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  • Mary Fichtner

My life is a rodeo after all...

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

Mary Fichtner 1981 Junior Rodeo Girls Steer Riding
Mary Fichtner 1981 Junior Rodeo Girls Steer Riding

If I had to choose one word to describe what my life was growing up, and what had the greatest impact on who I have become, that word would be “rodeo.” Rodeo was my life! I entered my first one at the age of 8. When I had my first number pinned on my back and climbed into the saddle on the back of the first horse I ever loved, something inside of me changed forever. I may not have known it in that moment, but I would never be the same. I don’t have the words to explain it really, only that it was a feeling that I never wanted to end; the smell, the air; the feel of that trusted steed and friends all around. There was something magical about the atmosphere, something too hard to put into words. Being at a rodeo became my entire reason for being. It was my reason for having passing grades, doing chores, being responsible, having dreams and goals, meeting Jesus, finding my identity, lifelong friends, learning courage and more. I would have jumped over the moon if necessary, to get to the next rodeo.

My dad told me a real cowgirl had to enter ALL the events and I believed him; I would have done anything to earn that title. Even though I loved some of the events and others I could have passed on, I bucked up and did my best. He wanted me to be well rounded, to learn to do hard things, to impress myself, to stretch myself. And that is what happened. I just wanted to be a part of something that had grabbed my heart and put it in a vice grip. Starting with the lined-up horse trailers, the perfectly coiffed dirt in the arena, the National Anthem, the announcer’s fun remarks, the sounds, the wild west stories, little cowboys climbing up and down their gentle horses, to gates slamming and hamburgers from the concession stand; there was nothing else like it in all the world. This I know for sure. What I am not sure of is how a culture becomes an addiction; but for me it did. Not much else mattered to me. I spent spring, summer and fall at every possible rodeo my dad was willing to haul me to. I never wanted it to end. As I got to college the challenges started to pile on. Between money and two sick, older horses my death grip on rodeo started to weaken. In Dear Rodeo, a song by Cody Johnson, the line “I’d like to say that I took the reins and rode away, no regrets, no left-unsaids, just turned the page, oh but you know better babe!” says it all. If you could feel the way my heart clinched when I heard those words you would know how true it is. If I am honest, I have cried through that song many times. I was able to do a few college rodeos while I attended the University of Wyoming but “the dream of a buckle I’ll never put on, I’m jaded, how I hate it” became my new reality. And the song continues, “I held on tight with all my might I just couldn’t hang on and that’s hard to hang your hat on!” No truer words ever represented my feelings about my life and rodeo.

I literally grieved but was forced to face Plan B. Plan B included marrying a rancher, a cowboy…no exceptions, I wouldn’t even date anyone outside that category so I could hang on to that lifestyle. Maybe that would get me back in the saddle and through that arena gate again. My life began to feel like the Grand Entry at a Junior Rodeo; disorder and disorganization; resembling a small disaster of sorts. Sometimes it seems we forget that God has a plan for our life. Even so, I was feeling like I hadn’t tightened my cinch and was slipping off the side; a feeling I was uncomfortably familiar with. Plan B eventually became a re-ride as I laid eyes on a certain soldier, I guess you could call that Plan C, or maybe just call it what it was…smitten and love blind. And as life would have it my horse swapped ends and I was able to hang on.

Little did I know, after the National Anthem, I was about to ride in a rodeo of a different kind. I wouldn’t need my spurs, my rope, my best saddle or my horse; but I would need my courage, my resilience, my tenacity, my bounce back factor and my all-around cowgirl spirit. I would still be required to shove my hat down over my ears, to the point of barely seeing and to make sure I still had it on when I crossed the starting line and passed the electronic eye. I married that soldier; a Wyoming Cowboy, a rough stock rider of sorts, a freedom fighter with more courage, patriotism and trail blazing spirit than I had ever been around in my life. One who didn’t live for the spotlight or accolades, but only to serve others. His cowboy hat was a Green Beret, a badge of bravery that extends to all arenas. I would be entering more events than I knew existed and the entry fees were high; they also had a million times the payout of any rodeo I had ever been a contestant in. I would be called to a level of cowgirling up that would push me past what I thought I was capable of. I would be entered in one the toughest rodeos in the world, the wife of an Army Special Forces Soldier and later the mother of four. It was just like my first rodeo in most ways, I saw the sights, felt the feels, but had not one clue what I was in for. I just knew I was in.

Since that time, I have lost a stirrup, sometimes both, trying to figure out how to swing my loop when my cowboy was deployed again and everything in the house broke at the same time, not to exclude the car. I had to learn to win at asking for help. I was forced to see how sometimes when we let others haze for us it blesses them far more than us. Sometimes my spurs jingled between deployments; other times they got caught on the fence and I face planted. I failed many times in the “small cowpoke temper tantrum events” but had to keep entering and trying to find a new way to leave the barrels standing and not break the barrier. As I nodded my head to open the chute and let the teenagers buck, I bit the dirt over and over. I have many scars to show for it, but I chose to dust off, re-shape my hat and get my hand back in the rigging. There were many emotional and physical injuries that had to be stitched up with rawhide. Some left heavy scars but after a bridle and bit change, I got on with the ride. These times turned into the greatest memories of my life. A trophy saddle to ride the rest of the way. I failed over and over at getting my loop over fear and loneliness and getting it out of my arena. I had to learn to keep getting in the box, and coming back out, not even knowing when or if my warrior would be home again. Sometimes I didn’t show up when the announcer called my name and so my chance to spur on in courage was turned out and I had to wait until the next rodeo to try again. Frequently everything that could go wrong did and I did not win the Good Sportsmanship Award because I chose the lower ground of poor focus over finding blessings. But as with any rodeo, there was always hope for next time. Sixteen times we trailered up over the years and moved our traveling rodeo and circus to a new home. Sixteen times we entered a new rodeo, meeting others who were having their own rodeo; learning from them how to make it to the buzzer; and in some events how not to.

Thank goodness I was given stellar advice early in my marriage to pray a lot and ask God to pull my slack. I have never forgotten that. Trust me, I have tried to pull my own slack over and over; I still do sometimes. But looking back over photos and memories in my heart I see that God did just that, even when I tried to pull it myself. He made sure my hat and spurs were on and that the dirt was soft when I landed in it for the 1000th time. He always helped me back in the saddle even though my boots had the leather worn off the bottom and my rope got too stiff to coil, He lifted me up anyway. He circled every barrel with me, even when I knocked it over; He pulled my slack when another calf was running through my loop. How do I know that you ask? Because today, as I sit on the fence around the arena of my personal rodeo, I see that the warrior I married is still sitting next to me as we watch our four adult kids winning their own gold buckles. They hit the dirt plenty, miss their slack and get bucked off; but they keep entering. They keep roping their dreams and showing up and making me look like one heck of cowgirl mama. I thank them for that trophy saddle all the time. That’s all the proof I need that I entered the right rodeo, got my entry paid and rode off with a gold buckle so valuable I can hang up my spurs with peace. Don’t worry though, I haven’t hung them up yet. l am still entered; now I rest in knowing that God does pull my slack, always.

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