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Steffes caps off 2011 campaign with win in Pendleton

By Ted Harbin

Dash Ta Vanilla is just 6 years old, but the palomino mare has proven to be quite special.

In fact, Nilla’s main passenger, 24-year-old Nikki Steffes, already has adjusted her career plans in order to take advantage of the gifted young racehorse. After graduating from the University of Wyoming, Steffes was accepted into dental school at the University of Nebraska.

Nikki Steffes and Nilla round a barrel during this year's Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up. Steffes won the rodeo with a two-run time of 57.02 seconds. (PHOTO FROM THE PENDLETON ROUND-UP)
Nikki Steffes and Nilla round a barrel during this year's Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up. Steffes won the rodeo with a two-run time of 57.02 seconds. (PHOTO FROM THE PENDLETON ROUND-UP)

But that palomino speedster was having a whale of a training season, so Steffes deferred her entry to the College of Dentistry in Lincoln, Neb. How long that deferment will last is still up in the air.

“At this point, I’m still not really sure,” said Steffes, a two-time all-around champion at the College National Finals Rodeo. “As much as she’s proven herself this year, I just want to see where this leads. She’s an outstanding horse. A horse like this may never come around again. I know dental school can wait, but I may never get this kind of opportunity again.”

A great 2011 campaign got better at the Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up, when the Vale, S.D., cowgirl won the first round (28.55 seconds), the short round (28.47 seconds) and the two-run average (57.02 seconds). Most importantly, she won $11,421 and rapidly climbed the world standings ladder.

“It’s so fun,” Steffes said. “This is my first time ever to Pendleton. I’m just so glad I went. It’s just a very unique setup, very challenging. You get to run across the grass and turn on the dirt. It’s the biggest pattern in the country.”

She and Nilla handled it quite well. Their aggregate time was three-tenths of a second faster than runner-up Jane Melby of Backus, Minn.

“I grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota, and I’ve ridden out in the pasture and up and down hills,” Steffes said. “I just put great importance on having my horses in great shape. I wasn’t concerned about running that far. I wanted to run as fast as I could in a straight line, then make good turns. My horse has the ability to do that, so I had a lot of faith in it.”

The horse is owned by Alan Woodbury of Dickinson, N.D., who manufactures feed for performance horses. Woodbury has placed his faith into Steffes’ hands in working Nilla the right way.

“We all knew that horse had something special, and Nikki is something special,” Woodbury said. “They’re going to go on and make a great team. She’s not going to try to run the horses’ legs off this year. Instead, she’s going to do the best for the horses.”

That seems to be working. The tandem won the American Quarter Horse Association show in Denver, then won the opening round at the rodeo in Odessa, Texas, to open the ProRodeo season – in fact, that was the first rodeo in which Nilla competed. From there, Steffes and Nilla tackled a field of more than 500 great horses during a 4D barrel race in Stephenville, Texas.

“The lights were coming on, and we knew there was something pretty special,” Woodbury said. “We knew we were in the purple. Things happened so fast, and you still have a young horse that’s not solid and needs seasoning.”

Woodbury and Steffes have seen some great things in this year of “seasoning” for Nilla, out of SX Frenchmans Vanilla by Dash Ta Fame.

“Now they’re really maturing and focusing,” Woodbury said. “Nikki’s done an outstanding job. I am really proud of her and the horse. They’ve rode together, and she’s getting that sense of fitting like a glove. She’s going to be awfully tough, as they showed in Pendleton.”

The big money in Pendleton moved Steffes’ 2011 earnings to more than $48,000 and secures her qualification into some of the large indoor winter rodeos early next season. This is just her second season of having a WPRA card, but the road to ProRodeo was paved through years of excellence – from the National Little Britches Rodeo Association to high school rodeos to five years as a standout at Wyoming.

Each June for five years, Steffes qualified for the collegiate championship, winning the all-around and barrel racing titles in the Central Rocky Mountain Region for five straight years. The two all-around titles came in 2007-09, the years in which she qualified for the finals in goat tying, too. Those all-around championships remain her greatest accomplishments, but she’s hoping to build on that.

“Winning Pendleton is a great accomplishment, too,” she said. “To win on this horse, to know I was riding her when she went to her first rodeo. To have her come this far in her first year is just outstanding, I think. I feel pretty blessed to have been part of it.”

With dental school on hold, now’s the time to strike the hot match, and that comes in the form of a 6-year-old palomino mare.

“The win really does a lot for my confidence to know I have a horse to run with the toughest horses in the country and beat them,” Steffes said. “These are girls that I’ve been watching, and to know that I have a horse to compete with them is really exciting.”


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