EDITOR’S NOTE: This story appears in February 2016 issue of Women’s Pro Rodeo News, the official publication of he WPRA. It is reproduced with the consent of the WPRA.
Heather Knerr needed a bright spot in her life.
Things had been a little rough for the 23-year-old cowgirl from Grass Range, Mont. A wedding planned for late January had been cancelled, her younger brother had suffered a broken hand while shoeing a horse and her father was in Jakarta, Indonesia, on a business trip when ISIS attacked the city of 9.6 million just days before the RAM Montana Circuit Finals Rodeo.
“I felt like God came through for me,” said Knerr, who won the average title in Great Falls, Mont., Jan. 15-17. “Everything came through when I needed it to.”
Riding Sparkin Jetolena, a 10-year-old sorrel gelding she calls Sparky, Knerr won the first two go-rounds and the average title, pocketing $7,864 along the way. Those earnings moved her from eighth to fourth in the year-end standings.
More importantly, it earned the University of Great Falls graduate student a trip to the RAM National Circuit Finals Rodeo, which will take place April 7-10 in Kissimmiee, Fla. It’ll be a nice change climate change for Knerr and other qualifiers from the Montana Circuit, who all experience below-freezing temperatures and slick roads as they made their way to the Montana Expo Park.
Florida sounds pretty good about now, and so does winning the average championship.
“The rodeo team helps out with the whole circuit finals, and they were all there to help cheer me on,” said Knerr, who is in her final semester of college rodeo and serves as an assistant coach for the university’s rodeo program. “That was huge not only for me but for my family.”
She and Sparky won the opening round with a 13.19-second run, the fastest of the weekend. Their 13.42 in the second round earned the top spot, then they secured the average title with 13.68; Knerr finished just 27-hundredths of a second ahead of Kaela Murphy.
“I didn’t want to check him too early going into the first, and we blew past it,” Knerr said of their third-round run. “He went by the second, too. The third barrel was good, and he clocked pretty good, but he should have placed. That was rider error for sure.”
It also was a great learning experience. The weekend marked her second straight qualifications to the circuit finals. Because she’s working toward a master’s degree, she is allowed to compete for a fifth year in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. She will have to miss a regional rodeo the weekend of the RNCFR, but it’s well worth it.
“I’m really excited, and I’m not sure it’s all sunk in yet,” said Knerr, who plans to take her family with her to the national championship event. “My brother has a college rodeo, so he won’t be able to go; he’s pouting a little bit.
“I’ve never been to Florida. I really like going to new places and seeing new things.”
The experience also will feature the young cowgirl running at one of the most prestigious events in ProRodeo. Much has changed for her since moving to Montana a decade and a half ago.
“I used to be a figure skater,” she said, pointing out that she spent the first seven years of life in Golden, Colo. “I always liked horses, but we never really rodeoed until we came to Montana.
“When I was 12, I had been skating a little bit, but I also had horses. I had to pick what way I wanted to go, and I picked the horses.”
Her father, Ken, had competed in multiple events in rodeo as a youngster. A broken back in his late teens forced him to sideline the sport for the most part – Ken Knerr still competes in team roping when he can. Mom Nicki was raised on a ranch in Grass Range. Though she had been around horses all her life, she never really rodeoed, Heather Knerr said.
Now mother and daughter work together in training their horses. In fact, that’s how they came to showcase Sparky. His mother, The Range of Vegas, had been one of Ken’s team roping horse. When Heather Knerr transitioned the mare into a barrel horse, they tried to rein in her wild side by breading her to Blazin Jetolena, a well-known stallion.
“We were able to fix the things we didn’t do right with his mom,” said Heather Knerr, who has a close relationship with her younger siblings: brother Shane and sister Jenna. “By having her, we were able to learn and figure some stuff out.
“He has a super quirky attitude, and he spooks at about everything.”
But he runs really well. That’s always a plus.
A bittersweet finale
Lindsay Kruse had long dreamed of winning the Montana Circuit year-end championship on Lenas Mijo Dulce, a 14-year-old sorrel gelding she’d been running for several years.
The tandem accomplished their mission with a fantastic 2015, earning $17,689 through the course of the regular season. That was enough to claim the title, though nobody knew that before the circuit finals had begun.
Just days before the opening round, Kruse had Harley euthanized because the talented, 14-year-old sorrel gelding was not overcoming injuries sustained last fall.
“It meant a lot to win it for his sake and to close that chapter in his life,” she said. “He deserved to win the title.”
Harley suffered a cut in one of his legs. The injury became infected, and the horse never recovered. It wasn’t worth it to Kruse to allow the gelding to suffer any longer.
“We did everything we could,” she said. “By the time he lost 800 pounds, you wouldn’t even recognize him. The decision was made over two days. It just didn’t seem right to put him through all that pain trying things, then not knowing whether or not it would work.
“I’ve never had to do anything like that before. It was very hard.”
A few days after saying goodbye to her copilot of eight years, she returned to the arena with Ninnekas Guy, a 7-year-old chestnut gelding she calls JJ. Though they didn’t place in any round, they placed third in the average.
“His personality is my favorite thing about him,” Kruse said. “He’s like a little boy. He’s tough-acting and wants to run. I like free-runners. He has almost too much speed and doesn’t know how to control it. It’ll be months before I can show his real speed. He clocks well, but he needs seasoned.
“He’s ornery, and I like that in a horse. I think that’s what good horses are made of.”
Though heavy hearts were part of the Kruse family’s weekend in Great Falls, there were plenty of things to celebrate. Lindsay Kruse wasn’t the only champ in the mix; her husband, 2009 world champion saddle bronc rider Jesse Kruse, also won the year-end title in his event.
“We’re both excited to win the year-end together,” she said, noting, though, that he followed his solid run at the circuit finals with knee surgery and will be out of commission for about eight months.
Jesse Kruse will have his rehab time in the South as the family spends the rest of the winter and early spring in warmer weather and his wife competes at rodeos in that region. It’ll make that transition to Kissimmee in April that much easier on them all.
Now a seven-time RNCFR qualifier, Lindsay Kruse is excited to return to Florida for the second year in a row. With two youngsters under the age of 5, there will be plenty to do.
“It’s fun going back there, especially with the kids,” she of daughter Paisley, 4, and son Kree, 1. “I’m sure the kids will be looking forward to it because of Disney World.”
Because of the recent circumstances, the Kruses will adjust their plans for 2016. What was expected to be a husband-wife tandem making a run at the NFR now will be the family on the rodeo trail together while Lindsay Kruse educates a young horse.
“I feel like things happen, and for me to have the courage to take care of business was big for us,” she said. All I had on my mind was to win for my horse’s sake. It’s bittersweet, because your horses are part of your family; they’re like your kids.
“That chapter of my life is filled, and now I can move on.”