Penny Conway has rodeo in her blood.
“My dad competed in the first rodeo in 1959 in Dallas. The cowboy life is in my blood,” said Conway.
Since turning 8, she’s competed in rodeos.
By 12, she joined the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association and during her four years at college at Arizona State University and Central Arizona College she rode for the National Collegiate Rodeo Team.
After earning a degree in elementary education, Conway spent five years as a teacher in the Payson school system and worked with at-risk school children, which affects what she does today.
She returned to rodeo after winning the Professional Women’s Rodeo Association World Champion Team Roper award in 2001. In 2003, however, she found herself drawn to barrel racing.
“Running barrels is tougher than roping,” said Conway.
For one thing, training a horse to run barrels takes time and patience.
“When you train a roping horse, you take them out 10 to 15 times in a competition. With barrel racing, you only get one chance,” said Conway.
Barrel racing takes a lot out of the horse. Between the intense focus of the running and the repetitive nature of the barrel course, it’s best to run the course full-out only twice a day. Otherwise, “they would get so hot, they would burn out,” said Conway.
The distracting environment of many rodeos poses another challenge for barrel horses.
Conway just got back from a Colorado rodeo that had a carnival atmosphere.
“My horse looks at the stands like she’s waiting for something to jump out at her. Her head kept turning away from the barrels,” said Conway.
If the horse doesn’t listen to the rider, he’ll miss his cue to turn at the right time, forcing the rider and horse to swing wide, or cut so short they tip over the barrel. The best way to train a barrel horse is to compete. “It’s just a matter of taking them on the road,” said Conway.
A really good barrel horse can cost upwards of $200,000 and lasts as little as three years on the professional circuit. A rider can tell a horse is off its game when it begins to slack off and not run as hard as it used to, said Conway.
Conway hopes to ride in rodeos for a long time. “I told my husband I’ll be roping until I’m 80,” said Conway.
That passion keeps Conway going, despite the logistical challenges with trekking across the country with a horse trailer, and technical difficulties such as a generator going out.
“Just like motocross — it’s got to be passion that keeps you going,” said Conway.
Conway has combined her interest in rodeos with her educational experience to use “the ways of the West to find the way to the heart.”
Her program, REACh (Rodeo Education and Children), teaches character through the concept of “cowboy up” — which includes rugged individualism, freedom, honesty and pride.
This weekend, Conway will compete along with 49 other women in the barrel races at the rodeo.
On Sunday at 9 a.m., she’ll help Cowboy Pastor Coy Huffman with the Cowboy Church service.