Every fan knows it takes more to succeed at rodeo than just what meets the eye – more than the skill to toss a loop over the head of a running calf, wrestle a steer to the ground, mount an angry bull or guide a horse around three hairpin turns marked by barrels.
It takes a reason, and 16-year-old Sarah Jennings has one.
Sarah is a barrel racer, and for over a year now, she’s been riding to increase awareness of childhood cancer. In last year’s Wise County Youth Fair Rodeo, she rode for her friend, Morgan Wildmon of Rhome, who was battling brain cancer.
This year, she’ll ride in Morgan’s memory.
Morgan and Sarah met at a 4-H event three years ago. Last year when Sarah was introduced at the Youth Fair Rodeo, the announcer told the audience about Morgan, whose initials were embroidered on Sarah’s shirt.
They’re still there, as Sarah still rides as part of the Rodeo For A Reason movement. But last June, a little more than a month before her 13th birthday, cancer claimed Morgan’s life.
“She loved horses, but she would never get to do it – it was physically impossible for her,” Sarah said. “When I found out about Rodeo For a Reason, I thought it would be a great thing to ride for her.”
Rodeo For a Reason was founded by pro barrel racer Kendra Dickson of Aubrey and her friend and fellow barrel racer Chrystal Hall.
In 2007, Dickson and Hall began hosting free barrel racing clinics, giving away T-shirts, belt buckles, bits, Bibles, saddles and even trailers. After a few years, they started asking students to bring food items for a local shelter or to raise money for a designated charity.
The group unites rodeo athletes with causes that serve a greater purpose and reach people in need. Sarah already knew Morgan when she met Dickson at a barrel race. RFR was a natural for her.
“I thought it was a cool idea,” Sarah said. “I liked it. It’s not just for the glory for yourself.”
When she turned to Kendra for help with a horse problem, she learned more than just horsemanship.
“Whenever she would help you, she would give you a little bracelet that said RFR, and there was a Bible verse on the back,” Sarah said.
Sarah and her family have stayed in touch, worked together and now Karen, Sarah’s mom, is on the board of RFR.
The group’s most recent campaign, “Gold Fire,” has become so popular that numerous competitors in the recent National Finals Rodeo wore gold ribbons to raise awareness of childhood cancer – and many are also pledging a percentage of their winnings for the cause.
“Barrel racers do have a stigma,” Karen said. “Especially with the new TV show ‘Rodeo Girls’ – we just groan. I think Kendra and what she’s doing and her group, they’re trying to break the mold.”
Karen said there’s a lot more to barrel racers than bling.
“There’s a lot of women out there who are barrel racing that are fantastic horse people,” she said. “These girls are horsemen. That’s why Kendra and these girls are doing this. It’s Rodeo for a Reason.”
In this year’s Youth Fair Rodeo, scheduled March 7-8, Sarah will compete in both barrels and breakaway roping. A barrel racer since the age of 10, she’ll be going for a championship buckle – but it won’t be her first, and not likely her last.
“My goal is by the time I turn 18 to get my pro card,” she said. “You can turn pro and still college rodeo.” She’d like to attend Tarleton State University, competing in rodeo while she earns a degree in ag business.
She stresses that no matter the event, no matter the age, you can always rodeo for a reason. Sarah recommends RFR’s Facebook page as a starting point for any competitor who wants to get involved in RFR.
“Even though barrel racers started this, you don’t have to be a barrel racer,” she said. “You can do anything. I would like to see it spread – calf-roping, bull riding, bronc riding – you can each rodeo for a cause that’s important to you.
“You ride for what’s personal,” she said. “I think that’s something great, and I want to see it spread. I think it would make a difference, the more people we can get.”