After spending nearly five months on the rodeo trail chasing a Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) qualification, Sarah Rose McDonald finally made it home to Brunswick, Ga.
Pickup and trailer were none the worse for wear in spite of more than 25,000 miles of travel. At an average of 65 miles an hour, that’s nearly 400 hours behind the wheel and for her horses in the trailer. And her relationship with her chief driver, horse groom and assistant, boyfriend Wade Whatley, survived the summer as well.
Her horses Bling and Rose were also glad to be home and have a rest that includes pasture time and trail rides in the woods. While the break is definitely physical, it’s also mental as it gives everyone time to think about things other than barrel racing.
That mental break is important for all of them as they prepare to compete on rodeo’s biggest stage. Sarah and Bling finished the season in third place with $134,599 in earnings, just $32,033 behind Callie duPerier who leads the race for a world title. With the rounds paying over $25,000 for first place, that margin could quickly disappear.
This is the first qualification for both of these young women and they will be going up against seasoned veterans Sherry Cervi, Mary Walker and Lisa Lockhart along with the reigning world champion Fallon Taylor. This year’s NFR barrel racing will see six women and their horses making an appearance in the Thomas and Mack Center for the first time.
While it is all very exciting, it could also be overwhelming and intimidating. To keep that intimidation factor at bay, Sarah and Bling will do their best to keep the same routine that they have always kept through the regular season. There will however be some big differences for Sarah.
Generally when she gets to a rodeo, she will go to the arena and watches for a while getting an up close and personal look at the dirt. At the NFR, she will participate in the grand entry representing her home state and carrying the Georgia flag. While she won’t be on Bling, she will definitely get a feel for the ground in the arena at that time.
After the grand entry, it will be back to the trailer and start the process of getting ready. All athletes need to stay hydrated to perform and for horses it’s no different. Sarah depends on the Horse Hydrator, a filter that makes all water taste the same to insure that Bling is drinking all the water she wants and needs.
Her routine starts with grooming Bling. A good brushing and braiding of her mane to keep it out of Sarah’s way as she is riding are the first step. The process of saddling starts with a CSI Show Cut saddle pad. It gets brushed off to make sure it is clean before it is placed on Bling’s back. The saddle is next and again, Sarah brushes off the cinch and checks to see that everything is clean before it is tightened around Bling’s girth.
Sarah always wants Bling to be looking her best, so along with careful grooming, she uses hand-decorated tack from Rockn Wilson Leather. For them, it is the best in form and function. Bling gets supplements to aid in her health and wellness. Before the rodeo, each time she runs, she gets a pre-run paste made by Oxy-Gen that is filled with electrolytes to provide Bling support for her respiratory and immune systems.
Next, Sarah gets dressed in her regulation rodeo clothes. When she is ready, it’s back to taking care of Bling. She puts Iconoclast boots on her legs for extra support and protection as she runs.
“The Iconoclast boots have an extra strap around the ankles,” Sarah explained. “They offer optimum support for and are the best I can give Bling or any horse in a leg boot.”
Now it’s time to put on the headstall, get a bit in Bling’s mouth and get on. She spends most of her warm-up time simply walking the well-mannered mare and analyzes how she is moving and feeling. Bling doesn’t like to trot so they usually just walk then lope a couple of circles to make sure that Bling is paying attention and that her muscles are all warmed up.
Right before the barrel racing starts, it’s time to tighten the cinch, adjust and tighten the leg boots with a final equipment check and they are ready to go. All barrel racers go through a lot of preparation before running their trusted mounts. And for each of them and each horse the routines are similar but vary according to individual needs.
“Bling knows that I pretty much have the same routine every time,” Sarah said. ”You can tell when she gets ready to go. I have a different routine with every horse built around the things they like to do. Each one is an individual and responds to different things. As you get to know your horses, you learn what works.”
Sarah’s daily routine will be a little different in Las Vegas. She will have autographs to sign, meetings and banquets to attend. There will be family and friends that not only want to watch her compete, but they will also want to spend time with her.
During the 10 days of competition time is at a premium for all of the contestants. Her challenge will be keeping the activities outside of the arena in balance so she can focus on what happens in the arena.
“I’m so excited to run there,” she said. “Bling has adapted to outdoor pens, but I grew up riding her in small indoor pens. She loves the crowd of a rodeo and feeds off their energy. My job is to make sure she is calm and focused and that I’m giving her confidence before we run. She knows when we get in the alley way it’s time to go.”
That confidence will come into play as they run before 18,000 died-in-the-wool fans. The energy at the NFR is unlike any other rodeo. Sarah got to experience it last year when she got her Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Rookie-of-the-Year buckle as a spectator. This year, she and Bling will be among those causing that electricity.