What happens in Harding County: Three women from rural community headed to Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas
Three women from Harding County, South Dakota will compete at the 2021 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada this December: Jessica Routier, Joey Williams, and Sawyer Gilbert.
Jessica Routier is the veteran of the trio, this year being her fourth qualification to the WNFR in barrel racing. She gives much credit to her horse “Missy”, owned by Gary Westergren: “Missy is the one and only that I’ve won money on all four years. She’s done it all,” she says.
The past Reserve World Champion has unique challenges going down the rodeo road, as not many professional rodeo athletes compete while mothering five children. Yet, they are her biggest fans. Her oldest was in junior high when she first qualified for the Finals, and her second-born just a fifth grader. “They knew what the WNFR was, and they wanted us to get there just as bad as anyone else,” she says. She attends as many football and volleyball games and youth rodeos as possible. “I wouldn’t miss those for the world,” she says.
Harding County is somewhat a culture of its own. The school mascot is a Rancher, and not many areas are referred to by their county’s name. Yet, to anyone familiar with Harding County, those two words are synonymous with hard work, community, and fierce rodeo competitors.
Routier says, “I really don’t think there’s anywhere else I’d want to raise my kids. It’s been a huge factor in helping me get there. It takes a village to get to the WNFR, especially when you have kids in school and kids that aren’t in school. It’s not just family that helps in Harding County, it’s the whole entire community. Everyone is like one big family.”
Joey Williams had no intentions of making the Finals this year, but when she won the breakaway roping at Missoula Stampede and the Gem State Stampede in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, landing her in the 16th spot, her husband Taylor pushed her to go for it. “Without him I would have stayed at home,” she laughs. She finished 14th in the standings, within the top 15 girls to qualify.
Williams will be competing in Las Vegas exactly a year after watching it on television at nine months pregnant. “Thinking that I would be there myself a year later blows my mind. I never in a million years guessed that this would have happened,” she says. Williams, too, experiences firsthand the support of her community and her family as a professional rodeo competitor and mother of three. “I’m just so thankful for everyone: my mother in law, Sandy; my mom; Taylor. It definitely took a village that last month,” she says.
Growing up on a remote cattle ranch in Harding County helped to shape Williams, whose maiden name is Painter. She learned to rope and ride from her father, Joe, and sister, Jessica. Even though Joe built an indoor barn for practicing their events, there was still the running of the ranch to be done. Working through adverse weather conditions, days in the saddle, the mental challenges of ranching, and “growing up tough” helped her to put rodeo into perspective. “When you deal with everything on a large cattle ranch in South Dakota, then the practice pen seems easy,” she said.
Williams also gives credit to the Buffalo Youth Rodeo Series, held on weeknights during the summer for local rodeo kids. “That’s where so many of us got that competitive mindset. They were tough. You had to be on your game if you were going to win anything there,” she says. She currently resides near Broadus, Montana with her husband and family.
At just 19 years old, Sawyer Gilbert, was crowned with two of the most prestigious titles in ProRodeo: breakaway championships at Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Pendleton Roundup. “Not a lot of people get to do that. It was pretty special to win them both in the same year,” she says. Like Williams, this will be her first WNFR, and the first time breakaway roping will be featured as an WNFR event.
Gilbert and her father, Lloyd, have logged countless hours at the roping chutes in their barn since she was a young girl, though they could never foresee the future of breakaway roping. “It was kind of our goal before it was even a goal. When I was in junior high, breakaway roping was nowhere near where it is now. But we were still down here roping, practicing, because it was the goal that we were going to rope at the [WNFR] before it was even feasible. When it did happen, we were just ready for it,” she says.
“One of the luckiest things I ever got to do is grow up on a ranch. It molded me into the person I am now: being able to ride, rope, have an understanding of cows, and business sense,” she says. Her cow sense came in especially handy during the Pendleton Roundup where reading cattle was imperative.
After spending about a year in Texas and finishing her season in Salinas, California, Gilbert wanted only one thing: “I just wanted to come home,” she said. “The only thing I like about Texas is that you get to rope every day […] in competition, but every other aspect is better in Buffalo.”
Being a Gilbert, Sawyer is familiar with Harding County being dubbed as the “bull dogging capital” of the world, in reference to the many great steer wrestlers who originated there, including: Birch Negaard, Ivan Teigen, Chason Floyd, Frank Thompson, and Pine, Matt, Denver, and Lloyd Gilbert. The area has arguably churned out just as many talented bronc riders, as is the trend in South Dakota. Now, however, the foundations may be laid for another event to emerge from Buffalo. With two breakaway ropers in Vegas representing their Harding County roots, it is likely the most per capita of any hometown.
The other NFR qualifiers from South Dakota are Jess Tierney, Steer Roping (the National Finals of Steer Roping is held separately) and one more fan favorite: veteran barrel racer Lisa Lockhart of Oelrichs, South Dakota. Like Williams, her final efforts late in the season landed her in the 14th hole, qualifying her for the 15th consecutive time.
The National Finals Rodeo is scheduled for Dec. 2, 2021–Dec. 11, 2021 at the Thomas and Mack. The National Finals of Breakaway Roping will be at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas Dec. 6-7.
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