Rodeo cowgirl: Kristi Birkeland to be honored at Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center Tribute Dinner
Kristi Birkeland didn't expect to be awarded this year's rodeo cowgirl honor at the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center Tribute Dinner. Although she still ties goats, her focus has shifted a bit from competing with ladies around the region to feeding her 16-year-old's passion for rodeo and her 10-year-old triplets' love for wrestling, football, rodeo.
The Dupree, South Dakota, rancher found her passion for goat tying in college and was successful around the state and region for many years.
In high school and 4-H rodeoing, she wasn't a one-event wonder as she was later in life. In addition to goat tying, Kristi ran barrels and poles in high school, and barrel raced in college at Dickinson State University before transferring to the then National College, now National American University, in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Kristi won her first of more than 15 saddles in 1988 in goat tying as a senior at South Dakota High School Rodeo Finals.
"I think that first one's pretty sweet," she said. She has also gotten to witness her daughter, Sidni, win a saddle or two, and repeat the feelings of her own successes. Sidni was instrumental in solidifying the honor for her mom.
"She made the National High School Finals in pole bending and also won state senior girls gaot tying at 4-H finals in Fort Pierre this year. She had a good summer," Kristi said of her prodigy. "She also won state High School pole bending allowing her to go to finals. She got two saddles at two different events. I'm proud of her."
Once out of college, Kristi narrowed her focus to only goat tying within South Dakota Rodeo Association,.
"I was a very fierce competitor, and being in the goat tying and just a one-event person, I knew that I needed to do good everywhere I went to pay my way," Kristi said. "There weren't as many girls entered in goat tying so our paychecks weren't as big as other events, and I knew if I didn't win enough to pay my way, then I wouldn't keep going."
Kristi rodeoed in the days in which brand new, state-of-the-art pickups pulling $100,000 living quarter trailers weren't as common. Instead, she had a ranch horse turned performance horse, and she split the bill with one, two, or five traveling partners.
"I had the absolute best traveling partners. We would pack six of us in a four-door pickup with six to seven horses in a stock trailer with the nose full of saddles," Kristi said. "If you didn't have it organized just right, we couldn't even fit all our tack in there. It didn't cost a lot to rodeo then when you split the gas six ways!"
A friend who often watched Kristi compete at rodeos he entered says her work ethic and natural athletic ability are "amazing."
"She is athletic, sure, but she's also got no quit. 'Give it your all and worry about the pain later,' that's her mentality and what makes Kristi so good,'" said former Northwest Ranch Cowboys Association President Casey Olson of Prairie City, South Dakota.
"She's the perfect example of what you get when you are tenacious and you religiously practice," said Olson. He says Birkeland's dedication to practice was good not only for herself, but her horses, as well. "She practiced all the time. Practice isn't just for you, its for your horse, too. She would make the horse learn how she wanted it done."
Birkeland holds back nothing when competing, but gives it her all, every single run, he said. "Kristi proves what a person can do when you go with complete abandon, you don't worry about the wreck, you just go for it. She just goes by the skin of her teeth and that's why she's fun to watch," said Olson.
"I'm just glad she wasn't a bulldogger – she would have cut in on our winnings a little bit," he joked. Birkeland is very deserving of the award, Olson said, and said he's surprised she wasn't honored earlier.
Birkeland lost her most valuable rodeo partner this year, just last month. She won at least six SDRA goat tying championships on Walsh, a blaze-face sorrel Quarter Horse gelding.
"I had a lot of good horses when I was rodeoing, and one of the things I am proud of is, I believe, just about every one of them was horse of the year at one time, but my favorite has to be Walsh," Kristi said. "I got him from my good friend Alisa Nelson McGrath. She had an injury, so she couldn't rodeo one summer, so she offered him to me, and by the end of summer, I'd won enough to pay for him."
Both her nieces rodeoed on Walsh, as did Sidni, before the Birkelands retired him. He passed away at the age of thirty last month.
Kristi's sons, Cruz, Fletcher, and Tee, also rodeo and participate in local play days. Just this summer, they tried their hands at mini bareback riding and breakaway, and they have also done goat tying, the flag race, and calf or steer riding among other events.
"Once it's in your blood, it's pretty hard to get rid of. Now I can enjoy my kids, and I push them," Kristi said. "I wouldn't push them if they didn't want to do it, but, at my age, I do know how important it is. If I had pushed myself a little harder, I know what I could have accomplished."
Much like her kids, Kristi grew up on the family ranch, where the rodeo gene runs strong. Kristi's brother Ken Lensegrav is a former NFR bareback rider. Their parents Dave and Rhonda still ranch near Meadow, South Dakota, and though she and her crew live on her husband Jace's family ranch, they help her folks on the days more hands are needed.
"I'm still part of that; even though I live in Dupree, I try to get there when we're branding and shipping, and I still have my cattle there," Kristi said of her parent's operation. She helps with their production sale as well.
Her parents, Dave and Rhonda Lensegrav, were one of the first families to raise Gelbvieh cattle in South Dakota, and that breed of cattle led them to meet Jim and Barb Beastrom. After three or four years of considering Kristi a fitting honoree for the Casey Tibbs Foundation Tribute Dinner, Barb finally filled out the nomination forms earlier this year.
"She was about 16 when I first met her. She was traveling by herself to go to these rodeos; she's quite a hand," Barb said. "She is a mother of four, works with her husband, and is involved with her kids. She's just one tough gal. I thought she was very, very deserving of this."
Kristi was the SDRA goat tying champion nine times, and reserve champion six times, National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Great Plains Region champion three times, and a year-end champion in other regional associations multiple times. She simultaneously won the Northwest Ranch Cowboy Association year-end award and finals several times, as well as the Mid-States Rodeo Association championship.
"I'm very humbled by the honor," Kristi said. "To be honored the same time as Frenchman's Guy, just to be grouped together with those other people is amazing. I've known Glen and Yvonne Hollenbeck for years and rodeoed with Jake."
Click here to see the full list of honorees.