San Angelo! It’s the rodeo of opportunity. It’s the rodeo that anyone can enter and if you make it to the top spot you earn a spot at Rodeo Houston. At the 2015 San Angelo Rodeo & Stock Show, 262 women wanted that opportunity to be theirs. After three runs, Dena Kirkpatrick ran away with the average championship. The clinician and barrel horse trainer from Post, Texas took home $10,461 in WPRA earnings and a ticket to enter the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Dena Kirkpatrick and Kates Always FirstDena Kirkpatrick and Kates Always First

“That was a lot of fun,” said Kirkpatrick who rode her 10-year-old mare Kates Always First, aka “Kate.” “I’m so happy that we got to do that because it helps to prove her.”

While they didn’t get to enter Houston, two other women also left the Texas town that sits three hours north of the Mexican border with more opportunities than they had when the rodeo started on Feb. 13.

Shelby Janssen, a 23-year-old college student from Coleman, Okla., made more money than any other barrel racer in San Angelo, $12,265, by splitting second and third in the first round and placing second in the short-go putting her 2015 earnings at $14,719, which ranks 16th in the WPRA standings.

Cassidy Kruse, a 19-year-old who filled her permit in 2014, split second and third in the second go and took third in the short round to make $10,400. With 11 rodeos on record for 2015, San Angelo jumped Kruse up to 10th place in the WPRA standings with a season total of $20,878.

Kirkpatrick has had Kates Always First (First Down Dash x Shawne Kate x Shawne Bug) since she was a long yearling. Bred for the track and out of a producing dam, training her to run around barrels rather than to run down a track wasn’t viewed as the smartest idea. Kirkpatrick did it anyway. The mare was tricky to train but when she clocked the fastest time on the cloverleaf at the 2009 Barrel Futurities of America World Championship Futurity in Oklahoma City, it looked like Kirkpatrick had made the right decision.

Then tragedy struck. Both of the big tendons, the deep digital and the superficial, in Kate’s front leg got cut. She spent four weeks at the vet clinic then had stem cell therapy followed by three years of rest and laser therapy. Eventually Kate was declared sound enough to breed so Kirkpatrick bred her to Coronas Leaving You and Chilled Corona. While that colt she carried was being weaned, Kirkpatrick began riding Kate again.

Last spring, Kirkpatrick took Kate to some jackpots and the mare showed enough maturity that she entered her at amateur rodeos.

“I go to a series of amateur rodeos where I like the ground conditions. I’ve seasoned a jillion of the horses at them in the past,” Kirkpatrick said. “She’s a very aggressive mare and I never dreamed that I’d be able to run her in a big, outside pen because she goes so fast but at her fourth rodeo she won it by half a second.”

Kirkpatrick decided it was time for Kate to go pro. Last July, Kirkpatrick went to her childhood home of Lovington, N.M., and placed at the rodeo there. Their next one was the Great Plains Stampede Rodeo in Altus, Okla., and Kate won it.

The pair went to a few more rodeos and while they didn’t win, Kirkpatrick did learn more about her horse.

“I have to do the exact same things with her everywhere I go; I can’t let her run from the alley, I have to get her in the arena before I let her go,” she said.

With the mare running hard and entries for the winter rodeos due, Kirkpatrick decided to do it.

“I entered the rodeos I could get in—the ones that aren’t limited and San Angelo isn’t, so we went.”

Fort Worth is limited to 210 competitors but they got in. Kirkpatrick describes that run as being ‘ugly.’ Having already paid up at San Angelo, she loaded up and went. The first go round of San Angelo is in a huge, indoor arena. All 262 girls run on one day. The second go round and short go are in the smaller Coliseum.

“She’d never been in that tight of a situation like that building in San Angelo is but she handled it really well,” said Kirkpatrick who made the 13th fastest run of the 262 entries in the first go with a 15.79 behind go-round winner Meghan Johnson’s 15.64. Meghan Johnson’s 15.64 won the first round. Meghan Johnson’s 15.64 won the first round.

Kirkpatrick didn’t place in the second go (won by Amanda Davenport with a 14.42) either but her total on two, 30.44, had her sitting eighth in the average when there were still three performances left to go before the short round.

“In one of the performances they moved me four times,” said Kirkpatrick who was at the rodeo in Scottsdale, Ariz., with her husband, “and there were seven girls to go who’d placed in the first round.”

As the short round got closer, Kirkpatrick had to make a move and start the 12-hour trip back to Texas not knowing whether she’d made it or not.

“At about 9:15 at night I was out in the middle of nowhere, it was starting to sleet and I thought to myself, ‘I could have done all this, I could have missed my run at Scottsdale, and not even made the short go,’ so I called the rodeo secretary and she said that I’d gotten in.”

Kirkpatrick made it back to the short-go in the 12th and last hole and she made it back to San Angelo before the bad weather set in.

“It was so cold I could hardly bare it,” Kirkpatrick said of Friday night’s short round. “I have to ride her a long time. I usually get on her when the rodeo starts; we’re just walking or sitting the whole time but I was so cold I could hardly ride her, which could have been a good thing because it stopped my trainer tendencies from kicking in to where I’d override her.”

Kruse was the second woman out in the short go. She set the bar high with a 14.71 that ended up placing third ($1,729). Kirkpatrick ran fifth and her time of 14.48 won the short round ($3,458). Sixth on the dirt was Janssen with a 14.69 that finished second ($2,593).

Riding her 14-year-old mare Hot Playboy Chick (Hot Dasher x Bingo Express Miss), aka “Bunny,” Janssen wasn’t fazed by Kirkpatrick’s run.

“Out in the back you couldn’t hear what the times were. I knew Dena had made a good run by the way the audience reacted so I knew I needed to make the best run that I could and just let it all fall into place,” Janssen said. “There were a lot of people in the stands and standing outside you could hear them cheering for every single person that went in; that was really cool.”

“It was really loud and there was a lot of excitement when you got into the arena,” continued Kruse who rode her 14-year-old gelding JKR Assured Win (Dashs Emblem x Miss Assured Best x Princely Best) to a 15.97 for 41st for the first go round and then followed that up with the second fastest time of round two—a 14.43. “It was really exciting to place that high in the second round but for the short go, I was just going out there to do the same thing. I just went in there to make my run and whatever happened was going to happen. I was just hoping for a good run.”

Kirkpatrick is stoked about getting to go to Houston but she doesn’t think it’s going to be easy. She also hasn’t competed there since the Astrodome was torn down. Back then she was traveling with Celie Ray. She was running a mare named Color Me Magnolia and won both San Angelo and San Antonio. In Houston, the mare didn’t even see the barrels.

“I don’t have any delusions about Houston,” Kirkpatrick said. “San Angelo was literally Kate’s second building rodeo. She’s 10-years-old and she’s been to a maximum of 15 rodeos, including the amateur rodeos, in her life. Until you put a horse in any situation, whether it’s the pressure of a futurity or the pressure of a building rodeo, then you can’t know how they’ll handle it.”

For now, Kirkpatrick is just having fun and enjoying her win on Kate.

“It’s always fun when you win. If you’d asked me after Fort Worth if it was fun I would’ve said, ‘No, and I don’t know why I entered San Angelo.’ My rule is that if I win I let myself feel happy until I’m about to have to do it again. The saying, ‘You’re only as good as the last run you made,’ I live by that. Right now I’m happy. I enjoyed my win but I’ll have to get to my house and back to the grindstone again.”

For now, Kruse and Janssen’s grindstone is the rodeo road and both women are simply happy that their horses are sound and that they have an opportunity.

“She’s been hurt the last couple of years during the season. This year she was fine so I started entering,” Janssen said of Bunny who always has her miniature pony friend travel in the trailer with her. “I’m going rodeo by rodeo and seeing how it’s going. If it keeps going good then I’ll keep entering. I haven’t entered like this before, I’ve mainly just been doing circuit rodeos. This is the highest I’ve ever been in the standings but I don’t really look at them because it’s so early in the season and there’re so many rodeos to come.”

Kruse’s plan is to keep entering, too.

“I came down here to rodeo, ” said Kruse who is originally from Gillette, Wyo., but is currently living in Granbury, Texas. “This is my first year of really going. It’s been my dream since I was a little girl to make the NFR and now that I have my good horse back and running I’m going to hopefully fulfill my dream. This gives me that extra confidence boost to keep going and to hopefully keep doing good with my horse.” Megan Williams won fifth in the average which was worth $3,334, plus $12,500 in the Cinch Shoot-Out.Megan Williams won fifth in the average which was worth $3,334, plus $12,500 in the Cinch Shoot-Out.

JKR Assure Win, aka “JJ,” had been off for 18 months due to a torn collateral ligament and a torn suspensory. Kruse has owned the 14-year-old for eight years.

“I know his every move and every step. He was a gift. I had another horse that was struck by lighting and killed and I got JJ out of the deal. We grew up together.”

San Angelo Stock Show & Rodeo Average

1. Dena Kirkpatrick, 44.92, $7,003; 2) Shelby Janssen, 45.10, $6,002; 3) Cassidy Kruse, 45.11, $5,002; 4) C.J. Vondette, 45.21, $4,335; 5) Megan Williams, 45.23, $3,334; 6) Chloe Hoovestal, 45.24, $2,667; 7) Amanda Davenport, 45.27, $2,000; 8) Meghan Johnson, 49.60, $1,333; 9) Victoria Williams, 49.93, $1,000; 10) Kenna Squires, 50.28, $666.99.

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