For barrel racer Emily Miller, home is Weatherford, Oklahoma, population 12,000, located 70 miles west of Oklahoma City. More than 1,600 miles and 25 hours of drive time away is Calgary, Alberta.
What’s one got to do with the other? Well, without Calgary — and other Canadian rodeo outposts — Miller might not be in Las Vegas this week, making her first appearance in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. She earned $98,145 in the regular season to qualify seventh among the 15 barrel racers competing at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“Calgary was a game-changer for me. Canada in general was a game-changer for me. I won about $40,000 up there,” Miller said of a run that included the Fourth of July week — often dubbed Cowboy Christmas, with several key rodeos — and the week that followed at the prestigious Calgary Stampede. “That’s why I chose to do the Canadian route this year. I’ve never run there before, besides Calgary. This year, I really felt like my best bet was to go up to Canada, and not just for Calgary.
“Ponoka was great for us. We won the first round, the short round and the average. We walked out of there with a lot of money: $14,000. We won $17,000 for the week, the high money winner for the WPRA.”
Miller followed Ponoka by pocketing a couple of checks totaling $2,400 at rodeos in Montana and Utah, helping end her Cowboy Christmas jinx.
“I did! That’s the first time that’s ever happened,” said Miller, wrapping up her seventh year on the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association tour. “I’ve almost always flopped over the Fourth of July. It’s a time of year I used to dread. I had to take a step back in 2018. What can I do to set myself up for 2019? What experiences will help me get to the NFR?
“For it to go good this year was huge for me. My horses were fresh, healthy and sound, ready go to.”
Those horses would be Pipewrench and Chongo. After the solid Cowboy Christmas run, rider and horses sped back north of the border for the Calgary Stampede. Miller had a great few days of riding, finishing third for the rodeo while collecting $24,500 — ostensibly one-quarter of her season earnings.
Not bad at all for the only person in her family with the knack for rodeo — “I’m the only one who’s got the horse bug” — and whose success this year has come while she has continued to work at her day job as a dental hygienist.
The run to qualifying for her first Wrangler NFR made both those two tasks a bit more of a juggling act than in previous years.
“I’ve had to really balance that, and it has been tricky,” Miller said. “But I try to remember something my dad always instilled in me: ‘You do this for fun, because you love horses and barrel racing.’ I’m passionate about teeth, too. It’s a great career to balance with what I consider a hobby. I’m off Friday through Sunday, which has allowed me to pursue my career as a barrel racer.”
Having that career fallback helps Miller — and, just as important, her horses — handle the grind of the rodeo season.
“If the horses need to come home, I can come home, and we all get a mental break,” Miller said. “Rodeo is great when you’re winning, but it’s really a struggle when you’re not. Having that other career helps balance it. I don’t feel that pressure, like, ‘I have to win Friday because I have to make my truck payment next week.’
“Instead, it’s ‘How can we be most efficient and make our best run, do good by my horse?’ Some days you go in there and think, ‘I can win first today.’ Other days, it’s ‘OK, the ground is a little sketchy. Let’s just finish and make sure we’re standing on all fours.’”
The latter certainly hasn’t been the case this week in Miller’s first Wrangler NFR appearance. She bolted out of the gate with a winning time of 13.63 seconds in the first go-round, followed with a third and second, respectively, on nights 2 and 3, then won the fourth go-round with a 13.64. Miller has pocketed almost $100,000 this week to boost her season earnings to $196,991 — third in the world — and she leads the NFR average, which could be very lucrative come Saturday night.
Once you get to this point of the NFR, you dance with who brung ya, as the cliche goes. So Miller has no intention of altering her approach after such a successful run thus far this year, while recognizing she’ll need to be hard-charging to keep cashing checks.
“It’s life-changing if you can be successful over 10 rounds. But I can’t change my mental game now,” she said. “There are 14 other barrel racers out there with exceptional horses. It’s gonna be a night fight every single night. Make your best run every night, 10 nights in a row. Even then, you might not get a check.”
Miller is well-prepared for whatever her first Super Bowl of Rodeo dishes out.
“God works in a funny way, and the timing is always right,” Miller said, while recognizing the tremendous spot she’s in this week. “Thousands of other girls would love to be in my shoes. We’re gonna go out and do our best.”