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Barrel racer Dona Kay Rule qualifies for first NFR at age 61

The first National Finals Rodeo was contested in 1959 in Dallas. Barrel racer Dona Kay Rule was 1 year old.

“I’ve aspired for this my whole life,” Rule said proudly from the bowels of the Thomas &Mack Center.

And after a lifetime of aspiration, she’s finally competing in Las Vegas

Rule used to train horses and operate a saddle shop with her husband, John, who made saddles for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association world champions from 1988 to 1998. But she shifted her focus to rodeo competition this season and qualified for the NFR at age 61. The Mico, Oklahoma, native was ranked No. 6 in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world standings with $148,392 before Sunday’s fourth go-round.

She took a five-second penalty Sunday and missed out on the money, but won the go-round Friday in a time of 13.69 seconds and finished third Saturday in 13.68 seconds.

“We hope as a little girl riding our pony around the backyard that it’s us someday,” Rule said. “I’m not sure I’ve completely soaked it in yet. We all hope for it.”

Rule hails from an agricultural background, grew up around rodeo and visualized a professional career. Her dad rode bareback horses and bulls competitively before transitioning into team roping later in his career. Her daughter is a barrel racer and a roper. Her son helped on her family’s ranch.

Rule competed in local barrel racing events and rodeos, but focused more on training barrel horses and running her business until selling it recently.

She won events at seven top-level rodeos this year and finished second in seven to qualify for the NFR with more than $95,000 in prize money. Her horse, High Valor, was awarded Horse of the Year honors by the WPRA.

“It’s his job to listen to me and do what I say. We train an awful lot,” she said. “Typically, I take care of him more than I take care of me.”

Rule is the oldest competitor at the NFR this year and one of five barrel racers older than 60 to qualify for the event in its 61-year history, according to the WPRA. So her accomplishment isn’t exactly unprecedented.

Mary Burger won the barrel racing world championship in 2016 at age 68, the oldest rodeo world champion. Rule won’t be able to catch her for several more years.

But she’s at the NFR now.

And who’s really counting, anyway?

“It’s been 20 years, I think, since I’ve been (to Las Vegas),” she said. “There have been a lot of changes. But the rodeo is still awesome, (and) everybody’s been welcoming. I’m not really sure you can really put it into words.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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