At 17, Annika Ruth Has Conquered More Than Most—and She’s Not Even Close to Finished

“I don’t want to wallow in self-pity."
Annika Ruth barrel racing
Annika Ruth is among the competitors in the progressive rounds at WCRA Rodeo Carolina. Photo by Bull Stock Media Courtesy WCRA

Over a year ago, we posted a feature on one of barrel racing’s rising stars – a city kid from Rolla, Missouri, who was 11 before she learned to ride a horse.

But 17-year-old Annika Ruth’s hard-core background in gymnastics and dance, combined with being extremely coachable, meant she’s progressed in only six years on the cloverleaf to ranking in the WCRA’s current top-10 point-getters along with one of her heroes, Emily Beisel.

This is a girl who graduated high school a year early—earning an associate’s degree at the same time—and went so nuts for barrel racing that her parents, Ted and Jenny, bought a horse property near Marshall, Texas.

There, Annika is busy breeding their new 6-year-old stallion, Enzo Fame, and some barrel mares. She has big dreams that include making the NFR and running Ruth Performance Horses. To that end, she plans to obtain a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership by the time she’s 19.

Can you say, “all in?” 

But her passionate ambition got severely tested this past year. Ruth’s first-ever rodeo horse died while she was loping him around the second barrel. Her good horse is sidelined until July, so she had to sit out Rodeo Corpus Christi and the Women’s Rodeo World Championship.

And Ruth herself has spent the past two months on debilitating chemotherapy as doctors try to save her colon.

When her weight dropped from 120 to 92 pounds within a couple of months last year, she didn’t get any answers from a local Missouri pediatrician. But when Ruth began noticing bloody stools, it was an easy guess – her dad has suffered from ulcerative colitis since he was a teenager (even though doctors say it’s not genetic).

A Baylor doctor prescribed heavy doses of steroids to curb the spread of the severe abscesses and ulcers in her colon, but her symptoms only worsened. By April, her entire colon was infected. To try to prevent the colitis from evolving into cancer or perforating the colon wall, they put Ruth on heavy-duty chemotherapy pills with severe side effects. Lately however, a family friend in Missouri knew a woman from California who reached out to a friend at Harvard who’s sending Ruth to Boston Children’s Hospital this June. 

“Mom always says I handle all of this better than she does,” said Annika matter-of-factly. “I’ve got the mindset of, well, what can we do about it, because it’s not going away. So why stop my life? I’ll keep trucking on. Honestly, God has been my rock through all of this,” she added. “I can’t imagine what somebody would do if they didn’t have faith in Him going through all of this.”

Ruth’s palomino gelding, Zero To Sixty (Heats Hustler x Megga Firewater) that she calls Turbo, is 8 years old and carried her to Rookie of the Year titles in two separate amateur rodeo associations in 2022. He was actually breaking arena records this winter, then became inexplicably bad at the gate. Vets were flummoxed until an MRI finally showed bruising in his front feet. 

“The timing honestly has been perfect, because I was planning to slow down and let Turbo rest anyway,” she said in characteristic positive style. “I’ve pushed him pretty hard. I want to work on our consistency so that when we get back out there, we have a shot to win because we’re making clean runs and he’s sound.”

In the meantime, she sounds as animated as any veteran breeder talking about her horse operation. 

“I mean, I love this,” said Annika. “It’s definitely my calling. I love looking at bloodlines. And I love giving the junior studs a chance. We bred my old mare to Blazin Boss, and there are a couple of other young stallions I want to breed to next year.”

Pete Oen is riding a couple 3-year-olds for Ruths, and they hired Luis Hernandez as their resident trainer (he started both of Wenda Johnson’s off-the-track geldings).

“Since meeting Luis, his style and horsemanship is the best I’ve ever seen – he connects with horses in a completely different way,” said Annika. “I can’t wait to see how we progress with him on our team.”

She won’t even turn 18 until December. At that point, she might buy a WPRA card, but wants to take it slow. Of course, this is the same girl who wanted to take it slow with her first Louisiana Rodeo Cowboys Association card. Then she entered the Finals in No. 1 and won the year-end title.

“I make it count when I do run,” she said. “I’m very competitive, thanks to having brothers quite a bit older than me.”

Jenny admits that Annika was a “keep us young” baby. She’s been married 35 years to Ted, who retired as an assistant vice chancellor at Missouri University of Science and Technology. He and Jenny own and operate multiple businesses in Rolla including Mi Serenity, which provides home and community-based services for the developmentally disabled. And an ice cream shop called Soda & Scoops on Route 66, where they employ people with developmental disabilities. 

“Our mantra is ‘A different kind of perfect,’” said Annika. “We’re all different in our own ways.”

She isn’t much different, however, than her Texas neighbor—a 22-year-old girl suffering the same severe colitis who recently had her colon removed. That girl’s family has been a wealth of information. 

“God was so intentional, putting us near that family,” said Jenny. “Annika’s support system has been phenomenal; the rodeo world has been phenomenal. If we were going to be anywhere and go through this, the people he’s put in our path have been a blessing.”

As for Annika, she’s as matter-of-fact as any 17-year-old girl has ever been.

I don’t want to wallow in self-pity,” she said. “I keep busy and keep my mind off it as best I can. It’s not going anywhere, so I’ll learn how to live with it.”

Spoken with the grit and toughness that it takes to also come out a victor on the rodeo road.