LAS VEGAS – If 2011 was Carlee Pierce’s breakout year, then 2012 has set the standard for where she wants to be in professional rodeo.
Pierce is the No. 4-ranked cowgirl in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association, having earned $122,416 through the rigors of the season. Now she’ll carry that success and those experiences with her as she competes at her second straight Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, set for Dec. 6-15 at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas.
“It sounds awesome being a two-time NFR qualifier,” said Pierce of Stephenville, Texas. “I can’t wait until it’s 10 times.”
That’s a lot of forward-thinking for the Alberta-born cowgirl who was raised in northwest Oklahoma, but championships are created in gold buckle dreams.
“I’m much more prepared than I was last year, and I have a game plan,” she said. “Last year, I was going to treat it like any old rodeo, but you can’t. It’s the National Finals Rodeo. It’s special, and it needs to be treated as special.
“The big thing is I have to remember that I’ve worked really hard to get there. There’s a lot of money at stake, so I’m going to ride better than I have all year.”
Pierce will have a lot of help to make it happen, primarily in the form of Rare Dillion, a 13-year-old buckskin gelding. He was the driving force behind Pierce’s initial qualification a season ago, and he helped Annesa Self to the NFR in 2008.
“He just gets better with age,” Pierce said of Dillion. “He gives me that big confidence booster that everybody needs to feel just once in their lives. When I show up with him, I know we’re going to place good in the round.”
The proof is there. A year ago in Las Vegas, Pierce and Dillion set the NFR standard, winning the fifth go-round with an arena-record, 13.46-second run. They also won the fourth round and placed in two others.
“I was able to give him some rest this year, and I hope to be able to do the same next year,” she said. “I think he gets tired of being on the road. He’s a good winter and springtime horse, but I think when it gets to be summer, he wants to be home.
“He’s earned the respect to come home and rest when he tells us he’s tired.”
Dillion normally is a solid horse that Pierce and her husband, Steve, feel comfortable around their three children, Makala, Kale and Jacy. But he “speaks” to his owners by acting up and rebelling. When that happens, the Pierces make sure he gets on his home turf.
When Dillion returns to Texas, Pierce reaches into her stable of excellent horses, some of which are young prospects she hopes can handle the load: Flirt, a 10-year-old buckskin mare; BB, a 5-year-old blue roan mare; Hammer, a 5-year-old sorrel gelding; and Tyson, a 5-year-old chestnut gelding.
“I used Tyson a lot this year,” she said. “He placed in some of those Canadian rodeos. He placed in two or three of the American Rodeos before we came home. I used him more than most of the others.”
Those Canadian rodeos came in quite handy. Pierce won in Panoka and Innisfail, both in Alberta, the province where Pierce was born. The money she won at those rodeos not only padded her ProRodeo standings, but also helped her qualify for the Canadian Finals Rodeo, which took place a couple of weeks ago. Pierce won $31,000 in Edmonton, Alberta, and finished with more than $63,000 in Canadian Professional Rodeo Association earnings.
“To be in Canada at the finals, they made me feel like I was right at home,” Pierce said. “They mentioned that I lived in Stephenville, but they still saw me as Canadian. It was nice to have that support up there.”
It helps to have success, too. Pierce ran Hammer to an arena-record, 14.214-second run to win the third go-round.
“It’s nice to have an arena record on a horse besides Dillion,” said Pierce, who also set an arena record on Dillion at RodeoHouston this past March. “I have a lot of horses because I want to make a name for myself in this business. I don’t want to just go to the NFR. I want to brand myself. To do that, you have to stay on top of your game.”
She’s at the top of her game and near the top of the barrel racing world. It’s allowing her the opportunity to chase her rodeo dreams. With her husband, Steve, Pierce opened Branded P Western Store in October.
“Every penny that is in the store is my rodeo money that I invested back into that store,” said Pierce, who credits her sponsorships with Rock and Roll Cowgirl, Panhandle Slim, Boyd Gaming, Formula 707, Stephenville Trailers, Outlaw Equine, Pro Equine, Brazos Valley Equine, Cactus Saddlery and J.W. Brooks Hats for helping her get down the rodeo trail.
“One day, I’m going to be too old, and I want to have something to show for all my years in rodeo besides the buckles, saddles and memories. I love clothes, and this is a way for me to be involved in that. I also wanted a store that benefits my rodeo family. Anything I can give back to the sport I’m crazy in love with, I’m happy to do.”
She also is happy to be competing at the highest level of the sport.
“To actually be able to live your dreams by going to the NFR, it’s an experience that very few people will get,” Pierce said. “Making the NFR last year was valuable to me for how I appreciate people and their goals. It takes a lot of sacrifice.
“I’ve given up time with my family, and my family has given up things they want to do.”
Just behind her faith, Pierce lists her family as the priority in her life. That’s why it was special that Steve and the kids hit the road with her for much of the summer.
“I like having my family with me,” she said. “Even though you’re driving a lot and going to a lot of rodeos, you still have a lot of down time. Keeping the family tight is really important to me. We got to see sights together, and they have seen more country than most kids they go to school with. I think they know how lucky and blessed they are to do that.”
It’s something she learned growing up in Freedom, Okla., the daughter of a barrel racer who still helps with the Pierces’ program. She remains close to her mother, Danita Walker, whom Pierce considers her mentor.
“She and my dad, Travis, have been two of my biggest supporters always,” she said. “They help with my kids so I can stay on the road, and they keep my horses feeling good and in shape so I can swap out horses at any time.
“My mom is an equine massage therapist, and she makes sure my horses are feeling the best at all times.”
That’ll be quite important on those 10 December nights in Las Vegas.
“I would love to win as many go-rounds as I can,” Pierce said. I want to place in every round and try to place in the average, because I think that can get me the gold buckle.”