Dirt Work: Award-Winning Rodeo Ground of 2021

The Women's Professional Rodeo Association recognizes award-worthy ground efforts through the 2021 Justin Best Footing Awards
Tractor man Ricky Solida uses a Black Widow once the ground is ripped at Kansas' Biggest Rodeo.

A revolution is brewing in the rodeo business when it comes to the often-taboo subject of ground conditions and barrel racing. More and more rodeos are spending extra time and effort to make their tracks great, buying new implements, dragging more frequently and adding new soil when needed.

“Ground conditions have improved so much in the last couple of years,” three-time Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Champion Hailey Kinsel said. “More are dragging in the perfs, and the crowds are understanding why it’s important. It was a foreign idea not that long ago.

“The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (NFR) led the pack last year and proved that we can do this,” Kinsel added. “The committees are loving seeing the fast times and tougher rodeos and there are less turn outs when the conditions are good.”

As the advocates for women in rodeo since 1948, the WPRA has recognized the need to incentivize and reward those rodeo committees who achieve the best conditions possible through a year-end program.

Since 1993, the Justin Boot Company has been the title sponsor for the WPRA’s annual Best Footing Awards®, which are voted on by the barrel racers themselves and awarded to the top rodeos within each of the 12 circuits. Designed to promote the best conditions possible, the program recognizes the top three rodeos in each circuit.

Each winner receives $1,000, a plaque and a Justin certificate redeemable for one pair of Justin smooth ostrich boots. Reserve champs get a plaque and $500, while third gets a plaque and $350. Each circuit also recognizes the year’s Most Improved.

There is one thing that all 12 winners of the 2021 WPRA Justin Best Footing® (JBF) awards seem to share: a passion for creating optimal conditions for the professional barrel racers and their equine partners.

Beyond that, each rodeo committee faces their own unique challenges, from weather to soil type, and each has their own unique take on how to create the best ground for their events.

For Kinsel, the care that a committee puts into their ground plays into her entering decisions.

“There are a ton of rodeos to choose from and we want to support those rodeos that support us by working so hard on their ground.”

Badlands Circuit — Buffalo Stampede, Kadoka, South Dakota

The Buffalo Stampede was a Labor Day amateur rodeo for many years before disappearing from the schedule altogether sometime in the 1980s. When a group decided to resurrect the event as a ProRodeo, they knew they had their work cut out for them.

“We didn’t have anything but 4-H and high school events, and Bible camps,” said committee chairman Jamie Willert. “The arena had a notorious reputation for not having good ground, so we knew we had that obstacle to overcome.”

Central South Dakota’s ground is best described by locals as “gumbo,” but the committee hatched a plan that included help from a nearby dirt pit owned by one of the committee members.

“We brought in 45 loads of screened, beach sand,” said Willert, who got input from his wife, a former circuit level barrel racer in the Badlands. “The biggest thing now is keeping it wet.”

With plenty of water, tractor man Aaron Zenter uses a Parma groomer with a packer on the back to keep the sand held together and they rake after every five barrel racers in slack and the performances.

“We talked about a hand rake after every runner, but it takes like 10 seconds to drag and fill the holes in and create a better fast track that’s fair for everyone,” Willert said. “When these ladies are putting $3 per gallon fuel into their pickups to get here, we want it to be fair for everyone and we certainly don’t want anyone to slip or get hurt.”

Willert notes that money was won throughout the duration of the rodeo, from slack to each perf.

“That shows how even it was.”

Kadoka won the JBF award in 2020 but faced a monumental task to achieve the repeat.

“We had a big rain about a week after our 2020 rodeo and with our ground the way it is, the sand just disappeared,” Willert said. “So, we put another 20 loads of sand back in for this year.”

California Circuit — Sonoma County Wine Country Rodeo, Santa Rosa, California

The Sonoma County Wine Country Rodeo captured several titles within the JBF program in 2021; they were named the Most Improved Ground in the circuit, good enough to be the best in the Golden State. They also won the lottery draw from amongst the 12 circuit winners at the WPRA’s Star Celebration on December 2, 2021, in Las Vegas, winning an addition $1,500.

“Our rodeo had a really bad reputation for a few years for notoriously bad ground,” said Barbara Walker. Walker, along with David Lawson and Laura and Kevin Companey, comprise a local barrel racing group that jumped in a few years ago to produce Wednesday night races at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Sami Jo DeForest makes a run at the Sonoma County Wine Country Rodeo, which was voted Best Ground and Most Improved in the California Circuit. Crystal Amen Photo

“A few years ago, we asked the fair to let us put on a barrel race the night before the rodeo to try to help improve the ground, but we didn’t really get to prep it as much as we wanted,” Walker said. “And then this year, when we asked to put on the race, the fair told us no.”

Enter WPRA California Circuit Director Katie Pascoe, who knew the group because they’d co-sanctioned their barrel races with the WPRA.

“Katie called and asked if we could do a race before the rodeo and I told her that we’d been told no,” Walker noted. “But I got back on the phone to the fair and we convinced them to use our tractor driver for the rodeo.”

Kevin Companey is the guy, a hay farmer by trade who knows plenty about dirt and barrel racing.

“He has a long list of accomplishments,” Walker said. “He did the California State High School Finals in Bishop this year and he’s the dad of a barrel racer, so he knows how important good ground is!”

Companey started about a week ahead of the one-day rodeo, ripping and watering the ground, working it until it was just right.

“He was the main driving force behind the improvement, it was all his hard work,” Walker said. “He did everything he could to make it safe.”

Shelley Holman claimed the title in Santa Rosa in 2021, stopping the clock at 17.48 seconds with just over half a second separating the entire field of money winners. In years past, few sub-18 second runs have been possible.

“Usually, the fair just relied upon their staff to work the ground, not realizing how much actually goes into it,” Walker said. “They know now! And they’re so excited to get this award.”

Walker noted that the community support talking to fair members changed the course of the conversation and she credited Pascoe’s willingness to get on the phone and discuss the issue.

“Katie was really the catalyst of all of it. Sometimes it just takes someone caring enough to call and we’re so happy the fair took our recommendation and let Kevin handle the ground.”

Walker, Lawson, and Laura Companey attended the Star Celebration as Kevin had to stay home to farm.

“It was such an amazing experience!” she said. “We were so humbled and shocked to win. And thankful to the WPRA ladies for voting for us . . . well, actually they were voting for Kevin.”

Columbia River Circuit — Walla Walla Frontier Days, Walla Walla, Washington

The Walla Walla Frontier Days Rodeo committee faces a number of challenges to have optimal ground conditions when producing their rodeo each Labor Day. First, their facility isn’t used for equestrian events year-round. Second, in between the start of the PRCA rodeo slack and their performances and WPRA barrel racing slack, they host several events in conjunction with the fair.

North Dakota futurity trainer Molly Otto and Teasin Dat Guy notched several arena records during the regular rodeo season, one at the Walla Walla (Washington) Frontier Days.
NFR qualifier Molly Otto and Teasin Dat Guy notched several arena records during the regular rodeo season, one at the Walla Walla (Washington) Frontier Days. Photo by Thomas Duncan Photography

“We start about a month out,” said Rodeo Chairman Charlie Barron. “Ours is a county facility with two maintenance employees.”

Beginning in early August, tractor man Jim Vinti, who is a volunteer and a local farmer, brings in a culti-packer, basically a farm implement, with a set of harrows behind it and rips the ground deep. He also starts the process of watering the ground twice a day.

“The culti-packer is all that works in our ground,” Barron said. “Every other implement we’ve tried packed it down to concrete.”

An Arena-Vator, a type of rototiller, is used to break up the large dirt clods and more water is applied so that it can soak down into the base.

“We have a 1964 Cat steel track crawler . . .  we’re pretty old school,” Barron joked. “It takes a lot of work to get it right on.”

Timed event slack happens on Tuesday night after all that ground prep and the arena is rolled as soon as slack in done.

“We have a concert Wednesday and as soon as it’s done, we tear down over night and have a demolition derby on Thursday. It’s a 12-hour process—we pick car parts out of the arena all night and start our steer roping Friday morning.”

The first performance kicks off on Friday and barrel racing slack follows the second performance on Saturday night.

“It’s a lot of hours of preparation and then we have to start all over again when the fair starts,” Barron said. “But we’ve won the Best Footing award multiple times.”

In 2021, Wrangler NFR qualifier Molly Otto used a big win in Walla Walla to launch her to her first Finals appearance; she won the rodeo with a 16.84-second run on the WPRA standard pattern and a 17.31 won the 15th and final money hole.

First Frontier Circuit — Goshen Stampede, Goshen, Connecticut

The Goshen Stampede was founded by Sean O’Neill and his wife back in 2006 and the whole family, including daughters Summerlin and Shyla, were on hand at the WPRA Star Celebration to pick up their award.

“We’re raising the next generation of rodeo producers,” O’Neill said. “It was an awesome event and really inspires my daughters.”

O’Neill started off with great intentions, adding more footing to their arena in 2019.

“It was the right thing to do but we didn’t know we didn’t have enough time for it to settle so we went from heroes to zeroes,” he joked. “But now we’ve had two years of it settling and it’s worked out well.”

The available soil is dead sand and pond sediment, and they added some clay with lime to help hold the moisture better. With 2021 being such a wet year, it helped create top conditions.

“We had so much rain, all the trucks were getting stuck in the parking lot, but it made the ground perfect,” O’Neill said.

The committee hosts a big barrel race right before the rodeo to test the footing and relied upon a pair of tractor drivers: Shannon Domes from the Attica (N.Y.) Rodeo Association and Bobby Chestnut, whose wife Wendy is a multiple time First Frontier Circuit Champion Barrel Racer.

“They helped us out a lot,” O’Neill said. The committee uses a Reveal 4-N-1 drag and rakes after every five barrel racers.

After being unable to host a rodeo in 2020 due to COVID, Goshen doubled their perfs in 2021, having two weekends with two perfs each for their series.

Great Lakes Circuit — Sikeston Jaycee Bootheel Rodeo, Sikeston, Missouri

Adding more drags to rodeos has become the next wave in building more fair opportunity for all entered contestants and most of the JBF winners were part of that movement including the Great Lakes winner, the Sikeston Jaycee Bootheel Rodeo.

“If it was potentially going to be a rule change, we decided to get in front of the curve and be an ambassador for the movement,” said Jeremiah Quick, 2021 Rodeo Chairman, who worked closely with WPRA Great Lakes Circuit Director Becky Nix to implement the change.

“It gave good exposure to the tractor, and we were able to secure additional sponsor dollars for the drag and the tractor,” added De Bizzell, 2022 Chairman.

John Deere loaned the tractor and ground man JT Morton used a Drag Queen 10-foot implement out of Tennessee.

“This was the first year we didn’t hear about footing complaints,” he added. “The decision wasn’t an easy one and it wasn’t unanimous, but once it was made, everybody got on board.”

The committee hauled more dirt into their arena two months out, letting it settle before hosting a late-June barrel race as a trial run. With over 900 entries, the committee attended the race, timing the drags and found that each took less than three minutes.

Rain is often an issue for the August event, so the arena is laser graded to a 2 percent fault to a corner drain, allowing the ground crew to control how much water sits on their footing.

“We ordered water and began watering the arena a week before the rodeo,” said Morton. “The arena was holding water with the drain closed two weeks out, so we popped the drain and allowed the water to drain.”

Mother Nature contributed two inches of rain on the Sunday prior to the rodeo, which was quickly siphoned off with the drain, leaving conditions perfect for Wednesday’s slack. Rain came again on Thursday night, leaving Friday’s competitors in standing water but conditions were returned to perfect by Saturday, catching the attention of The Cowboy Channel.

Arena Director Justin Wibbenmeyer explained the committee’s efforts during a broadcast. The resulting positive reaction just confirmed that the committee was on the right track.

Molly Otto was the champion in southern Missouri too, winning the rodeo with a time of 16.16 seconds. Just over half a second was the difference between first and 15th.

“Next year, we will be dragging halfway through, one hundred percent,” said Bizzel. “We prefer to be trailblazers and trendsetters. We challenge other rodeos to step up and do the same thing.”

Montana Circuit — Bozeman Stampede, Bozeman, Montana

Led by President, and former rodeo competitor, Aaron Odegard, the Bozeman Stampede picked up their first JBF win in 2021.

“Our biggest struggle is that ours is a county facility and we just rent it,” Odegard said. The facility hosts the county fair in mid-July. “Our rodeo is the first of August, and we keep an eye on it, but we don’t get in there until the Tuesday before our rodeo.”

The Stampede crew depends upon a great partnership with Sime Construction as well as friends with barrel racing ties.

“They’re very supportive and are literally calling us to see what we need. They even send a couple of their project managers, who are engineers, to see what we need to do,” he added. “They’ll pull out the dirt and rebase it if we need it.”

Consistency is the goal, and it begins with checking the depth and the moisture content. The Stampede uses a Black Widow and rakes every six.

Several years ago, Odegard reached out to Brian and Lisa Anderson, managers of Copper Springs Ranch which was previously located near Bozeman.

“I basically forced Brian to be our tractor driver,” Odegard joked. “But if you put someone in place who knows and has the respect of the barrel racers it makes a big difference.”

When the Andersons left Montana, Odegard called upon another former rodeo cowboy Mark Radau whose wife Misti has run barrels in the Montana Circuit too.

“It just makes a difference having people who know how it should be.”

 Effort is the biggest thing that Odegard can promise.

“We want to do it right, get it the best we can,” he said. “It’s rodeo so it’s never perfect but we want everyone to know we tried, and we didn’t just blow it off.”

In 2021, Tammy Carpenter claimed the very competitive Bozeman Stampede title, clocking in at 17.08 seconds. Only .23 tenths of a second separated first from 10th.

Mountain States Circuit — Steamboat Springs ProRodeo Series, Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Winning a ground award for keeping conditions fair and fast for two or three days of rodeo is one thing . . . doing it for 20 performances over the course of 10 weeks over the summer is something else. That’s exactly what the Steamboat Springs ProRodeo Series was able to accomplish.

Steamboat has won the JBF in the past, but it’s been a few years.

“It’s easier if you just have two perfs,” laughed Brent Romick, Chairman of the Board of the rodeo. “Our setup presents 20 challenges to get it right. We look at the consistency. That’s everything.”

The Steamboat ProRodeo Series is a collaboration between the city and the rodeo committee. The arena is used during the week for cuttings and gymkhanas as well as rodeo.

“We’re blessed with good ground, and it’s imported ground,” Romick said. “It’s a special sand mixture which takes the moisture well.”

That’s a key for the northern Colorado town as summer rains happen almost like clockwork.

One new aspect for the rodeo in 2021 was that each of the two performances are drawn for 14 WPRA barrel racers and the committee rakes after seven.

“We were more than happy doing that, we have all these men’s events so this helped us get more ladies into the perf,” said Romick, who worked with WPRA Mountain States Director Carla Beckett. Together, they also hatched a plan to pilot the WPRA’s new “condensed drag” rule, which allows committees to use actual runners to determine how often they drag if they get prior approval and rake at five or six competitors. “It was actually easier on the tractor driver that way and it worked really well.”

The Steamboat Series enjoyed record crowds in 2021 after COVID cut their schedule short in 2020. Taryn Boxleitner won two weeks of the series while Sharon Harrell put up the fastest time of the summer at 17.56 seconds.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in 42 years, implemented some good changes,” Romick said. “My goal is to make it better every year.”

Prairie Circuit — Kansas’ Biggest Rodeo, Phillipsburg, Kansas

The natural ground in Phillipsburg is not a mixture that most barrel racers would order for their home arenas. Despite that challenge, the rodeo committee managed to create a situation for one of the fastest WPRA barrel races on a standard pattern in 2021.

“That’s an awesome rodeo and committee,” said Kinsel, the 2021 Phillipsburg champion. Kinsel had planned to run her great mare Sister in Phillipsburg in 2020 but a rainstorm which flooded the arena sent Kinsel looking for a borrowed horse instead. Knowing how good the ground was, she put the rodeo back on her list in 2021 and drew first out in the slack.

“Always interesting being the first in the slack. You’re the gunner or the test dummy,” Kinsel joked. She’d won Sidney, Iowa on Sister the year prior but drew the two rodeos overnight from each other and just days removed from Cheyenne, leaving her with a choice to make as she didn’t want to run Sister at both events. In the end, Phillipsburg offered the larger purse.

“She was feeling really awesome, and I was not planning on going that fast!” Kinsel’s time of 16.61 seconds was one of the fastest recorded at a ProRodeo on a full set. “I had to go to the office to verify it.”

In fact, there were six runs under seventeen-flat with a 17.15 picking up the final money spot in 15th.

“It’s exciting the amount of care some of these committees are putting into their ground and it was awesome to have two rodeos to pick from that week which both had awesome ground.”

“We rip it deep to start,” noted Rodeo Committee Secretary Steve Christy. “And we keep ripping it every day and water it. It’s black dirt, not fanned, so getting the moisture into it is tricky. It’s dry in Kansas that time of year and it gets hot.

“We’re an outdoor rodeo so we’re at the mercy of the weather and we don’t always get the ground the same, but we try.”

Tractor man Ricky Solida uses a Black Widow once the ground is ripped.

“Ricky does a great job,” Christy noted, adding that they use different implements when it rains. “He watches them all.”

“The tractor driver watched every run in the slack, and he came and visited with me. He said that one girl slipped around 34th out or something and he was thinking what he needed to do to fix that,” Kinsel noted. “It’s great that he takes such an interest. He takes less than ideal ground . . . I mean this is the Prairie Circuit, their ground is meant for growing things not running barrels and makes it awesome. He acknowledges the resources he has.”

The committee also committed to rake after every six competitors.

“We’ll keep doing that,” Christy said. “We’re thankful to get the ground award and hope the barrel racers appreciate our ground because we’d love to have them all come here to Phillipsburg.”

Southeastern Circuit — Florida Gateway Rodeo, Lake City, Florida

Hosting events year round can be key in keeping optimal ground conditions, according to Florida Gateway Rodeo Committee Chairman Steven Bailey.

“We use our facility year-round and that helps,” Bailey said. “Several weeks before the rodeo, we really start prepping, watering and working it more than we normally would.”

Those weeks leading into their March rodeo are a time to assess the conditions of the arena dirt.

“In that time, we reset—if we need dirt brought in, we do. That’s when we get it good for the event.”

Like many Florida rodeos, the Lake City arena is sandy, making water the essential component.

“If it’s a windy day, and we can get some in March, then it dries out pretty fast, so we have to watch it,” Bailey said.

Tractor driver Dale Brown keeps things in order and the committee rakes after every five ladies during each of their three perfs and slack.

“This is our first time to win [the JBF],” Bailey noted. “We’ve been runner up before. We’re pretty excited to win.”

Texas Circuit — Heart of Texas Rodeo, Waco, Texas

The Heart of Texas rodeo went a step beyond the trend in 2021, not just raking at the halfway point of their performances but raking after every four competitors. The extra effort was noted by the ladies as they received the JBF for Texas.

“To me, there’s nobody more respected in the industry, by the cowgirls of ProRodeo, than David Smith,” Jacob Moorehead with the Extraco Events Center said at the WPRA Star Celebration on December 2, 2021. “He’s the guy. He’s got the equipment to go with it, all the modern implements and the time.”

“He really cares.”

“We also host the WPRA World Finals,” Moorehead continued. “I guarantee, David is right there in the front row, making notes and comments and coming to us with what he thinks. Well, with what we’re going to do.”

The 2021 competition year Heart of Texas Rodeo actually happened in October 2020 and featured a qualifying round to seat 60 competitors into the rodeo performances. Less than two tenths separated the top 10 in the qualifier and Victoria Williams and Ivy Saebens split the average win.

Turquoise Circuit — Socorro County Fair & Rodeo, Socorro, New Mexico

Much like Lake City, the Socorro facility is used through the year for other equestrian events. Still, it took some time for the folks behind the scenes to perfect their methods.

“It’s really taken time to figure out what needs to be done,” said Caleb Kerr, the treasurer and rodeo director for the Socorro County Fair and Rodeo Association. “We’re proud to win the award.”

Kerr credits head groundskeeper, Mike Alderete.

“He works for the city but is also part of our rodeo.”

“For me, if we have a barrel race scheduled on Friday, I start Monday and work it every day through Friday morning,” said Alderete. “I do lots of ripping and adding water and letting it sit. You have to let the water settle in and it’s a process.”

Alderete relies on his Black Widow.

“I’ve been using it for two years,” he said. “In 2019 we were successful [in winning the JBF] but COVID denied us in 2020 [the Socorro rodeo was not held] so I was aiming for it this year.”

Along with getting the water just right, which requires not only knowing the ground but watching the weather, Alderete has another key to success.

“The key is to be sure you have brand new, pointy teeth to penetrate the hard pan created by having horses riding on it,” he said. “That’s the first thing to check on any implement because if you dump water on hard pan, you’re just going to create a slippery surface.”

“My key is just to have good communication and a good relationship with the barrel racers,” Alderete continued. “If you just listen to what they are experiencing because they spend a ton of money on their horses and those horses need the right ground so they can perform for their jockeys. You need enough cushion for them to maneuver swiftly and quickly around the barrels.”

Alderete points out that safety is his primary concern.

“We want everyone who arrives at our rodeo to leave the same way: healthy and well,” he said. “In the end, this puts food on my table, so we want them to want to come back to our facility.”

Wilderness Circuit — Gooding Pro Rodeo, Gooding, Idaho

For the crew behind the Gooding Pro Rodeo, there is no big secret to creating good ground conditions.

“Know your own ground,” Don Gill, Fair and Rodeo Manager, said.

“Know your ground, take care of your ground, and use your ground,” Danny Thomason, head groundskeeper, added.

Gooding began hosting barrel races in its rodeo arena as a means of discovering the right process.

“It started out sketchy a few years ago,” Thomason admitted. He puts on races in his home arena about 15 minutes down the road, so he knew where they needed to get to for the rodeo but in his first attempts, he was told he was creating jackpot ground not rodeo ground.

“It took a year or two,” he said. “We start a few weeks out and do a deep rip every day and then do five or six passes to get it firm enough.”

Being outdoors, Gooding is subject to weather changes, and they’ve also discovered that when the sun goes down, the moisture comes up.

“I get off the tractor and get the dirt in my hands; I need to feel it to see if we need water or not and to check for hard pan. That’s a big thing to the barrel racers but also, if it’s not firm enough, that can be just as bad.”

Thomason pays attention to the needs of all rodeo athletes, keeping it firmer in front of the bucking chutes and along the fences.

“The pick-up men thank me for making the outside track harder for their horses,” he said. “We need it to be good ground for everybody.”

The Gooding committee also brings the tractor in at the halfway point of each performance, and they keep their ground preserved by only doing equestrian events during the year.

“We don’t have any concerts or tractor pulls . . .  it’s a rodeo arena.”

Gooding picked up their second JBF win after a reserve finish in 2019. Gooding Champion Ivy Saebens broke the rodeo record with her winning time of 16.89 seconds on the WPRA standard set—times were tough across the 15 money winning holes with the final paying place running a still smoking fast 17.27.