so I didn’t have the money for a horse trailer and all the extras,” Zepeda said. “It makes me cry to see where she is today, because I know what it took to get there. It was a struggle, yet…it wasn’t. We didn’t know any different. It was just living.”
Now, the 26-year-old Round Top, Texas, barrel racer is living her dream as the 2017 Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Rookie of The Year en route to her first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.
“It can be done if you work hard and never give up,” Bettis said, who goes into the NFR as the richest rookie in WPRA history with $97,023. “It doesn’t have to take money to do this. I’ve got way more time than I’ve got money. My ‘money’ came from the time I spent.”
Born To Ride
Zepeda always loved horses and rodeo, so she was quick to get her daughter involved. Young Bettis was sitting on a horse before she could walk. The day she turned 3, she entered her first Little Britches Rodeo in Hempstead, Texas, in the leadline class.
“By the next year, she was riding the horse by herself and we were just walking by her,” Zepeda said. “Every year, it was a little more and a little more, because she wanted more. She’d kick and kick and her little legs wouldn’t even touch the horse.”
A hairdresser by trade, Zepeda worked hard to make sure Bettis had a horse and could go to rodeos. She had help from Bettis’ older brother, BJ Whitworth.
“She always wanted to win and always tried harder and harder,” Zepeda said. “She got better and better. Her brother and I did a lot to make things possible for her, but honestly, the reason she is where she is today is her hard work, her determination and her dedication.”
Zepeda started Bettis out at the local youth rodeos and playdays around Waller and Austin counties. She kept her well-mounted on talented horses that were inexpensive because they required a lot of maintenance to stay sound.
“She was always mounted,” Zepeda said. “We struggled. I took on two or three extra jobs, and her brother would take on extra jobs. We did what we had to do to make it happen. My heart is full. I honestly have no words. It was tough. If I had to do it all over again, I would. I’d do it in a heartbeat. Look at where she is now.”
Whitworth, too, would do it all over again to see Bettis reach her dream.
“I never went without, and I wasn’t going to let my sister go without either,” Whitworth said, who is 13 years Bettis’ senior. “I never knew growing up that my mom was struggling, and I wasn’t going to let my sister know either. That’s why I did what I did, and I don’t have any regrets. This was always my dream for her.”
Whitworth’s job was to take care of maintaining Bettis’ horses.
“I always worked at a vet clinic,” Whitworth said. “We bought cripples, because that’s all we could afford. Those vet bills were expensive, and if I quit I would have had to pay full price. That’s probably why I stayed a vet tech for so long.”
As Bettis got older and was paying her own fees, she realized just how much her family sacrificed. Zepeda will never forget the day Bettis asked her how they afforded competing.
“We were getting ready to go somewhere,” Zepeda said. “She looked at me and her eyes were full of tears, and she said, ‘Mom, how did you do this when I was little? How did you pay for all those entry fees?’ I told her, ‘You were little, and I didn’t want you to see we were struggling. You wanted to do this, and we were going to do everything we could to make that happen.’”
Bettis, too, had an assortment of odd jobs to help pay her entry fees, but ultimately, she had to win to pay her way.
“Sometimes I didn’t have enough,” Bettis said. “I had to win enough at the jackpot to put diesel in my truck. The way I grew up, I had to work, and I knew I always had to work. Now I can look back and see how that’s made me who I am today…strong. I don’t ever shy away from a job.”
Trial By Fire
In junior high and high school, Bettis was very active outside the arena. She played basketball and softball and was a good enough softball player to participate in travel tournaments. She also was very active in her school’s Future Farmers of America chapter. However, something had to give.
“When I was a freshman, it got to the point I couldn’t juggle horses, sports and FFA projects,” Bettis said. “There wasn’t enough time in the day to do all those things. You could tell my riding wasn’t what it should be. I had to decide—was I going to play softball and be really good at that, or was I going to spend more time with the horses and be really good at that? Ultimately, I wanted to ride horses.”
She continued her involvement with FFA, showing cattle and earning the club’s highest honors including Lone Star and American Farmer degrees.
“You could juggle more because you were at the barn with your horses and your show projects,” Bettis said.
Bettis is probably the only NFR barrel racer to actually “run” at Rodeo Houston, having caught a scramble calf.
“We see how big that arena is from the stands, but you get in there and run it on foot; it was unreal. I had no air by the time I got to the end of the arena, and thankfully that calf didn’t have any air either. It took me a while, but I finally got [the calf] back to the square. I never knew Reliant [NRG Stadium] was so big until I ran it on foot,” Bettis said with a laugh.
After going to Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Texas, and a year at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, Bettis left school a few hours shy of an agricultural business degree to pursue her true passion—horses.
Bettis credits multiple NFR qualifier and aged-event champion Tammy Fischer with refining her skills.
“I’d go ride with her, and she’d tweak a few things and say ‘go work on this’ or ‘go work on that’,” Bettis said.
It was through Fischer that Bettis found Bogie Is A Smash. Fischer bought the gelding by Bogie Biankus and out of Bogies Devine Smash by Remember Smash from his breeders Sid and Randi Rae Britt, with whom Fischer stayed when she was rodeoing in the Northwest. “Smash” came along when Bettis’ confidence was at an all-time low. She’d been riding a horse that simply didn’t want to be a barrel horse. When Fisher was leaving to rodeo for the summer, she asked Bettis to keep Smash going for her. Bettis’ initial thought was “No, thank you.”
“I’d been going to a couple of jackpots with Tammy, and she had Smash with her,” Bettis said. “He was a handful at the trailer, but you could see he had the want-to.”
After thinking it over for a few days, Bettis decided to take him.
“I thought at least he wants to do the barrels,” Bettis said. “I can handle the quirkiness. I called [Fischer] two weeks later and said, ‘I don’t think you’re getting this horse back.’”
Although not originally for sale, Fischer eventually agreed to sell the gelding. With Bettis’ husband, Jeremy, just starting a new job, she didn’t have the funds to pay for Smash even though his price was less than five figures. Fischer generously let Bettis make payments.
Looking back, it’s hard for Bettis to find any rough spots through the training and seasoning process, because she had Fisher to guide her. Plus, Bettis was just happy to have a horse that wanted to work.
“Whether it was a 3D or 2D time, I still felt that try with him,” Bettis said. “He always tried every single day.”
In the summer of 2015, Bettis and Smash were doing well at bigger jackpots but had yet to draw a check after a summer of rodeoing in the Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association throughout Texas. Fischer spoke plainly.
“She said, ‘I’ve got the CPRA Finals made. You’ve got to get it together. Your horse is ready. You’ve got to get there,’” Bettis said. “I don’t know what happened. I never felt like I was stuck at the level I was at, but I guess I was just lollygagging around. From the middle of August to the first of September, I went from 50th to fifth in the standings. It took her saying that to get me to step it up. Ever since that one talk—you’ve got to make the CPRA Finals—we’ve been lighting the world on fire.”
After the CPRA Finals, Bettis moved up to third in the CPRA standings. The following weekend, she went to Starkville, Mississippi. Although her nerves got the best of her in the qualifier for RFD-TV’s The American Rodeo, she left as the 1D average champion. Next up was the American Quarter Horse Association World Championship Show, where Bettis and Smash won both the Senior and Amateur barrel racing titles.
“That’s when it hit me,” Bettis said. “I thought right then and there, I was running with the big dogs and he was the real deal. He always felt that way to me, but right then I knew. He’s been that way ever since.”
The Second String
In 2016, Bettis was headed to the CPRA Finals sitting No. 1 in the standings, but a nagging injury sidelined Smash from September until March 2017. Although it was seven miserable months waiting for Smash to get well, Bettis focused on finishing another horse, a great-grandson of Bogie Biankus—Bogies French Bug.
“I just lollygagged with him,” Bettis said of the now-6-year-old gelding she purchased as a 4-year-old from Julie Bailey of Sulphur Springs, Texas. “It was almost a blessing to get off of Smash and get this one going, because I wouldn’t take the time. He wasn’t behind, but I just wouldn’t run him enough. I just wouldn’t stay on him, because I was running Smash.”
Depressed over Smash’s injury, Bettis didn’t do well when she started running “Bugs” more.
“At first, I couldn’t win anything,” Bettis said. “It was all mental. I thought I couldn’t win on anything but Smash. I told myself I had to let all that go.”
Bettis and Bugs placed in the Amateur at the AQHA World Championship Show and placed in a round at the All-In Barrel Race in Las Vegas, which gave Bettis the confidence she needed.
“I think it all was in God’s plan that I needed to get this one up and going,” Bettis said.
Bugs ran at five pro rodeos in 2017. He was competitive at all of them and placed in three—Billings, Montana, Idaho Falls and North Platte, Nebraska.
“Every run I made on him, he made it count,” Bettis said.
When Smash was well again, Bettis went straight to the pro rodeos. His first run back was a check-drawing run at Alexandria, Louisiana, in early March. The pair continued to place along until their breakthrough win at Corpus Christi, Texas, in April.
“That pretty much set off the start of [my NFR run],” Bettis said, who is sponsored by Classic Equine, Oxy-Gen, Cinch and Elgin Veterinary Hospital. “I already planned to go out a bit, but I knew I didn’t have the money to stay out long and blow it. I told my husband I at least wanted to go through the Fourth of July, but if I wasn’t winning I had to come home and go back to work.”
A second-place finish at Reno Rodeo made it possible for Bettis to stay out through the Fourth. Smash kept getting stronger and winning to the point Bettis wondered when she could come home.
“By July 4, I still only had $36,000 won,” Bettis said. “The week after that it was $11,000, then $12,000, then $10,000. I was like, ‘Holy cow! I can’t go home now; I might can make the NFR.’ I figured it would take me until September 30, and I would have to go all up in the Northwest.”
After asking around, Bettis figured that $80–90,000 would be enough to get her to Las Vegas.
“The week of Caldwell (Idaho), Gooding (Idaho) and Billings (Montana), I won $10,000,” Bettis said. “That gave me $90,030, and I headed straight to Texas. I finished up at the Texas rodeos. About the middle of July, I figured I had a chance to make the NFR if [Smash] continued to win, and he just kept getting stronger and stronger. It blew my mind. Those all-night drives, I would worry because they weren’t going to get to lay down and rest. We’d pull in at 7:30 and have to run at 9, and he’d run like a scalded dog.”
The Fairy Tale
Ironically, all Bettis’ family—herself included—never dreamed she would run at the NFR before running in the biggest and richest rodeo in her back yard—Rodeo Houston.
“I never thought I’d see her run at the NFR before Rodeo Houston,” Zepeda said with a laugh. “My dream was to see her run at Rodeo Houston, and now I’m going to see her run at the NFR before Rodeo Houston. Wow! Just wow.”
Bettis thanks the village who helped make her dreams come true—from her mother and brother, who sacrificed to make her the rider she is, to her husband and high-school sweetheart, Jeremy, who wouldn’t let her come home because she was homesick.
“I have to thank my family for pushing me and supporting me, and Tammy for helping me from the very beginning with Smash to out at the rodeos this summer,” Bettis said. “I would have been a lost rookie without her. She not only knew what the arenas were like, but all those other little things you never think about. She’s stuck with me from the very beginning to today.”
Although Bettis is not one to typically show her emotions, her mother and brother more than make up for Bettis’ stoic demeanor.
“It’s unbelievable,” Whitworth said. “I don’t have words. I really don’t, and anyone who knows me knows that’s not normal. I just don’t have any words. I’m so proud of her. There is nothing I could say to her to tell her how proud of her I am.”
For Zepeda, it’s a mother’s affirmation that she did all she could to make her daughter’s dreams come true. It doesn’t take a $50,000 horse, Zepeda says, it takes doing what you need to do to make things work.
“You know that rags to riches story?” Zepeda said. “My Taci is living that.”
Tanya Randall is an avid barrel racer and veteran contributor to Barrel Horse News. Email comments on this article to [email protected].