I Had to Lose to Make the NFR: The Steph Fryar Tales, Part 3

How can years of losing lead to great success?
Stephanie Fryar and Sail On Lena, "Selena"
Stephanie Fryar and Sail On Lena at the 2008 NFR. Hubbell Rodeo Photos

All the talk is about Stephanie Fryar potentially becoming the first female overnight millionaire in the sport of rodeo, and most barrel racing write-ups you hear are on the overwhelming success of athletes like Fryar, but how does losing play into things like an NFR qualification, and the shot at the million?

BarrelRacing.com sat down once again with Fryar as we work through her eight-part series leading up to Rodeo Corpus Christi, where Fryar will look to earn that million-dollar check on May 9-11, 2024. We’re breaking down the components of her personal and professional life that led her to this moment in her career.

Stephanie Fryar: I think when people think about making the NFR, they think you’re just winning every week, partying it up and soaking up the glory. But the real-life road to Las Vegas isn’t that smooth for most of us.

My NFR journey started years before I ever made it to the Thomas & Mack

Terra Kay Gernentz (Bynum) called me up and said ‘Steph, I’ve got a horse that would fit you perfectly.’ So of course I went to try her.

She was a horse running a lot in the 2D and 3D, but she had the potential to do more. Her name was Sail On Lena, “Selena.” As far as fundamentals and style went, I knew she was perfect for me as soon as I swung a leg over her. When you know, you just know.

So I must have took her home and started winning immediately, right? Nope.

See, family wasn’t exactly rolling in money when I was growing up. So, I learned how to ride some barrel crashers and get around some horses. I used my outside rein a lot.

Well, Selena took things very literally, which I would eventually grow to love about her. But when I grabbed my outside rein on Selena, she would actually swap leads and shoot off that direction—which I did not love.

So we weren’t having much luck. One day, Terra and I were at a barrel race and she kept getting onto me for touching my outside rein. She bet me a truck payment that I couldn’t run the mare without using the outside rein at all. Now I wasn’t going to turn down a truck payment, so I did it.

I sent her in and won the jackpot. Tara didn’t make my payment, but I wasn’t mad at that point. (We’ll talk more about how I apply this to my training program now in Part 4).

Throughout the whole process, I had to learn to slow down in order to be fast. Sometimes breaking everything down is the only way to do it (But that’s another story for another day, too.)

So once I figured things out and gained some confidence, I had my eyes back on an NFR spot.

Full of a little too much confidence, I bought my permit and entered the Bad Company Rodeo over New Years in Hamilton, Texas. This was in 2006, and back then you couldn’t fill your card at jackpots or futurities. Selena won that rodeo and $1,008, so we filled it in one swoop. I immediately bought my card.

Because everything was obviously going to be sunshine and rainbows after that. I was young, I was fired up, I was winning, and I had a great horse.

I quickly got humbled when I went on the road. I mean, my mom and I went out there and I just got whooped.

I think when you’re young and you’re winning, you just assume that anywhere you go, you’re going to keep that momentum going. But when you’re out there on the road, there’s just so much learning to do and you’ve got to figure out where you can win, because there’s only a few freaks of nature that can win on any dirt and any pattern you put them on.

For Selena, bad ground was her favorite. So I entered where the ground sucked. I started winning finally, gained consistency and was like,

“Oh, we CAN do this. Okay!”

Through two years of ups and downs, we eventually made the NFR in 2008. But if you haven’t figured it out by now, nothing happens overnight. Especially in this sport. When you see somebody say, win $1 million dollars, just know there’s years of work that went into that small amount of time in the arena.