Some may think that those who compete in rodeos aren’t real athletes.
Don’t say that near Sara Parker.
The recent Calaveras High School graduate spends as much of her free time as possible on the back of her horse at rodeos and will continue to do so when she attends the University of Nevada, Reno. While it would be easy to assume the young girl with the bright smile is your typical teenager, she’s anything but typical when she’s in rodeo mode.
She’s not just a rider; she’s an athlete.
“For people that say that we aren’t athletes, these are the people who don’t understand what we do,” said Parker, who turns 18 on July 19. “The people who do understand what we do, they are the ones who are surrounding us and that’s all that matters to us. They are seeing the dedication and the true athletes that not only we as humans are, but also our animals. I consider my animals athletes as well.”
THE FIRST RIDE
Parker didn’t grow up in a rodeo family. In fact, she says that her parents aren’t really horse people. But like many young girls, there was one thing that she always wanted and asked for every birthday and Christmas: a pony.
“Of course, every little girl asks her dad for a pony for her birthday every year,” laughed Parker. “Eventually, I got my wish.”
For her fifth birthday, Parker got a pony, which she named Patches, later known as “Patches, the pain-in-the-butt pony.” As she got older, Parker’s love for horses dwindled and she began to separate herself from the equestrian world.
“There were a few years where I thought I was too cool to ride horses,” she said.
Parker grew up on a Valley Springs ranch, which today is known as Dodasa Ranch. But it wasn’t until new neighbors moved in that Parker got the itch to start riding again. With no riding arena of her own, Parker rode at her neighbors, and quickly realized that being on the back of a horse is where she is meant to be.
She got her first horse and started to think about participating in rodeos. It wasn’t until her junior year at Calaveras that Parker started her rodeo life. Once she got that first taste, there was no turning back. Since then, Parker has spent two years with the California High School Rodeo Association (CHSRA), as well as two years with the Northern California Jr. Rodeo Association, in which she was the senior queen. Parker has participated in well over 60 rodeos in the past two years.
“For me, rodeo is therapeutic,” she said. “I love the atmosphere. We are all competing against one another, and yet we are all still best friends. It’s something that you don’t get to experience anywhere else. It’s amazing.”
MAKING A DECISION
For much of Parker’s life, her main love was being on the volleyball court. Since starting volleyball in the fifth grade, Parker was always around the sport. But then rodeo entered her life. Perhaps it was fate, because during her sophomore year, Parker hurt her shoulder and was unable to play volleyball.
While on the shelf, she contemplated what would be a better move for her future. Would she stick to volleyball or give everything she had to rodeo? For Parker, there was no debate as to which road she’d choose.
“I loved playing volleyball, but I figured that rodeo could take me further and is something that isn’t just a hobby, but something that I live for,” she said.
With all of her athletic focus on rodeo, Parker does as much as she can do. She participates in barrel racing, pole bending (which is only for junior rodeo, which she will have to give up in college), goat tying, breakaway roping and team roping, which she’ll start in college.
If she wanted, Parker could be at a different rodeo three weekends a month. Doing that, she can win and has won some prize money. But even though she attends plenty of rodeos, she still needs to have one-on-one practice with her horses.
Parker still rides at her neighbors, but is in the process of building her own training arena on her family ranch.
THE RISK IS REAL
Like any athlete, Parker knows the dangers that come with her sport. While a quarterback has to worry about a blitzing linebacker, or a batter has to worry about a 95 mph fastball, Parker has to worry about controlling an 800-1,200-pound horse.
Aside from being stepped on or kicked, Parker has been fortunate to not have suffered any major injuries, although she recently fell off her horse when he slipped going around a barrel, but she walked away unscathed.
But Parker knows that every time she gets on her horse to compete, there is a risk that something bad could happen.
“Any event with horses is dangerous,” Parker said. “They could slip, fall down, break a leg or fall on you. With goat-tying, you are running your horse at full speed and then jumping off. So there are a lot of knee and ankle injuries in that event. Thankfully, I haven’t had anything like that happen to me yet.”
A DEEP TRUST
Parker currently has two main horses, although she recently purchased another horse that will eventually be used at competitions. Her older horses are Martin, used for barrel racing, goat tying and pole bending, and Gray, her rope horse.
It’s a common belief in the rodeo world that it takes between one and two years to build trust between a rider and horse. Parker believes that she has earned that trust with her two horses. Because she and Martin have competed so often together, the two can seemingly read each other’s minds.
Parker has full faith in her horses, just like she believes her horses have full faith in her.
“I was recently at a rodeo and it was said that team roping is the only team event,” Parker said. “I looked at my mom and said, ‘Everything in rodeo is a team event. It’s a bond between you and your horse.’ It takes extreme trust to get anywhere in the rodeo business.”
CONTINUE TO RIDE
Parker is set to be a part of the University of Nevada, Reno, club rodeo team. The school doesn’t currently have a varsity rodeo team. In fact, there are very few college varsity rodeo teams in the country. That is something Parker would eventually like to change.
“My goal is that by the time I’m a senior, I want to have a UNR varsity team,” she said, as the current club is affiliated with the college, just not sponsored.
Parker plans to ride all four years she is at UNR. Once she graduates, she plans on doing what most do after they get out of college – fall in love and have a family. But that doesn’t mean that she’s putting her saddle up for good.
Parker would like to one day start her pro rodeo career, as well as own a training horse facility and breeding facility.
“As soon as I have all my ducks in a row, I definitely believe that pro rodeo will be in my line of sight for the rest of my life,” she said.
Contact Sports Editor Guy Dossi at 498-2053 and follow him on Twitter at @GuyDossi.