By Nellie Miller with Kailey Sullins

I’ve been seasoning my young horse, “Cowboy.” He’s 8 and has been pretty green, but I felt like it was time for him to step up and be a horse. Getting out of your comfort zone is sometimes uncomfortable and even scary—for both you and your horse—but taking the chance and stepping up is always worth it.

When I was writing this, Cowboy had only been to two amateur rodeos, and I placed in one of them. He really surprised me when he placed, because I honestly didn’t think he was there yet. He’s only ever been to jackpots, and since rodeos are a lot different for inexperienced horses as far as atmosphere, ground and conditions, I wasn’t expecting much. It goes to show chances can pay off. I feel like he got a lot more out of going to two amateur rodeos than he has the whole time I’ve been jackpotting on him. He was exposed to more and had to get out of his comfort zone as well.

I did my best to help him in the transition to make the experience a positive one. I tried to be real consistent in the way I rode him, because conditions are a lot harder when you go to a rodeo versus a jackpot. Jackpotting really protects the horse—everything is perfect, the ground is perfect, you come in through a center alley. In a rodeo situation, you might have a side gate, bad ground or the barrels might be out in the middle of nowhere and not right on the fence. I just tried to concentrate on riding him consistently and being steady for him since the situation isn’t a steady thing. That way he’s relying on me being the positive reinforcement rather than relying on the conditions being the best.

When you take a horse out of its usual environment, it’s stressful, especially being an inexperienced horse. Cowboy’s not used to going to a different place—he’s used to being at home in his steady environment—so he was definitely wound up. He didn’t know what to do, when to get nervous or when to calm down or anything. It adds another challenge when you take them out of their comfort zone.

The same goes for all of us as competitors—sometimes it’s hard to take the next step, hit the rodeo road, or enter a more difficult barrel race. But, just like with Cowboy, if I had never let him experience those rodeos and situations, he would never be ready for them. The only way to move up is to take the next step—even if it’s scary. That’s not to say you have to take the leap blindly. I prepared Cowboy the best I knew how so the transition wasn’t frightening to him and he kept his confidence. On young horses, I really try to concentrate on keeping their confidence up. If we have to go a little slower to the first barrel to make sure it’s a good, solid run, then I’m happy with that. I don’t want to put them in a position where they loose their confidence.

Remember, it won’t go perfect every time, but there’s only one way to eventually get that perfect run and that’s to take the chance. I want to encourage you to just bite the bullet and try something different. I took Cowboy to a jackpot before the first rodeo I went to and he ducked in front of the second barrel, but then he went and placed the next day at the same arena. We all look like idiots sometimes, so don’t be afraid to do something just because you might look stupid. 


Nellie Miller is the 2017 WPRA World Champion and rode her home-raised and -trained 11-year-old mare Rafter W Minnie Reba (KS Cash N Fame x Espuela Roan x Blue Light Ike) - affectionately known as "Sister" - to the title. Miller has amassed $625,517 in Equi-Stat recording lifetime earnings. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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