When she was in her early 20s, Tana Poppino got an office job at the Grand River Dam Co. She thought it would be a temporary position, something to offset expenses as she established herself as a professional barrel racer. Two decades later, she was still working for the company, having all but given up on her competitive dream.

Fate in the form of a horse stepped in to change the direction of Tana’s life.

“God blessed me with a very nice bay Quarter horse named Amigo,” said the blonde-haired cowgirl from Pryor, Oklahoma.

Amigo turned out to be an exceptionally fast barrel horse and his early successes at local events convinced Tana and her husband, Marty Poppino, that she should take a run at the lucrative indoor winter rodeos. She’d accrued a lot of vacation time at her job, so in January of 2003, she took some time off and hauled Amigo to the Denver National Western Stock Show & Rodeo. After winning a round and placing among the finalists, her season—and her horse—was off and running.

Balancing competition with a busy work schedule, she set her sights on the 2003 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the season-ending finale with millions in prize money at stake. When the season wound down in November, however, she found herself just out of the top 15 barrel racers to qualify for the event.

That pattern repeated itself in 2004 and 2005, with the barrel jockey always just missing the cut for the WNFR. Though her employers were generous in allowing her time off, juggling a job and a full-time rodeo campaign stretched the ambitious woman—and her employer’s patience—like a rubber band. Finally, Poppino felt she had to make a choice: continue working or commit to barrel racing full time.

“I did a lot of soul searching,” she recalls. “They needed me full-time at work. I had a great job with great benefits. But in the early months of 2006, I was in the top 10 in the world standings and had gotten a sponsor. I knew if I quit barrel racing, the chance would never come again.”

Independence Day weekend is the most lucrative period of rodeo’s hectic summer season; there are so many rodeos crowded around the Fourth of July that contestants call the holiday “Cowboy Christmas.” With her vacation time all but used up, Tana took the plunge and quit her job to campaign full-time in 2006, just as the July holiday was heating up.

Unfortunately, by mid-August, she began to question her decision. Amigo was not performing to his potential and Tana was slipping in the standings, her chances of making the WNFR becoming more and more distant with each passing week. Finally, in August, Marty called to let her know that the money she’d banked early in the season was nearly depleted. The barrel racer felt she’d reached her breaking point.

“One day, I just said to myself, ‘This is it!’ I decided to go home and start looking for another job,” she recalls.

And then, fortune smiled. She picked up some money at a rodeo in the Pacific Northwest that kept her going. Soon, she was back on top of her game and she and Amigo were making the kind of runs she knew they could.

In the period from mid-August until mid-November (the cutoff date for qualifying for the WNFR), the team piled up close to $50,000 in earnings—enough to earn them a berth at the world championship-deciding rodeo held each December in Las Vegas.

Poppino recalls walking into the Thomas & Mack Center, the stadium at the University of Las Vegas where the rodeo is held, and just reveling in the feeling of having reached a goal.

“It was an awesome feeling,” she said. “I had been dreaming about it since I was little. The first time I saw someone run down the alley at the National Finals Rodeo, I said that one day I would be there too.”

Since that time, Poppino had continued to rodeo full time. She managed to earn sponsorships with Professional’s Choice equine products, Total Health Enhancement and EquiPride; the endorsement money helps offset her costs and keeps her on the road when the inevitable slumps happen. And, she gets a lot of love and support from Marty, whose company Cowboy Rigs of Pryor, Oklahoma, helps keep the mortgage paid while his wife follows her bliss.

“People think the rodeo life is all fun and roses,” she said. “But it’s not. A lot of the girls that are rodeoing hard made difficult decisions to do this. They may be using their life savings to live the dream. And for it to work, you have to have the support of a whole team of people—family, sponsors, and in some case, employers who are willing to let you take time off. Everyone helped me to make this happen.”

Though some years have been better than others, Tana Poppino has managed to stay in the hunt and on the trail. Amigo is retired now and Tana is trying out new horses. She looks forward to another opportunity to compete at the WNFR, and if that doesn’t happen, she’ll be content to teach other women as a trainer and clinician. She’s happy to be living the rodeo life, despite the difficulties and sacrifices it has taken.

(Originally published in the January/February 2013 issue of Cowgirl Magazine).