While some of Arizona’s 49 contestants at the recent 65th-annual National High School Finals Rodeo surely had some anxiety about competing in the “World’s Largest Rodeo,” recent Basha High School grad Stephanie Payne contends she wasn’t one of them.
Loving every minute of her third year competing in the national event, the 18-year-old said she’s been began competing at age 9 in the skill of western pleasure riding. But an event where a horse is evaluated on manners, relaxed and slow gait with a calm and responsive disposition, was just too boring for Payne; there wasn’t enough of a challenge for her to remain excited about competing.
So about three years ago, she decided to cut loose and train for a more arduous equestrian event that wasn’t “boring to watch” in favor of one that “feels like a roller coaster.”
Instead of riding atop the rhythmic stride of a horse competing in western pleasure events, Payne has ambled into the sport of horse cutting, where a horse and rider are judged on their ability to separate an individual cow from its herd and keep it away from the group for an allotted time. The event requires quick movements, stops-and-starts, and keen anticipation.
“It’s an extremely humbling sport because there are so many variables to a performance. You can rock at one and face-plant the next,” Payne said.
Payne and “Tams Annie Glo,” her 14-year-old Quarter Horse — Annie, for short — entered the summer ranked number one in the state in girls cutting for the Arizona High School Rodeo Association 2012-2013 season.
This year’s NHSFR took place July 14-20 in Round Springs, Wyo. The NHSFR started with 121 contestants in 1947 and grew to have about 1,500 contestants in this year’s competition, all competing for more than $200,000 in prizes and more than $350,000 in college scholarships. The final round was televised as part of the CinchTown Tour telecast series on RFD-TV. The National High School Rodeo Association has about 12,000 members.
At the end of the first of two rounds of competition in Wyoming, Payne found herself tied for 13th place out of 112 girls cutting horse contestants, a position that was on track for her to reach the final round.
In order to advance to the finals, contestants needed to finish in the top 20 based on their combined scores in the first two rounds with the determination of national champions based on their three-round combined scores.
Unfortunately for Payne and Annie, the duo’s first-round performance wasn’t emulated in the second round, as she fell to 74th place before rebounding to finish 49th overall.
“Everyone was completely stunned,” said Larry Lilly, Payne’s trainer.
Lilly said Payne had a great record coming into the competition, even scoring a 76 (out of 80) in the state competition — a score considered professional-caliber, and rare for a high school rider because it’s a professional level score.
“I told her before the finals rodeo that she would be very competitive and do really well,” he said.
He thought she did just that during her first round performance of the competition, but had bad luck with two of the cows the second round, saying it’s difficult to be consistent because of the nature of the sport. Lilly lives in Casa Grande and has been training horses for about 30 years.
Even though she didn’t win, Payne said she and her family still enjoyed the competition, especially after she won a saddle at state for finishing first in girls cutting.
Horse riding is a family affair, with Payne’s parents and siblings all competing in events at some time or another and living on four acres of land in Chandler Heights with 10 horses.
“Mom get’s so nervous, probably more nervous than me, and my dad is low-key,” she said.
Payne said it became difficult for her to train for competition while attending high school; early morning advanced placement homework coupled with training until well after dark – regularly until as late as 9 p.m. – was often the norm.
But the early mornings and late nights have paid off. She will enter Arizona State University this semester as a sophomore, and plans to major in political science, an interest that developed thanks to what she described as “really good teachers” at Basha.
Outside of school and training, Payne loves to make money trading and re-selling horses, as well as experiment with graphic design and coding on the computer.
But don’t rule out horse riding just because she isn’t in the high school division anymore; Payne plans to compete in college at National Cutting Horse Association (NCHA) shows.
• Aaron, a senior studying journalism at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, is an intern for the East Valley Tribune. Contact him at (480) 898-6514 or firstname.lastname@example.org.