I still remember the first time I walked into a rodeo arena. I was five. Almost 15 years later, many of those filled with barrel racing, the love affair hasn’t ended. Rodeo isn’t just a sport anymore; it’s a lifestyle, and more importantly, a lifeline.

As soon as I set foot in the arena of my small town, I was put on the back of a horse. At the time, I thought I was on top of the world, figuratively and literally. Six months and one birthday later, accompanied with more practice sessions than I could count, I was crowned Little Miss Norwood Rodeo 2005. That moment solidified what would be, and still is, my favorite sport.

After moving multiple times, I ended up in another small town starting junior high. When I say my years in junior high were the worst years of my life, it’s an understatement. Along with the stress I was facing from starting a new school in a new town, my life took a turn for the worst. I have always been on the heavier side, and I had never had a lot of self-confidence. From the first week of seventh grade to the last week of freshman year, I was ridiculed and bullied to no end, not only for my weight, but for anything someone could come up with. I became depressed. I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. I found my answer in 2011.

I turned to the one thing I knew brought me joy growing up: rodeo. I started watching the 2011 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR), in turn watching and beginning to follow Tuf Cooper and his tie-down roping career. Watching the NFR brought back all the good memories I had growing up, and I began to realize the sport I thought I had left behind years ago could be the solution to getting my life back on track. For the next three years, rodeo was the place I went to clear my mind. Rodeo saved me more than once in those years.

In 2011, I learned that I have dysthymia, or high-functioning depression. At first I struggled, not knowing how to “get better.” In the years since I found out, I have made significant progress. After just finishing my first year of college, I can honestly say that I am the happiest I have been since elementary school. Without the world of rodeo, I don’t know where I would be. With that being said, I believe a few thank yous are in order.

First, a thank you to the “original” cowboys I started watching (Tuf Cooper and J.B. Mauney, I’m looking at you.) Thank you for being there from the beginning and giving me not only something to look forward to, but something to provide me hope in a world where I couldn’t find any. Whether I was hoping for the first-place time or the high scoring eight-second ride, I had something to take my mind off of my situation. (Tuf, a special thanks to you for being such a humble and kind person when I met you in Spanish Fork this June. It was truly a dream come true.)

To the young guns like Jess Lockwood and Derek Kolbaba, thank you for showing me that you can be successful, no matter how old you are. Not only that, but thank you for showing me that it’s all right to chase your dream, but never to forget where you come from and who is supporting you. Most importantly, thank you for showing me that when you get knocked off a bull, you get back up, work harder, and come back more determined and better than ever. (Jess, one day, I would love to meet and talk with you about how you do everything you do.)

Last, but certainly not least, a thank you to the “hometown heroes” like the Wright family. You taught me that is doesn’t matter if you’re from a small town in the middle of nowhere; you can chase and achieve your dreams if you work hard enough. Success isn’t based on where you come from, it’s where you’re going.

To the Professional Bull Riders(PBR), Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association(PRCA), and every rodeo organization in between, thank you. The barrel racer in me will always be grateful for the second family I gained along with the gateway into the world of rodeo. I sincerely hope that one day I can find a way to give back to the community that has given me so much and has saved me more than once.

If anyone wants to find me, I’ll be at the nearest rodeo.

Long Live Cowboys.