BILLINGS – At 18 months, Terri Kaye Kirkland was so young for her first barrel race it would have been more likely for her mother to wrap her in a baby blanket and park her inside one for a nap.
Instead, Kirkland guided a pony around the barrels at a Little Britches Rodeo in Anaconda, where she grew up.
So if anyone says the still-racing 61-year-old Terri Kaye has been doing this forever it will not be exaggeration.
“I wanted to play with my horses more than dolls,” Kirkland said.
She won her first barrel racing ribbon award at age 2.
Kirkland has been following the cloverleaf pattern so long her racing in Cody Nite Rodeo and the Cody Stampede predates the 1976 opening of this Stampede Park. She is not positive if her first Cody race was at 12 or a little later, but it was close to 50 years ago.
“It seems like just the other day,” Kirkland said.
She has raced at Cody Nite Rodeo three times so far this season and is scheduled for slack July 3 in this 100th anniversary celebration Stampede Rodeo. Kirkland did not keep a dear-diary record, so it’s only a guess she’s run the Stampede about 30 times. She finished second once.
Another indicator of her barrel racing longevity: Her chief competitors are young enough to be granddaughters.
Kirkland has qualified for the National Finals Rodeo championships alongside two sons, the first family to do that. Once way back, she and her sisters placed 1-2-3-4 in a rodeo.
One husband, the father of those boys, was a roper. Jay, her current husband of nearing 27 years, was a bareback rider. They met at a rodeo.
The main living room-dining room decorations on the five-acre property on the outskirts of Billings are rodeo photographs of her and Jay, her children’s annual school pictures, and Jay’s trophy mounts of moose and mountain goat. Terri Kaye hunts, but not with Jay’s shooting accuracy.
Undeniably, Kirkland is a senior citizen of rodeo, and for most of her life, appointments at rodeos have filled the calendar. Even she doesn’t really differentiate between “passion” and “obsession” to describe her commitment.
Kirkland raises, trains and rides her horses – six right now. Someone might argue she takes better care of them than she does of herself.
“Sometimes I forget,” she said of eating. “Food is not that important to me.”
Riding to win
There were five children, four girls, in Jack and Aggie Carraher’s family in Anaconda, where he worked in a smelter.
Kirkland’s mother grew up on a ranch, so she knew something about horses. Dad made himself into a horseman by working at a livery, asking questions, wrangling on ranches and going into rodeo roping.
“Mom hauled us all around to fairs,” Kirkland said.
Something clicked bonding the kids of Terri Kaye’s generation with horses. Older sister Mary Aller of Pocatello, Idaho, is still barrel racing at age 72.
“If you stop moving, you lost it,” said Aller, who planned an active Cowboy Christmas July 4 holiday schedule.
Two of Mary Aller’s daughters have also been barrel racers.
“It’s just the enjoyment you get being around horses,” Aller said of the motivation to keep racing at an age when few athletes still have the want-to or the can-do.
The men of roughstock riding have no such luxury. They are often bounced out of the game by bucking broncos or bulls in their 30s.
Even as children, though, the Carraher girls were not out there merely to ride.
“If you’re there, you’re there to win,” Aller said. “Not that you don’t want them to do well.”
Terri Kaye has two sons, Clay and Travis, with first husband Dennis Tryan, a roper.
Clay, 40, is a three-time world-champion team roper with about $2.5 million in winnings. Travis, 38, has won about $1.5 million roping.
Travis makes his early childhood sound like Kirkland’s.
“I just remember we went from rodeo to rodeo until we went to school,” he said. “It was fun. Cody, Pueblo (Colo.) I remember certain rodeos.”
A family highlight was registered in 2003. That year, Kirkland qualified for her first National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas and she was flanked by her boys in the grand entry ride. Her smile was brighter than the Thomas & Mack Center lighting.
The trio did it all over again in 2004 and 2005 too, but the first time was special.
“That was really awesome,” Kirkland said.
Travis called the moment for his mother “a milestone. It was really neat to see that work pay off.”
That memory is tough to beat, but Kirkland has raced in Cheyenne Frontier Days, Houston, the Calgary Stampede, Pendleton Roundup, Livingston, Red Lodge and Cody, the last three the so-called Gateway Rodeos surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
That was all fun, but Kirkland also has always retained the edge, the desire to win. She sounds much like her sister Mary on this point.
“I don’t go to a rodeo just to hear my name called,” Kirkland said.
Jay said his wife still has “the desire, the fire” for competition.
Terri Kaye is a staple on the Montana circuit and depending on the season and the status of her horses, appears at Cody Nite Rodeo five-15 times a year.
Just as the 90-night competition in the Rodeo Capital of the World appeals to young cowboys and cowgirls to gain experience, Kirkland drives the 123 miles from her Montana home to Stampede Park in lieu of longer, overnight road trips.
The entry fee is $25 and if the field includes 10 riders the payout will be $180. Gas money.
“It is very convenient,” Kirkland said. “It’s an excellent place to take your horses to expose them to the rodeo atmosphere, the crowd, the noise.”
On this season’s second night of Cody Nite Rodeo, Kirkland zoomed into town, entered, won in a fast time of 16.81 seconds and swiftly departed, hauling the horse trailer 2 1/4 hours home.
Itching to be done with school, Kirkland began piling up rodeos to such a level when she turned 19 she could say, ‘This is how I make my living.”
While not sated, Kirkland has seen it all, and is more selective in her rodeo choice now. The mix of horses’ ages and capabilities determine where she goes.
“Financially, the horses have to be able to pay their way,” she said.
Years ago, Kirkland said, there might only be a handful of top barrel racers at a rodeo. No longer.
“There’s more people that are tougher,” she said. “Now, most everybody has got an excellent horse.”
When not competing, Kirkland participates in clinics and Christian camps and gives private barrel racing lessons. Or as the Old Wise Woman, she offers advice to young barrel racers in the chutes.
“She’s really phenomenal,” said Cody Nite competitor Nikki Korte, 22, who rodeoed for Montana State. “She’s really warm and open. She never puts you down. It’s really rewarding to work with someone like her.”
In her early teens Korte took weekly lessons from Kirkland. Korte said she had a horse with potential, but was not getting results.
“She (Kirkland) taught me to have that patience,” Korte said.
Cody’s Anna Allshouse, 17, considered to be on the cusp of barrel racing stardom, said Kirkland has been very giving during stops in Cody.
“She’s just an inspiration, for sure,” Allshouse said. “I get a lot of tips from her. She comes up and talks to me all the time. She’s really happy to help me out.”
Kirkland seems to enjoy the role model responsibility of sharing with the younger generation.
“If they ask for help, I give it to them,” she said.
Nothing is more frustrating in rodeo than injury. While the cowboy riders get battered, serious injuries to women in barrels are not only irregular, but more of a fluke.
“I have been left sitting on the ground,” Kirkland said. “I had one major injury that almost killed me. It’s humbling.”
In July of 1977, Kirkland was in a rodeo in Helena, Mont. She had just finished her barrel race and was still aboard her mount when a loose horse cut in front of her. Kirkland was thrown over her horse’s head and landed on her own.
Knocked out, Kirkland was medevaced from Helena to Great Falls, but almost didn’t get there. The plane’s engine stalled.
She remained in a coma for four days, in the hospital for two weeks and for a time was paralyzed on her right side. It was a good time to pray for someone who is religious, which Kirkland is. She wears a cross on a necklace.
“I don’t have a lot of memories of that period,” Kirkland said.
It was the middle of one season and Kirkland did not compete for about 10 months, until the next May.
No slowing down
Outside the house, the sky was blue, though some clouds were rolling in. Kirkland’s animals were spread around munching grass. That was a bonus snack besides their usual hay, grain and water, or being treated to an apple, oats or cookie when running well.
She gathered the horses and led them out of the corral and tied them to trailers.
Kirkland feeds twice a day, rides daily and follows a tried-and-true training program that takes years to ready a horse for big-time rodeos.
Kirkland has won 13 saddles as prizes in competition, but never has 13 horses at once.
Her development process is a slow one, not breaking a horse until it is 2, riding no more than 30 days at 3, perhaps entering small jackpots at 4. By 8 or 9 she deems them mature enough for serious rodeoing.
All Kirkland’s horses have had, and do have, names beginning with A. At this pace she will never see B in the dictionary.
This stock comes out of April. Among others are Abby, Aspen, Autumn, Ace, Adam, Astro, Anaconda Jack and Anaconda Aggie, named for her parents, Angel, Abe, Alilulia (current) and Ali, the best of them all.
Ali carried Kirkland through those prime 2000s NFR days, but injury forced the horse’s retirement at 13.
“It was very, very sad,” Kirkland said.
Sitting on the couch in Billings, Kirkland dialed to enter Cody Nite Rodeo that night. Later, shrugging off hail in Montana, while appreciating better weather in Cody, Kirkland raced in slack. Her time of 17.14 gave her second place.
“We ran well tonight,” she said of Alilulia’s performance.
Probably worth a cookie.
Kirkland has five grandchildren, three Clay’s kids, including Tyler, a roper, and two of Travis’, including Payton, 10, who might yet absorb all of grandma’s barrel racing knowledge at the same rodeos.
While the entire horse breeding and training experience is precious to Kirkland, it is not racing, but danger of breaking colts that makes Jay worry for Terri Kaye’s safety as she ages.
“That makes me nervous,” he said.
Travis laughed at any suggestion his mother might soon give up barrel racing.
“She loves to do it and can do it,” he said. “I bet I stop roping before she stops riding. I think she’ll do it till she dies.”
Maybe so, momma said. Somehow, Terri Kaye Kirkland expects a barrel race finale right to the cemetery, maybe doing a cloverleaf around tombstones that leaves some preacher goggle-eyed.