Even the best laid-out plans are subject to change, especially in rodeo.
When Sarah Rose McDonald and her boyfriend Wade Whatley left Brunswick, Ga., last May, they fully expected to be back home in August. McDonald was second in the world standings with $53,374 and the reigning Rookie of the Year had her sights set on her first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) qualification.
Their journey took them as far north as Livingston, Mont., and as far west as Reno, Nev.
They won money in Cody, Wyo., and Livingston, Mont., over the Cowboy Christmas run over the Fourth of July. Then they cashed in at Nampa, Idaho; Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Ogden, Utah. A big check from winning the championship at the Days of 47 Rodeo in Salt Lake City, Utah, added $8,385 to McDonald’s earnings and it was back to Cheyenne where she had qualified for the finals.
Then it was time to head back southeast with some rodeos along the way. They placed in every round in Dodge City, Kan., and headed to Sikeston, Mo., where they were again in the money. Now it was time to make some decisions. McDonald’s success has come aboard her phenomenal horse “Fame Fling N Bling” that she calls Bling. She had a young mare with her that she had been seasoning that was for sale, and planned to go home and get her back-up horse Rose and spend more time close to home before heading to Las Vegas for the NFR in December.
Being third in the world standings put her in solid position for her first NFR qualification. She didn’t need to be competing for one of the top 15 spots, but the rodeo trail was calling. And, spending a little time in the southeastern part of the U.S. influenced her.
“To be honest, it was so hot.” McDonald said. “Bling acted so drained being back in the humidity and wasn’t eating like she had been. It made the decision pretty easy.”
They went to Louisiana to drop Hottie off at her new home and friends from Georgia met them with Rose. With Rose and Bling loaded in, they turned around and headed north. Next up was the Champions Challenge in Cody, Wyo. And, since they didn’t make the trip to Brunswick, Brunswick came to them.
McDonald’s parents, Mike and Carol McDonald, and sister, Brook Williams, flew into Billings, Mont., to be in Cody with them. They spent three days in Cody shopping, trying out all of the restaurants and of course took a little time out for the rodeo where Sarah and Bling finished fourth.
“We had so much fun,” she said. “It was awesome to have that time together.”
Sarah and Wade plan to spend the next month in Idaho, Washington and Oregon before heading southeast again. She is following nearly the same path that she did a year ago where she won money at Ellensburg, Walla Walla, Puyallup, and Bremerton, Wash., as well as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. She is trimming her schedule a bit this year.
“Last year I was playing catch up so I hit pretty much every rodeo we could,” she said. “This year I’m entering lighter with no extra hauling and Rose will get to run a lot more.” Their last rodeo for this year will be in Omaha, Neb., where she earned enough to get the Rookie of the Year title last year.
Deciding where to go is a challenge for McDonald who had never seen any of these arenas prior to 2014. Now when she gets somewhere new, she spends time watching other events, observing the arena set up and studying the dirt.
“The dirt can’t always be perfect all the time,” she said, “especially in big outdoor arenas. That’s been an adjustment for us, because prior to this we made most of our runs in small indoor pens where conditions were more consistent. I know what Bling likes and doesn’t like and what rodeos to enter now. I’ve learned a lot and that’s important.”
McDonald is excited about qualifying for her first NFR, and is hopeful that Bling will excel in the Thomas and Mack Center for that reason.
“She really likes smaller pens,” she added. “She’s been amazing and has surprised me at how she has taken to rodeo life and even big arenas. That’s the hardest thing in the world to do, send a horse full out into an arena when the conditions aren’t optimal. But, you can’t safety up and win and I certainly can’t safety up on her. She wants to run full out and give it her all every time, so that’s what I need to let her do. Sometimes it’s just not worth running and sometimes I have to believe in us and trust her.”
There will be no safety runs for this pair in December in Las Vegas. And, once again the family will be watching and cheering on the dynamic duo.