When Mesa Pate was just 17 years old, with only a semester or two of college under her belt, she launched herself into the adrenaline-charged world of bucking bulls. As a teen, and a female at that, she was not the most likely contender to raise and train her own bucking bulls. But she’d been interested in them from a young age, and she didn’t see the obstacles. She saw only the way forward.
At the age of 18, she was hauling her top bull, Highway 12, from Texas to Colorado, and to Florida, Nashville, North Carolina, and Illinois in her worn-out pickup, sometimes with a family member along for the ride but often with no other company than her dog, Huckleberry. By the time of the 2010 PBR Finals in Las Vegas, Mesa’s bull was one of eight contenders for Bucking Bull of the Year—and the young trainer had made a name for herself in the world of bucking bulls.
One could point to Mesa’s heritage as one in a line of strong women as a primary reason for her success. Her parents, horse trainer and clinician Curt Pate and bootmaker Tammy Pate—founder of Art of the Cowgirl and a horse trainer in her own right—gave her a well-rounded education and instilled in her their prodigious work ethic. But it was the women in her family who demonstrated there were no limitations on what she, as a girl, could do.
“My great-grandma, Betty Kenuesh, is 97 years old now and she was still riding ten years ago,” Mesa says. “She was the quintessential pioneer woman. She even rode her horse to school. My expertise does not lay in the house, but my great-grandma had to do it all: she raised kids, sewed, cooked three times a day, roped, raised horses. She’s my hero; she’s just so tough and so classy.“
Mesa’s grandmother, Shirley Clark, also demonstrated hard work, humility, and a can-do attitude. While her husband taught special education and then ran the College National Finals Rodeo, Shirley worked for the Montana Brand Office for 30 years. She supervised livestock markets throughout the entire state while raising four children, all of whom went to college on rodeo scholarships.
The next generation proved equally capable and today, still serve as strong role models for Mesa, she says. “My mom and her two sisters all rope. One of her sisters is a metalworker; the other trains roping horses. They’re all extremely talented horsewomen and pretty amazing all around. I don’t know what I’d do without my great-grandma, my grandma, my mom, and my aunts. To speak in livestock terms,“ she adds, “I have a very strong female line.”
Mesa spent her childhood on a ranch outside Helena, where she recalls, “We didn’t have much but we had a pretty high quality of life.”
Growing up on a ranch, she was on horseback long before she could walk. When her father started traveling to teach horse clinics, the family went along. Mesa and her brother were homeschooled while they spent nine months of the year on the road.
“It was my mom, my dad, my brother, me, and our dogs. Our mom taught us and put the curriculum together herself. We did our schoolwork between towns in the truck, and we got a lot of real-world experience as well, like going to spend a day with a vet. I got experience as a 10-year-old that, otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten ’til after college. I’ve been to every state in the country, plus Canada and Mexico. It’s pretty neat to have had that education; we saw just about every kind of horse and horse person there was.” At any rate, she adds, “Homeschooling was the only way I got to see my dad.”
Despite the itinerant lifestyle, Mesa was able to compete in high school rodeo (always, her dad insisted, on horses she’d started herself as colts), with her main focus on roping. It was during that time that she got seriously interested in the bucking bull industry. She’d bought a small herd of breeder cows and the seller had sent along a bull, Highway 12, that had been injured and needed to heal but might still have a career in him.
On a trip to Texas to look at bulls, Mesa met a rodeo coach who offered her a partial scholarship to compete at Panola College in East Texas; she then earned a partial scholarship for writing as well. At 17, she moved to Texas, taking some livestock, including Highway 12, along with her.
College was an adjustment, especially for someone so young who had been homeschooled, and even more so for an entrepreneur with a career outside school. “I love school, I like to learn,” Mesa says. “The biggest struggle for me was I’d never been around people my own age.” Within a year, however, her bucking bull career took off, and college went on the back burner.
Mesa’s career exploded on the strong, broad back of Highway 12. When she thought he was sound enough, she took him to a local event. Having done well there, she then sent a video to the head of the PBR, garnering an invitation for his second showing: an official PBR event in Pueblo, Colorado, which launched them on the path to cross-country travel and the PBR Finals. Highway 12, it seems, was born to buck; it was Mesa who helped him find his style.
Ten years on and living in Oklahoma in the heart of bucking bull territory, Mesa still has a hand in that world and is particularly interested in the reproductive side of the industry, but she considers herself first and foremost a trainer. “I like training horses, cattle, dogs; it doesn’t matter what it is, I just like training. “
According to her grandmother Shirley, Mesa’s interest in horses and livestock was evident from her youngest years. She also exhibited a can-do attitude that was inborn; limitations simply never occurred to her. Shirley recalls an incident at her home when Mesa was about six and working hard on a story on her grandmother’s typewriter. When she announced she was done, Shirley recalls that Mesa said, ‘I want to make a movie. You just need to get Disney on the phone for me.’
From age six to age 28, explains Mesa, her outlook hasn’t changed. “When I first came onto the bucking bull scene, it was a big deal that I was female in a male-dominated sport. Where I grew up, in ranching families, it didn’t matter whether you were a man, woman, or what you were. You were respected for what you did because of your ability and your work ethic. That’s what I wanted people to see.”
As for the danger, and the fact that she might be vulnerable to these 1,900-pound giants, Mesa credits her training.
“I’m always very thankful for my background with horses,” she says. “Some of the bulls can be pretty terrible.”
Handling them from horseback has the added bonus of exposing her horses, which she’s training to be all round ranch-ready horses, to an array of experiences.
“I want to build a reputation as a trainer, as someone selling high quality horses,” she explains. “With bucking bulls, I have the ability to put them in high pressure situations. It makes for tough horses that can withstand anything and not fall apart on anyone. That’s my goal.”
At Mesa’s age, to not feel compelled to follow the stream of bright young people who make their way to cities, to have some choices in living the Western lifestyle on her own terms, and to have agency in those choices, is a gift. And to help others as she herself has been helped is a given.
“There are a lot of opportunities now for women in ranching, in the performance horse world, in rodeo. I think it’s such an exciting time to be a woman in the Western industry,” she says. “For how we live the Western lifestyle, the pay grade might not be comparable to a lot of other places, but you have to factor in your quality of life. I get to live where I want and do what I want. And that,” she says, “is worth a lot.”