By Tanya Randall
Special To Ropers Sports News
While signing autographs for countless young fans at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Nellie Miller was taken back to her youth—a time when she was enamored with all the great barrel racers. Like all young riders, she dreamed of being a world champion.
“For it to actually happen, the stars have to line up perfectly. They did this week for me, which is kind of unreal. Even though I wanted it to happen, I didn’t know it actually would,” said the Cottonwood, Calif., barrel racer, who used a record-setting WNFR Championship aboard her homegrown star Rafter W Minnie Reba (“Sister”) to win the coveted World Championship with $308,498.
She was quick to thank her parents Sam and Roxy Williams, husband James and their two young daughters, and her extended family for giving her a chance to chase her dream.
“To get it accomplished is pretty special for us,” she said. “I would not be here without them. It takes a team of people to get this done. My whole family was just all-in from the very beginning. I can’t thank them enough.”
Miller and 9-year-old Sister, who was named AQHA/WPRA Horse of the Year by her peers, set a new aggregate record, turning in 10 clean runs in 137.32, besting Lisa Lockhart and An Oakie With Cash’s 137.98 set last year. It was the $67,269 first-place check that pushed her over the top for the World Championship.
“I had a game plan, and it wasn’t necessarily to keep the barrels up,” admitted Miller, who qualified for her first WNFR in 2010 aboard Sister’s older brother Rebas Smokey Joe (“Blue Duck”). “I wasn’t going to safety-up. I make mistakes when I do that. I told my dad and my husband under no circumstances would I be safety-ing up at any point during the 10 days. They both agreed. I think when people start thinking about playing it safe, mistakes happen, so I tried not to do that.”
Miller and Sister, who had not run much indoors outside of San Antonio and Houston earlier in the year, got tapped off right, winning the first round with a 13.64 from third on the ground.
“It gave me a lot of confidence going into the week, knowing what she could do in that arena,” she said. They proceeded to placed in six more rounds, with their slowest run being a 13.93 from round six. “She’s so honest. Nothing phased her. She’ll do exactly what I tell her. I rocked a couple of barrels, and I was like, ‘Get it together, Nellie!’”
As the Finals wore on, Miller did her best to stay out of the loop as far as the world championship race.
“I didn’t want to know,” she laughed. “I didn’t want anything to distract me from making my runs. I just tried to stay away from that. Of course, I knew it was going well. You just have to make runs and not focus on that kind of stuff.”
By the ninth round, Miller was listed as the projected World Champion if she remained the average leader.
“It’s hard to believe, but the 10th round was pretty calm for us. We were all pretty relaxed,” she said. Running last on the ground, she finished just out of the round money in seventh, but suspected that she had won the average.
“I had stopped my horse about half-way down the alley and they said I needed to get on the flag horse. I knew I had probably won the average. So, I jumped the fence to get on the flag horse and one of the guys down there came up to me and said, ‘You won the world,’ and then they yelled at me to get in the arena!” she chuckled. “I knew right away when I was getting on that flag horse, but the rest of my family had no clue! They were like ‘Who won it? Who won it?’”
Miller’s World Championship actually began back in 1994, when her father Sam bred her future junior and high school rodeo horse Espuela Roan, by Blue Light Ike, to Mr Bar Truckle in hopes of gaining another rope horse for himself. The resulting foal, Blue Duck, carried Miller through college and to her first NFR in 2010.
In 2008, Espuela Roan was bred to the Dash Ta Fame, Easy Jet stallion KS Cash N Fame. And like Blue Duck, she underwent the same training program. Miller’s dad rode Sister almost exclusively through her fifth year. Miller climbed aboard when she was turning six.
“We team up when it comes to starting them on the barrels,” Miller explained. “He teaches them how to turn a barrel. He turns a lot of barrels on them, but not the pattern necessarily, until they’re older. I get on them when they’re ready to be patterned. I’ll start them on that basically. It’s a lot easier really, they already know how to turn—all you have to do is teach them which way to turn.”
Miller said that she knew Sister was special the first time she rode her, but she didn’t know just how much.
“I obviously wouldn’t have said world champion at that time, but she seemed to know what needed to happen,” she said. “She just always understood what she needed to do.”
The biggest issue was making the adjustment from Blue Duck, who is free-rolling, to a more ratey Sister.
“For me, it was trusting her,” she said. “Figuring out that you could totally trust that mare to do her job every time. With Blue Duck, I was always a little more cautious. With her, it’s so much fun because you can throw the reins at her and ask her for her life every time and she gives it to you.”
Miller’s initial goal was to get the mare seasoned, which can be challenging in Northern California as say compared to North Central Texas were there’s a jackpot nearly every day of the week.
“There’s not a whole lot to go to up here, so I set a goal to take her somewhere once a week at that stage,” she explained. “We either went to a jackpot or a rodeo. I ended up buying my amateur card and going to a few of those, but honestly, it didn’t last that long because she came on really fast and progressed. We started entering pro rodeos shortly after that.”
Sister made her pro rodeo debut mid-summer of her seventh year.
“In 2015, I took her to Salinas and that was her second rodeo ever,” she said. “She hit a barrel in the first round, but placed in the second two rounds. That was an eye-opener to me. That’s a tough rodeo and for her to go out and do that on her second rodeo ever was pretty impressive.”
They won Salinas the very next year, which set them up to win the California Circuit Championship. With Circuit Finals money counting toward the WPRA World Standings, Miller was able to use that money to qualify for the building rodeos in 2017.
Strong performances at San Antonio, Houston and the RAM National Circuit Finals helped Miller and Sister move near the top of the standing going into late spring. A Reno Rodeo championship and a solid performance at Calgary, all but solidified her qualification. They essentially wrapped up their season with an Ellensburg Rodeo Championship. Her checks from 47 regular season rodeos—the fewest of any WPRA World Champion in recent years—put her third going into the WNFR with $130,537.
Even though the non-rodeo schedule for barrel racers has become increasingly hectic at the NFR since Miller’s first appearance in 2010, she drew on prior experience to make her second trip more productive and enjoyable.
“Oh my gosh! It was crazy!” she laughed. “In 2010, I didn’t have near as many commitments or sponsors. The whole thing in general…there’s just so much going on in Vegas at the same time. It’s just hectic. It’s good though, because it gives people different reasons for going. I think it’s bigger and better each year.”
Fellow California Circuit barrel racer Katie Pascoe was head horse wrangler for Team Miller.
“She brought my backup horse (the late Ruth Haislip’s pro rodeo winner Famous Scarlett, a half-sister to Tillar Murray’s NFR go-round winner Royal Star Commander),” explained Miller. “She stayed with the horses and took care of them and got them ready to go. She really saved us. We would have been run ragged if we had to do all of that stuff too.”
Miller also stayed off grounds and hauled in each night. It was something she learned to do after 2010.
“We stayed at the Thomas & Mack the first time around and it wasn’t bad,” she said. “With her, our goal was to make her as comfortable as possible and stay at the best places possible. We just kept doing what we did all year.”
She also made use of every practice session.
“Before we went I set the goal to go to every practice, not necessarily run barrels, but just to get her in the arena and get her relaxed,” she explained. “We went to every practice they had, which was like every other morning. I just walked her a lot in the alleyway to get her calmed down. She got pretty nervous going to the alley on me. I don’t work the pattern a lot on her normally, so I’d just go in and ride around the arena and turn a few barrels, but not the pattern too much. I just wanted to take the pressure off her during those practice sessions.”
Miller was also able to have a lot of family and friends in attendance—including her two girls.
“My parents were there the whole time,” she said. “Lots of my family and friends showed up throughout the week to help. It was an awesome team of people to get it all done. I had such great help and wasn’t tired and miserable the whole time. I wasn’t worn out trying to go do everything. Overall, we had a great time.”
Even though she grew up in a rodeo family—her dad was an avid circuit competitor—Miller didn’t start competing until she was 12. It’s been her love ever since.
“I just loved it because it gave me a direction; it gave me a goal,” she said. “Ever since, I’ve set rodeo goals. After 2010, I started a family and I thought I would be okay without going so much, but I wasn’t because I loved it so much. I took my family on the road this year and it was the best thing we could have done. It’s the way I want to raise my kids. It’s what makes good people and good family.”
Sister’s prowess and the rodeo schedule have helped Nellie find balance between the rodeo road and motherhood.
“There are so many good rodeos to choose from now,” she said. “It works out well for us. I try not to spend the whole time in Texas during the winter. It’s hard being from California. I’ll only pick and choose a couple during the winter to go to and then I go during the spring and summer. That works well for us because the spring rodeos are in California and in the summer the kids are out of school.”
She’s hopeful that her daughters will grow up loving rodeo like she does.
“They ride the mom to Sister and Blue Duck,” she said. “She’s 26 now. That’s who I learned to rodeo on and that’s who taught me how to ride, for them to be able to do that … My dad kept good horses under me as a I grew up and I hope to do that for my kids too.”
One of those good horses will likely be Sister one day, to which Miller replied, “I can’t wait! That’ll be icing on the cake!”
Miller won’t be afoot though, she still has more bullets in the gun—Sister and Blue Duck’s 7-year-old half-brother by Dashair and Sister’s 6-year-old full brother.
“I’m really excited about them,” she said. “I’m looking forward to spending the next couple of months getting them going.”
Rundown with Nellie Miller
Rafter W Minnie Reba (“Sister”), 2008 Blue Roan Mare, 14.1 hands, 1,100 lbs.
Bit: Sherry Cervi Gag with a twisted wire mouthpiece. Headgear: None. Saddle: Larry Coats. Saddle Pad: Professional’s Choice. Leg Gear: Professional’s Choice fronts only. Feed: Total Equine. Hay: Alfalfa. Supplements: Oxy-Gen Race-X, Bleed-X and Oxy-Zen pre-race. Alternative Therapies: Back On Track wraps, Flexi-Neb, Soft Rides.
Sponsors: Wrangler, Professional’s Choice, Total Equine, Oxy-Gen, Corral Boots, Greeley Hat Works and Haleakala Walnuts.