“Big Dreams Come True, I am Proof of it.” Leslie Smalygo Gets First NFR Round Win at 47

Skiatook, Oklahoma, cowgirl Leslie Smalygo earned her first NFR go-round victory during Round 8 of the 2022 NFR aboard her red gelding, Gus.
Leslie Smalygo and Gus barrel racing at the NFR.
Leslie Smalygo won Round 8 of the National Finals Rodeo. Image by Jamie Arviso.

Skiatook, Oklahoma’s Leslie Smalygo finally got tapped off in the eighth round of competition to turn in the fastest time of the National Finals Rodeo over eight nights.

NFR first-timer Smalygo has struggled with downed barrels and inconsistency, and capitalized on being No. 1 on the dirt during Round 8. She and JustAHeartBeatToFame, “Gus,” kicked off the round with the fastest time of the NFR so far—a 13.41 that held off the sharks and earned her the $28,913 win, but the most surprising part for Smalygo wasn’t even the victory lap.

“I just wanted to be in the 13-second range,” Smalygo said of her pre-NFR goals. “We tipped and ran a 13.4 (in Round 5), but I thought that was one and done. And that’s when he fired—he just had other plans. He’s been getting stronger every day.”

Who is Leslie Smalygo?

Smalygo hails from a background outside of the rodeo sphere and has a style of riding that is a stark contrast to the other 14 cowgirls in the pack. She noted that a start in Western Pleasure taught her a different riding style than most barrel racers conform to.

“I don’t really know how to bend my back,” Smalygo said. “I don’t know how to really get forward because I’ve done equitation and you have to be straight up and down. I think I’m sitting forward and I think I’m pushing but it still looks like I’m still in an equitation pattern when I run.”

Smalygo rides Gus in a hackamare that sticks out amongst the pack. Gus is one of only two horses that have ran at the NFR this year—the other being Bayleigh Choate’s “Dash,”—who went bitless.

Smalygo’s hackamore helps her stay out of Gus’s way during runs. Image by Jamie Arviso.

“I stay out of his way with it,” Smalygo said. “He’s kind of bossy. He likes to do his own thing and I have more lift in a hackamore. In a bit, I’ll hit every single time.”

Gus proved that some of the best runs feel the most out-of-control.

“It felt messy,” Smalygo said of the pattern. “I didn’t think we were gonna clock. I was like ‘Oh my gosh, I’m the first one out, and I didn’t take advantage of it and I didn’t ride right. It felt like a Kamikazi ride.”

She survived the mission, and her 22-year-old daughter was the first to alert her in the alley, shouting for joy as they announced Smalygo’s time, but it took longer to hit Smalygo what she’d just done.

‘It didn’t sink in until I got off and they told me, and then I instantly started shaking,” Smalygo said.

Regardless of how it looks or what other’s opinions on it may be, Smalygo’s style is working and it’s clocking. At 47 years old, Smalygo has earned her place while staying true to herself, and she’s got some advice for the next generation coming up.

“Big dreams do come true. I am proof of it. I never thought I was good enough. I never thought that I would have the horsepower or be able to keep up with these girls, and with hard work, dedication and just a vision, it does come.”

Official Round 8 NFR Barrel Racing Payout

1$28,913.70Leslie Smalygo13.41
2$22,851.95Emily Beisel13.43
3$17,254.95Lisa Lockhart13.49
4$12,125.10Hailey Kinsel13.54
5$7,461.60Kassie Mowry13.56
6/7$2,331.75Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi13.58
6/7$2,331.75Jessica Routier13.58