Every little girl who runs the barrel pattern has a dream of riding her horse down the alley of the Thomas and Mack Center at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. This dream only comes true for a select few, and Dona Kay Rule is a household name among those young girls and women.
Long before her first appearance at the WNFR, Rule could be found helping her husband, John Rule, produce the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association year end world championship saddles in the shop she and her husband owned in Oklahoma City.
“I walked into the National Saddlery in Oklahoma City one time,” Rule said. “I was going to trade my saddle in because I didn’t have enough money to buy a pair of boots.
“That day is when I met John,” Rule said. “We ended up dating after that and I went to work for a guy in Antlers [Oklahoma].”
After Rule moved back to Oklahoma City, she and John married and together they bought National Saddlery Co. in 1980. They sold the company in 2009.
“We had these people come in who wanted to make it a really big store,” Rule said. “We were really excited to be a part of a really big store.
“It was only John and I, and for 10 years we built the world champion saddles for the PRCA,” Rule said. “Those were 17 saddles of the upmost quality, and that took up a lot of our time.
“I raised my kids there,” Rule said. “I worked with John every day.”
Dona Kay Rule’s daughter, K.K. Rule, said she has quite a few memories of being in her parents saddle shop while growing up.
“When I was little, I told my parents I had made this saddle and I even signed it,” K.K. Rule said. “When they came back to look at it, I had signed my name in sharpie across the seat of this multi-thousand-dollar custom saddle.”
Working at National Saddlery was also where Rule met her long-time friend, Lona Spears.
“I met Dona Kay when she and John still operated the National Saddlery store,” Spears said. “They only lived around two miles from my house, so it was just natural we became friends.”
Dona Kay Rule and Spears began traveling to all-girl amateur rodeos together where they would compete together in steer undecorating, barrel racing and team roping.
“Most of my early memories are when she and I would have a trailer full of horses hauling to the all-around events,” Spears said. “We had borrowed my dad’s big truck and stock trailer to haul.
“We had a blowout and two men pulled over to help us,” Spears said. “As two women that can be a little scary, but Dona Kay remembered that my dad kept a gun in the back behind the seat.
“So, Dona Kay got in the back seat because she wanted to be close to it just in case,” Spears said. “And after we got home, we were telling my dad about how glad we were that he kept that gun in there, and he said, ‘What were you going to do with it – drown them?’ Turns out it was only a water gun.”
After more than 40 years of friendship, Spears now considers Dona Kay Rule one of her closest friends.
“She is basically my sister,” Spears said. “She was even in my wedding.”
Together, Spears, Dona Kay Rule and K.K. Rule own and operate Tri-K Barrel Races. “Tri-K was created when 4Ds and 5Ds were just starting and a lot of round-up clubs didn’t know how to do the splits or payouts for them,” Spears said. “They would ask us to come in and manage the events for them.”
Tri-K just celebrated its 20th year. The women now manage events at the Lazy E Arena, The State Fair of Oklahoma and the Judd Little Barrel Bash, Spears said.
Before she met John or Lona, Dona Kay Rule said she grew up showing horses in multiple disciplines before she began to compete in rodeos.
“I remember my dad taking me to a horse show and then going with him after to a team roping jackpot,” Dona Kay Rule said. “I had won some ribbons from the show, and he had won the team roping and had a big pile of money.
“Then, it was eyebrows up,” Dona Kay Rule said. “Ribbons or money?”
Years later, during the 2019 rodeo season, Dona Kay Rule decided to make the run for her first WNFR at 61 years old.
According to the PRCA, a contestant must be one of the top 15 money-earning contestants in their respective event to make the WNFR.
“I remember watching the OKC Thunder on the television,” Dona Kay Rule said. “They were interviewing Russel Westbrook, and they asked him ‘What makes you think you can make all these shots, run up the middle and do what you do?’ and he looked right at me through the TV and he said, ‘Why not?’”
Right from that moment Dona Kay Rule realized she wanted to chase her dream of making it to the WNFR, she said.
“I had my two good horses Valor and Juice,” Dona Kay Rule said. “That’s what I worked for my whole life, so why not?”
After Dona Kay Rule won the Woodward Elks’ PRCA Rodeo, K.K. Rule said she really began pushing her mother to enter more PRCA rodeos and try for one of those top 15 spots.
“Really more than anything I was the little devil on her shoulder,” K.K. Rule said. “I was telling her she needed to hit the road.”
Spears said she also encouraged her best friend to chase her dream of making the WFNR. “She had the horse and the drive to do it,” Spears said. “I just told her she had to do it. “She was really nervous about leaving K.K. and [me] with Tri-K to go on the road,”
Spears said. “I told her we could manage this without her, so you go rodeo while you have the opportunity.”
Dona Kay Rule has since made an appearance every year at the WNFR. In 2020, she was in the top 15 but was unable to run because to a positive COVID-19 test and testing restrictions.
When Dona Kay Rule is not on the road, she and K.K. Rule train horses together as a mother-daughter pair.
K.K. Rule said on a day-to-day basis they ride bwteen 6 and 8 horses together where they video and critique each other.
When she is not on the road or working, her favorite thing to do is be a grandmother to her two grandchildren, Dona Kay Rule said.
“When both of the grandkids are here, we will pack up a bag with snack for lunch and we go explore,” Dona Kay said. “Anything we can do outside is our favorite thing to do.
“John and I will hide things all week and draw out a map,” Dona Kay said. “So, when they get here on the weekend, we can all have a scavenger hunt.”
Although she loves her time at home, Dona Kay Rule said she is on track to make her fourth WNFR appearance in 2022.