This is my ninth Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and I realized I really didn’t know what an average day was like in Las Vegas for a barrel racer. So, I set about to remedy that.
Through Jolee Lautaret of the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) – herself a three-time Wrangler NFR qualifier – I was connected with Trula Churchill, who is competing in her first Finals. I called Trula to set up a time to meet her at the barn where she keeps her horse, Worm.
“I usually get there about 7:30 or 8,” she said.
Using my powers of deduction and knowing the nightly performances began at 6:45, I realized she was talking about 7:30 or 8 in the MORNING! People are actually up at that hour in Vegas? Who knew?
Some barrel racers have “handlers” who do all the dirty work for them, but Churchill is not one of them. She prefers to do the work herself and is admittedly protective of her prized steed.
I met up with Trula and her husband, 2006 Wrangler NFR steer wrestler Linn, around 8 on a chilly and wet morning on Friday. I went to bed at a reasonable hour – by Vegas standards, at least – and probably looked like Zach Galifinakis’ character Alan from “The Hangover,” half awake with one eye open, but at least I was wearing pants.
The sun had apparently hit the snooze button and was hiding behind a blanket of clouds, and the temperature gauge in my car said 48 degrees, although it felt colder and you could see your breath. The UNLV practice soccer fields, where the livestock and horse barns are located, were a muddy mess the morning after the city got more than an inch of rain dropped on it from one of its 20 or so rainy days a year.
Praising myself for wearing my old pair of boots instead of my new Justins, I followed Trula to her trailer, where she put together the morning feed for Worm and Linn’s bulldogging horse, Dynamite. I’ve seen and been in worse mud pits before – notably in Tampa for the 1997 Outback Bowl in which my Auburn Tigers were trounced by Joe Paterno and Penn State – but this was still pretty bad.
Clad in an Oklahoma Thunder hoodie and mud boots, Trula led me back to Worm’s stall, where he enjoyed breakfast as she set about cleaning his stall. The urge to offer to help her clean the stall passed quickly, and I instead peppered her with questions while taking notes and a few photos – you know, the hard work of a journalist.
Mary Walker, whom I’ve written about in this column earlier this year, was a few stalls down with her AQHA Horse of the Year Latte, and stopped by to chat a bit. She’s such a great lady, and I think everyone is jazzed that she is probably on her way to a gold buckle.
Trula, who was great to talk to, said Worm – a 7-year-old blue roan gelding who weighs 1,225 pounds and stands 15½ hands tall – is a “very good” eater who gets perturbed if he doesn’t get fed regularly. I can definitely relate to that.
“Some horses get anxious if they eat too close to competing, but he gets that way if he doesn’t have something,” said Trula, the 1996 WPRA Rookie of the Year.
I asked her to describe Worm’s personality.
“He’s pretty inquisitive,” said Trula, who was born in Oklahoma. “One guy asked me what cartoon character he would be, and I said Dennis the Menace, because he’s always getting into things. He’s also really kind and is affectionate if it’s his idea.”
She laid out her daily schedule for me, and while no two days during the Wrangler NFR are the same, Trula and Worm stick to a pretty consistent routine. After his 8 a.m. breakfast of feed and hay, she usually takes him to the large warm-up pen on the soccer fields for a walk and a light exercise session to get him going, and those last anywhere from 15-30 minutes, depending on how ornery he is.
This morning, however, the mud was too sticky in the practice pen, so Trula led Worm on a walk in one of the few remaining grassy areas next to the holding pens for the team roping steers and bulls. She ran into two-time World Champion Steer Wrestler Dean Gorsuch and Darrell Kraupie – the father of Gorsuch’s hazer, Dale – who were exercising Gorsuch’s bulldogging and hazing horses, and the fellow Nebraska residents chatted for a bit as Worm and Gorsuch’s horse, Skip, playfully tried to bite each other.
Airplanes took off from nearby McCarran International Airport every few minutes, but the horses and other animals seemed not to mind, or at least appeared to have become accustomed to the frequent loud annoyances at their home for the 10-day event.
The horse’s stall gets a good cleaning in the morning, and then the Churchills usually go grab a bite to eat before getting going on the rest of the day. What that constitutes varies daily in Vegas, as the contestants have immensely full schedules, and their time can be spent doing anything from attending autograph sessions and functions like the ProRodeo League of Women Luncheon that was held Thursday at the South Point or other appearances around town.
Trula has also spent some quality time with her parents when she hasn’t had commitments during the day and has even worked in a nap or two, but she usually gets to the Thomas & MackCenter around 3:30 to start ramping up for the night’s performance. Worm gets fed again around 4 p.m. so he has time to digest his food before their nightly run, and Trula gets into her “cowboy clothes” and ready to compete.
Midway through the steer wrestling, Trula puts his “boots” and saddle on, and the duo heads to the warm-up tent behind the Thomas & Mack Center once the team roping begins. She said he knows when it’s time to get down to business once they get lined up in the alley leading to the arena.
“He knows when I pull my hat down and take my coat off, it’s time to go,” who began running barrels competitively with Worm when he was 4.
After making her run, Trula leads Worm back to the soccer fields, where she puts a magnetic blanket on him to promote blood flow, takes off his boots and saddle, cools him down with a walk in the warm-up pen and puts liniment on his legs before putting him in his stall for the night.
The Churchills run out for a post-event bite to eat, then return to the barn to get Worm set up for the night. The blanket he wears for the night depends on the temperature, and she makes sure he has enough water, a salt lick and a protein bucket in his stall before heading out.
If she’s asleep by midnight, it’s a good night, and everything starts again bright and early at 7 a.m. the next day.
Trula and Worm have had an up and down Finals, knocking over barrels in Rounds 4 and 6 and placing in Rounds 5, 7 and 8. She admits they were both nervous in the early rounds, but is proud of the way he has worked in the arena.
“He’s done well,” she said. “He’s worked his little butt off every night. Things haven’t quite gone our way, but it’s not because he wasn’t trying.”
Trula and Worm stand sixth in the Wrangler NFR average standings and have moved from 14th to 12th in the WPRA world standings after banking $23,852 in Las Vegas. She’s having a blast competing in her first Finals.
“There’s no way to describe how it feels to finally be here,” said Trula, who qualified for the 2011 Canadian Finals on Worm. “It’s the experience of a lifetime, for sure. It’s been fun, and we’ve had a good time.”
After a promising 2011 season, Trula took Linn’s advice and took the year off from teaching grades 5-8 in Valentine, Neb., and is realizing a dream of being a Wrangler NFR barrel racer. She’s clearly cherishing every minute of the experience, and that’s just the way it should be.
I left the pair to finish their morning walk and headed back to the hotel with more of an appreciation of the dedication barrel racers have to their horses and their sport. As I drove out of the rain-soaked fields, the sun made its way through the clouds, shining down on the four-legged beauties and the ones who love them.