Nellie Miller has approached the 2019 rodeo season with the finesse of a chess-playing Grand Master: Will her calculated game propel her to the top?
Nellie Miller comes to National Finals Rodeo with one goal in mind: Second.
Not second place, mind you: This soft-spoken, gritty cowgirl and her blistering blue roan mare Sister (Rafter W Minnie Reba) are hunting their second World Champion Barrel Racer title, having won their first in 2017. And Sister—the 2017 WPRA/AQHA Horse of the Year—is a master at hunting barrels.
Nellie ground out summer’s swelter with a game plan worthy of a statistician. She and her husband James, along with their two daughters Payton, 7, and Hadley, 4, embarked on a “road trip with a purpose,” departing Cottonwood, California, in late June for a series of summer rodeos—all with eyes on the prize: a second win at the National Finals Rodeo.
Still, as Dwight D. Eisenhower so wisely noted, “Planning is everything; the plan is nothing.” Adapting her game plan to what the situation calls for is one of Nellie’s many strengths.
Nellie launched her summer circuit already in good stead, having garnered $56,000 for her second championship win at the 2019 RodeoHouston. At the 2018 RodeoHouston, Nellie had bested Hailey Kinsel, who would become the 2018 World Champion Barrel Racer, by a mere two-hundredths of a second.
This big win, early in the season, helped pave the way for her to qualify for NFR with far fewer rodeo attendances than any of her competitors; fewer, in fact, than her next 30 competitors in the rankings as of late August.
At the Reno Rodeo, Nellie and Sister finished fourth with a combined score of 51.88—just three-tenths of a second behind winner Ivy Hurst’s 51.58 seconds for her three runs. Then, on to the Molalla, Oregon, Buckaroo Rodeo over the July Fourth holiday, where she and Sister placed fifth. She placed fourth in the first round at the Central Wyoming Fair & Rodeo and won seconds in rounds one and two at California Rodeo Salinas.
At the Calgary Stampede, Nellie again placed fourth, with Lisa Lockhart and her two horses, Louie and Rosa, edging out Kinsel, who placed second by three-thousandths of a second and Emily Miller taking third.
When Cheyenne Frontier Days rolled around, Nellie and Sister turned-and-burned to a win—marking the second time she’d won Cheyenne. With this accomplishment, she became only the second rider in history to successfully defend a CFD barrel racing title since Kristie Peterson did so in 1998. Her time of 17.22 was matched by Shari Lord aboard her stallion Can Man (Freckles ta Fame), and after a bit of confusion by CFD officials—who originally applied a tie-breaker calculation—the two competitors were crowned co-champions, and Nellie retained her claim to back-to-back wins in 2018 and 2019.
By mid-August, Nellie topped the Pro Rodeo World Standings, having accrued $148,000 in earnings, and cresting her 2018 entire year earnings of $146,826.
Most remarkable of all, she’s accomplished this by attending only 25 rodeos, fewer than any of any of the competitors ranked in the No. 2 through No. 31 standings.
A second win at RodeoHouston; a second win at Cheyenne Frontier Days. Can she crown this with a second World Championship at NFR?
“I’m not afraid to learn from others. Surrounding yourself with good people who have good intentions and good knowledge is irreplaceable.”
Born to Run
Both the human side and the equine side of this dynamic duo have helped prepare them to achieve greatness.
Nellie—along with her two brothers, Clint and Wyatt—grew up in a rodeo family helmed by her parents, Sam and Roxy Williams. Nellie’s husband James is the general manager of Red Bluff Roundup and an ardent supporter of her career.
“My days at home start with getting the kids up and fed,” says Nellie. “Then, we drive over to my parent’s ranch where I ride in the mornings—exercising a couple of young horses, working cattle, roping. This year, I’m even trying a few breakaways.”
Payton and Hadley are usually with her—the third generation of this family now helping with grooming, feeding, and light chores.
Nellie credits her dad for coaching and training both her and her horses for her entire life, noting that he and she are the only two people to ever ride Sister. Her dad, she says, is constantly reading and trying to learn more, but she also believes that he has a natural gift.
Nellie began rodeoing at the age of 12 on Sister’s dam Reba (Espuela Roan) and competed on her throughout high school. Reba’s son Blue Duck (Reba’s Smoky Joe) carried Nellie to her first NFR in 2010.
He’s 23 years old and retired now,” Nellie says, “but he still looks like a million bucks and stays interested in keeping track of the mares.”
So it’s Blue Duck’s younger half-sister—Sister is 13 years younger than is Blue Duck—carrying on the family tradition. Blue Duck’s sire, Mr. Bar Truckle, is a great-grandson of the illustrious Three Bars, while Sister’s grandsire is Dash Ta Fame, similarly revered in barrel-horse pedigrees.
“I like to change things up with Sister, to give her some variety in her schedule,” Nellie says. “I occasionally work cattle with her and do other ranch activities to keep her mentally sharp.”
“Every time I stuck my neck out, things have turned out great. You can’t be afraid of what might go wrong. Accidents do happen, but I can’t let thoughts of that get in the way of pushing myself to constantly improve. Keeping Sister healthy during the really intensive periods is my utmost priority.”
Sharpening the Cutting Edge
When I last spoke with Nellie, she was headed to Washington for back-to-back rodeos in Washington over Labor Day weekend, at the Ellensburg Rodeo and at the Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days.
“Going into fall, I feel prepared for NFR,” she says. “It will be my fourth time at NFR and I know how to handle it now. After Walla Walla, I’ll slow down the pace a bit with just circuit finals and a few things close to home.”
It’s a delicate balancing act leading up to NFR: keeping herself and Sister as sharp as possible, while doing everything within her power to keep them both healthy and injury-free. But Nellie’s not one to idle her engine in the comfort zone.
“Every time I stuck my neck out, things have turned out great,” she says. “You can’t be afraid of what might go wrong. Accidents do happen, as we all know, but I can’t let thoughts of that get in the way of pushing myself to constantly improve. Keeping Sister healthy during the really intensive periods is my utmost priority.”
And in addition to her dad, Nellie seeks out other experts who can help her and Sister become the best they can be. She remains humble about it, noting that everything she’s learned has begun with a failure—and overcoming that means relying on other people.
“I’m not afraid to learn from others,” says Nellie. “Surrounding yourself with good people who have good intentions and good knowledge is irreplaceable,” says Nellie. “The key is accepting positive criticism and being open-minded.”
I’ll second that. SLE