Harding County, SD, rancher says rodeo has major impact on her life

Lura Roti
For the South Dakota Farmers Union

When you ranch and have five young children, it takes more than talent and an exceptional horse to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo, explains barrel racer Jessica Routier.

“That first year that I made it to the NFR it really hit me, we have five kids. We have a ranch and all these things going on. It took so many people helping to make it possible for me to get here. It was humbling that there are that many people involved, and not really any benefit to them,” says Routier, who qualified for her first NFR in 2018.

Qualifying for the NFR again in 2019 and 2020, Routier ranks seventh in the world. During a recent conversation, the mother, Harding County rancher, rodeo athlete and South Dakota Farmers Union member, talks about her family’s support network, her journey to the NFR and more.

Question: What kind of impact has rodeo had on your life?

Answer: Rodeo has definitely shaped every aspect of my life.

Growing up on farm in Wisconsin, both of my parents rodeoed, and my mom trained horses for a living. I was riding and training horses from as far back as I can remember. I grew up on a farm, but I didn’t help with much of the farm work other than riding horses.

I grew up with Little Britches Rodeo Association and did High School Rodeo. Horses and rodeo are how I ended up in South Dakota. I went to college in Rapid City on a rodeo scholarship. That’s how I met Riley. His cousin and I were on the rodeo team together.

When I turned 18, I bought my WPRA (Women’s Professional Rodeo Association) permit and kept going.

Q: Did you always have a goal of making it to the NFR?

A: It really wasn’t a goal of mine. I have always loved rodeoing and training horses and loved being a part of it. But you can have a lot of success in rodeo and not try to make it to the NFR. It takes a lot of sacrifices, as far as being gone from home and missing out on what is going on at home.

I was completely happy, then I had this horse come into my life that was really awesome.

Her name is Missy and her owner, Gary Westergren, wanted his horse to get to the NFR. I didn’t want him to get his hopes up because I knew how hard it was. Then, things started happening in our favor and happening quickly. We rolled with it and ended up qualifying.

Once you have been to the NFR, it becomes a goal to go back. It really is the Super Bowl of rodeo. It is awesome to be a part of it.

Q: Tell me a bit about the role a horse plays in barrel racing?

A: In barrel racing, a lot of your success, most of your success, depends on the horse you are riding.

Q: For readers who may not be familiar with rodeo, how does an athlete qualify for the NFR?

A: Qualifying for the NFR is based off of how much money an individual wins at rodeos throughout the year. The top 15 money earners in the world qualify to compete in the NFR.

Q: So, in other words, to qualify to compete at the NFR, it takes winning big, at many rodeos that pay big. That must mean a lot of travel. How do you juggle your career as a rodeo athlete with your role as a mother?

A: We travel about 30,000 to 40,000 miles a year. Our family and friends are a big part of making it all work, getting our kids where they need to be when they need to be there and not having them feel neglected. I get asked a lot about how we coordinate everything. There is really no one way that we do it.

We live close to Riley’s parents and my parents are in Wisconsin, but they both help out a lot.

The three little girls — Rose, 5, Rayna, 5, and Charlie, 4 — have not started school, so they are easy, we can pack them up and take them wherever. If Riley is not able to come with me, I bring a friend or family member. My dad came with me to a rodeo in Texas last winter.

Our son, Braden, is 14, and our oldest daughter, Payton, is 12. They both rodeo and play sports. Sometimes I can work rodeo around my kids’ activities. But it doesn’t always work. So, Riley’s parents or mine make sure they are here to get the kids where they need to be and to be sure there is someone cheering for them.

If I do ever miss their activities because of a rodeo, it puts more pressure on me.

Q: How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact things this year?

A: A lot of rodeos were cancelled this year, so not only were there fewer to go to, but the ones that did happen had really tough competition.

Normally, everyone picks areas of the country they like to stick to. This year, with most of the really big rodeos cancelled, we were all competing at the same rodeos. And, you had to drive miles to compete for maybe not as much money.

We also didn’t know if there would be an NFR.

Q: With all the challenges, what kept you going this year?

A: Rodeo is still what I do for a living. I don’t know what else I would have done. It was really convenient to live in South Dakota this summer because most of the rodeos that did happen were in South Dakota or close to South Dakota.

Q: You have been rodeoing since childhood, what is it about this sport that you continue to enjoy?

A: In rodeo there is a constant challenge to push yourself to be better. And everyone you rodeo with becomes your family. It’s a unique situation because you are competing against these people, but at the same time, they are the first to be there and help you if you need anything.

Q: Your children are following in your and Riley’s footsteps. As a mother, what is it like to see your children enjoy horses and rodeo?

A: It is awesome to be able to raise our kids the same way we were raised. All our children are different, and that is the nice thing about horses, you can take them in many different directions — rope, run barrels, trick riding.

Jessica Routier competes at the 2020 NFR. Routier and her family are ranchers in Harding County, S.D.