The loss of Lil Sis: EHV-1 claims the life of beloved youth rodeo horse

Saylor Wilson amassed 20 buckles while competing in barrel racing and pole bending on her mare, Lil Sis. She lost the mare April 19 to EHV. Photos courtesy of the Wilson Family

Saylor Wilson amassed 20 buckles while competing in barrel racing and pole bending on her mare, Lil Sis. She lost the mare April 19 to EHV. Photos courtesy of the Wilson Family

Lil Sis excelled the most at pole bending. Saylor Wilson said she could just drop the reins and trust Sis to do her job.

“At first I was really upset about it, then I realized it wasn’t really anybody’s fault. I couldn’t blame anybody for what happened to her.” Saylor Wilson

Saylor Wilson’s grandparents Ron and Cindy Floyd owned Lil Sis, aboard whom Saylor earned her first saddle for the South Dakota 4-H rodeo junior girls all-around.

Thirteen-year-old Saylor Wilson, at right, takes after her parents Rollie and Cj Wilson, when it comes to rodeoing. She has three younger siblings, Sattyn, 9, at left; Saevyn, 2, in Cj’s arms; and Swayde, 5, at front center.

The loss of Lil Sis

by Savanna Simmons

Just when her mare, Lil Sis, and 13-year-old Saylor Wilson were hitting their stride together, Lil Sis contracted Equine Herpesvirus (EHV), and had to be put down far earlier than the Wilson family anticipated. The mare, they think, contracted it at the Bowman County Fairgrounds indoor arena while they were there practicing.

“To lose her has been kind of a blow,” Cj Wilson, Saylor’s mom, said. “Saylor has taken it in stride. To watch them put the work in, it was never about the winning; it was about what those two were forming together.”

The Wilsons place no blame on anyone, stating that it could have happened anywhere. “At first I was really upset about it, then I realized it wasn’t really anybody’s fault,” Saylor said. “I couldn’t blame anybody for what happened to her.”

Having just been ridden the night before with no indications anything was amiss, Lil Sis was discovered the morning of April 19 unable to walk.

“We took her to a vet in Sturgis, and she just went downhill from there,” Cj said. “She just lost all mobility; she lost mobility of the tongue, she couldn’t get up. We put her down at 5 on the 19th. She didn’t have a temperature the whole time.”

A fever and incoordination are usually the greatest indicators of EHV, but other signs may include nasal discharge, hind limb weakness, loss of tail tone, lethargy, urine dribbling, head tilt, leaning against a surface, or the inability to rise.

“I thought maybe that she may have pulled a muscle when we were riding the other night,” Saylor said. “She acted like something was wrong with her knees. She was on meds to help with her knee problem. I guess I thought she was really stiff from riding.”

In contention for state and national competitions in junior high and 4-H rodeos, Saylor pressed on with offers of the use of many seasoned rodeo horses lighting up CJ’s cell phone screen.

“It speaks a lot about Saylor, about who she is as a cowgirl, for people to offer their horses; it has been overwhelming and really nice,” CJ said.

She borrowed a horse to compete on the weekend she lost Lil Sis, but she almost bowed out of the junior high rodeo in Fargo April 21 and 22 for a very selfless reason. Two of her friends’ horses were quarantined for being exposed to EHV. If they couldn’t find horses on which to compete, Saylor didn’t care to compete either.

“I didn’t feel like it was really fair if I already had a horse I could use, and they didn’t have anything to use,” Saylor said. “It wasn’t their fault they got quarantined either.”

The week after, the Wilsons visited their friends Shorty and Punky Engesser in Spearfish to pick a horse to use for the remainder of the season.

“Their son Rickie won all-around in college and their daughter Taylor was a national champion in college finals in barrel racing,” CJ said. “They’re just awesome people; they’ve been here and done that.”

“They told me I could try some of their horses,” Saylor said. “I found one I like; they said I could use it as long as I’d like. They’ve been really helpful, and I appreciate they let me use their horses.”

Lil Sis, an AQHA mare who was registered as Dancing with Roses and shared the same age as Saylor, was traded by CJ’s parents, Ron and Cindy Floyd, with the intent to turn her into a steer wrestling horse for one of their sons, Chason, who competed in steer wrestling at the NFR last year, or Colt, who won the average at the circuit finals two years ago.

Sis didn’t shine in that venue, however, and was nearly unmanageable in the box. Ron shifted to ranching on the mare for a few years. When Saylor’s horse, at that time, got hurt, she was allowed to try Grandpa’s hot little bay mare.

“We knew they had ran Lil Sis on barrels before, so she jumped on Sis, rode her about a week, went to a barrel race, and placed on her,” Cj said. “It’s not like they won right away. There were bit changes and lots of work. This was the third year she’s ridden her, and everyone who has watched knows what a big process this has been.”

In their two full years of competing together and the partial season this year, Saylor and Sis have won about 20 buckles as well as a saddle for junior girls all-around at South Dakota State 4-H. She competes in South Dakota—though she calls North Dakota home—because North Dakota doesn’t offer 4-H rodeo. She competes in North Dakota Junior Rodeo Association. Her primary events are barrel racing and pole bending, though she recently added goat tying to the roster.

“She’s seen what she can win. She’s grown up watching her dad, a seven-time Indian World Champ,” CJ said of her husband Rollie Wilson. “He has made circuit finals numerous times; he’s won more than 65 saddles, a pickup, and three trailers.”

Rollie won regional college championships and all-around titles and was Indian National Finals Rodeo champion saddle bronc in 2008, 2009, and 2012 and all-around winner in 2007, 2008, 2011, and 2012.

Rollie and CJ didn’t assume that their oldest of four, Saylor, would automatically want to rodeo; she had to ask to compete.

“She started on an old hazing horse. When she broke a minute in barrels, we were ecstatic. From there, she just wanted to go faster,” CJ said. “That was when she started setting a goal each time.”

Saylor practices frequently with her little sister Sattyn, who is 9, and while Saylor is driven by achieving her personal goal, which is often accompanied by a win, Sattyn is all for the winning.

“She has a different drive than Saylor; she wants to win. She wants to beat Saylor, really, but she’s a really good sister,” CJ said of Sattyn.

Five-year-old Swayde, Saylor and Sattyn’s younger brother, has been handed his own hardships in his young life. He has DiGeorge Syndrome, in which he is missing part of chromosome 22 and has had six surgeries as a result of it.

The youngest Wilson daughter, Saevyn, who is 2, had an affected lymph node earlier this spring, requiring surgery in March.

“It seemed like nothing was going our way; it could only go up from now,” CJ said. “It could have been Saylor that had something happened to [instead of Sis]. We’re not the first horse people it has happened to, and we won’t be the last.”

Even if Lil Sis could have been saved, which wasn’t possible, she would have been so altered neurologically, she likely wouldn’t have been the same horse and would have lost much of her physical ability.

“She was a pretty amazing little horse, and she was really kind, and was always gave 110 percent for our run,” Saylor said. “Every run she gave it her best. She was just really nice.”