Savannah Roberts was hard to miss during the junior barrel racing competition at this year’s Junior National Finals Rodeo.
Roberts, an 11-year-old sixth grader from Colorado Springs, Colorado, wore pants adorned with unicorns during her first run Wednesday. For her second run Friday she sported pants with doughnuts on them.
“My idol is Fallon Taylor,” Roberts said of the 2014 world champion barrel racer. “I found out about her pants when I met her at the AQHA show in Denver two years ago. I told my parents I wanted some of her pants and that Christmas they got me my first pair, and since then I’ve just built up.”
Roberts and fellow Colorado barrel racer Sadie Jackson also stand out for another reason – they are the only African-American barrel racers competing at this year’s Junior NFR. Neither Roberts nor Jackson think about that now, but that wasn’t always the case.
“I noticed it a lot when I first started (competing),” said Jackson, 12. “But it was a really good experience.”
Added Roberts: “I noticed it a little bit, but I didn’t really worry about it because I was just trying to have fun.”
That enjoyment has been at the forefront of what both Roberts and Jackson like about rodeo, and barrel racing in particular. But that isn’t all they’ve gotten from the sport.
After her 15.21-second run Friday, Jackson sat backwards on her horse T.C. in a stall at the Wrangler Rodeo Arena. Later, she and a couple of fellow competitors talked and laughed while watching the remainder of the second-round runs. Jackson admitted she wasn’t always that personable. But the sport of rodeo has helped her come out of her shell.
“I used to be really shy and now I can talk to everyone,” she said, a broad smile filling her face. “I’m just more outgoing now.”
When asked what rodeo has meant to her, Roberts offered a perspective far more introspective than that of most 11-year-old kids.
“It has really taught me to try harder,” she said. “Like if I had a bad run to forget about it and try again.”
Kendrick Jackson, Sadie’s father, said his daughter has always had an affinity for horses and the Western lifestyle.
“Sadie started riding when she was little,” he said. “Her trainer got her into showing horses and when she was doing that she saw the Gymkhana events, and barrel racing was a part of that. So she continued on that path with Western showmanship and Western pleasure.”
Sadie now focuses on the rodeo events – barrel racing, breakaway roping, pole bending and goat tying – but the horsemanship she learned through Gymkhana continues to benefit her.
While Savannah doesn’t have a Gymkhana background, she also is no stranger to the Western lifestyle.
“Savannah has been riding since she was about 4,” said her father, Warren Roberts. “I grew up around horses in Texas and my wife grew up around horses in Colorado so my girls grew up around horses. And they were pretty good at it so it was just something they got into.”
The Western lifestyle
Kendrick Jackson and Warren Roberts came into the Western lifestyle through different paths. Jackson grew up in Louisiana where he and his family primarily used horses for work; Roberts came from a rodeo background in Texas.
These days, though, both fathers list the same reasons for wanting their kids to continue living the Western lifestyle.
“Rodeo was just a way of life for me growing up,” Warren Roberts said. “And I like seeing my girls do it because it keeps them from doing some of the other things like running to the mall because they have to stay focused.
“Rodeo teaches these kids responsibility because they know if they want to keep riding they’ve got to take care of their horses.”
Kendrick Jackson has a similar sentiment.
“It’s a good sport for the kids to get into because it keeps them out of trouble and they have huge responsibilities with these animals,” he said. “It teaches them some life experience stuff at a younger age.
“We need more people to support these kids so they can keep going,” Jackson added. “These young kids have to come up and take our place and then hopefully their kids will come up and keep it going.”
Las Vegas in their future
After their runs Friday, Sadie and Savannah walked their horses to help them cool down and then helped their dads load the horses – Sadie rode T.C. and Savannah was on Short Shank this week – as their first trip to Las Vegas came to an end. Neither one qualified for Saturday’s short go-round, with Savannah posting a 15.793-second run Wednesday and following that up with a 14.659 Friday and Sadie recording a no-time in her first run to go along with her 15.21.
Savannah qualified for the Junior NFR last year but didn’t come to Vegas, so she made sure to enjoy this trip.
“I was very excited to come down this year,” she said, “but I was a little nervous because I knew it was a big opportunity for me and I might not qualify next year. I just got really lucky to be here.”
Added Sadie: “This is a lot of fun. I’m glad to be here with my horse and with Savannah.”
While this was their first trip to Las Vegas, they hope to be back for the Junior World Finals in the coming years. And, when the time comes, hopefully the National Finals Rodeo at the Thomas & Mack Center.
“If we could both make it (to the NFR), that would be awesome,” Sadie said.