Anita Ellis knows what it’s like to lose something you love. When she was 17 years old, a car accident that caused two bulging discs in her spine snatched away her ability to pursue the thing she loved doing most in the world—barrel racing. While she could still ride recreationally, that, too, came to a halt in her 30s after a broken tailbone made spending any amount of time in the saddle too much to bear. 

“I would ride a horse and be out of commission for two weeks because I was in so much pain,” Ellis, now a thriving 45-year-old, recalled. “I competed in high school rodeo, but until recently, I hadn’t been able to really get serious on a horse since then.”

In 2017, the promise of improving her quality of life through spinal fusion surgery brought with it a host of new possibilities. While she says she put off the surgery for a while—worrying mostly about the possibility of making her symptoms worse—ultimately, her burgeoning pain left her no choice. Recovery was difficult, but the end result allowed Ellis to think seriously about dusting off her saddle and competing in the sport she loved and lost long ago. It also didn’t hurt that her mom, veteran barrel racer Vauna Walker, had promised her a horse to train and compete on as soon as she was healthy enough to take the reins.

The promised horse was RV Two Dash Ta Vegas, and he was just a yearling when Walker and Ellis first talked about Ellis training him.

“It’s really an amazing story,” Ellis shared. “My mom owned the mare [Two Dash To Fame], and she wanted to give me something to start running. As soon as I was healthy enough, I took him over. By then he was a 2-year-old. I had someone put 60 days on him for me and then I trained him on the barrels. I was so excited because he was the first horse I ever trained. I didn’t know if he would go out and do the job. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my training skills. I was just hoping he would turn three barrels.”

As it turned out, “Axel” did a little more than turn three barrels—the 2016 son of French Streaktovegas was the top futurity horse in America in 2020, earning more than $198,000 in his 4-year-old year. 

“He loves running barrels,” Ellis said. “He just loves turning—he can absolutely turn on a dime. I feel like he loves me, too, and he wants to try hard for me.”

For Ellis, being back in the saddle and competing in the sport she was born into on a horse like Axel is nothing short of a lifelong dream come true. Her recent win at Load ‘Em In The Dark Cattle Co.’s Freedom Race from July 1-3—her second year in a row to win it—is another stepping stone on the way to Ellis’ ultimate goal of chasing down a world championship through the alley of the Thomas and Mack Center arena. While she had some tough luck in both Friday and Saturday’s races, the Blackfoot, Idaho, cowgirl rallied Sunday to take the Freedom Race win with a 15.566. That’s the thing about Anita Ellis—when she gets knocked down, she just comes back stronger.

Now, with a five-year gap since her surgery and two solid years of competition under her belt, Ellis is seeking to make good on the goal she always wanted to achieve.

“I’ve had this dream [of running at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo] my whole life,” Ellis shared. “Next year I’m going to every rodeo I can. I want to make the top 15, and I know Axel can do it. I’m going for it.”

Load ‘Em In The Dark Cattle Co Freedom Race Results

  • 1D—Anita Ellis on RV Two Dash Ta Vegas, 15.566, $3,402
  • 2D—Harley Hansen on Just A Troubled Warrior, 16.106, $2,041
  • 3D—Tabatha Udy on DCO Chic Mover, 16.574, $1,360

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