Rodeo City Riders Drill Team: Making the team
TINA L. SCOTT, EDITOR
[WITH LILY SCHULTZ AND AVA STEINKE]
Nineteen-year-old Ashley Johnson is a 2021 graduate of Weyauwega-Fremont High School, the 2022 Manawa Rodeo Queen, and a member of the Rodeo City Riders Drill Team out of Manawa, Wis. The Rodeo City Riders performed at each of the professional rodeo performances at the Wisconsin River Pro Rodeo in Merrill on June 10, 11, and 12, and also travel to other Wisconsin and Michigan rodeos to perform, ride in parades, and make special appearances at other Manawa area events throughout the year.
Becoming a member of the drill team
Ashley has literally been riding since before she was born. Her mom verified that fact saying, “I rode with her, pregnant.”
“I started riding right away when I was born basically, before I could walk,” Ashley said, “so I’ve been riding all my life.”
As a member of the Rodeo City Riders Drill Team, Ashley and her horse perform synchronized and patterned riding with large American flags in a patriotic display of speed and beauty on horseback set to clips of country music.
But Ashley didn’t start out riding a pony like many young girls. “We started on mules actually,” she said. Small donkeys immediately came to mind, but Ashley quickly clarified. “I feel like the stereotype of mules is just like a donkey that walks around, but we had the good ones. We had mammoth jack mules, so those are huge. They’re almost like draft horses,” she said. “So I started out just trail riding the mules, basically, and I did a couple of state mule shows … horsemanship and showmanship.”
Her family did a lot of trail riding on the mules and also went hunting on the mules. Her dad has gone raccoon hunting, the family went elk hunting in Colorado, and they’ve gone pig hunting, all riding the family’s mules, she said.
The difference between riding horses and mules? “Mules are very hard to train,” Ashley said. “They’re very smart, but they’re also very stubborn and they’re very muscular.”
In her Sophomore year of high school, at age 15 or 16, Ashley said she made the switch to riding horses. “After the mule show, then I got a horse … and then I did the fair for a couple years, and then I started doing like fun shows and the speed stuff; I was really interested in the speed stuff.”
She started riding a bit competitively. “I did a couple fun shows and a couple jackpots,” she said, competing on her previous horse, Razor.
A rodeo changed her life
“And then at the rodeo one day, this sweet, sweet soul of a man – we were talking, and I was like, ‘It would be my dream to be on that team,’” Ashley said, recalling how she was watching the drill team at her local rodeo. “I had a horse but I was like, I could never do that, you know, … I could never be up there, and then about halfway through the rodeo, he brings me a drill member, and he said, ‘This is how you join.’”
“So I owe everything to that man,” she said. “His name is Joe. That’s all I know. From the Manawa Lions Club. He’s actually tied to the Manawa Rodeo, which is really cool, so it means a lot to me to represent the Manawa Rodeo, because it changed my entire life.”
Ashley said she started out on the Pink Ribbon Rebels Team, a youth drill riding team that started out in Manawa with riders focusing on cancer awareness as well as riding, before landing a spot on the Rodeo City Riders.
“This is my first year on the Rodeo City Riders Team, but I was on the Pink Ribbon Rebels Team, which is just like a younger team, for two years.”
“Honestly, I went to them [the Rodeo City Riders Team] after the Manawa Rodeo, and I was just like, ‘Hey, I’m interested in the team.’” She said she got a phone number, went to one of their practices and talked, and then went through a little tryout so they could see what her riding skills were like, what she was capable of, what her horse could do, and just who she was as a rider.
Once she landed a spot on the team, Ashley sold Razor [“he hated rodeo”] and got her current horse in February, a five-year-old palomino quarter horse named Squash. “She’s kinda young. She’s still a baby,” Ashley said. Then she started training with the Rodeo City Riders.
“We started walking when the snow was still going … Just like walking indoors, walking the drill routines, so we memorized it,” Ashley said. And to clarify, “WE were walking. No horse.”
Ashley said the first step is for the riders to memorize the routine, and then they can teach it to their horses.
“It takes a while to practice the drill routine,” she said. “A lot of the girls are from past years, so the drill routine stays the same for most of it. We change a couple little things, but most of it stays the same, so it’s pretty easy for them to catch on. It’s just the new girls like me.”
When asked about training and working with horses, “I think slow work is really important,” she said. Work slow, lots of repetition, a little speed, and then more slow work. “Start slow and work your way in.”
Manawa Rodeo Queen
Ashley is also the 2022 Manawa Rodeo Queen, a topic of great interest to young girls who love to ride. In response to questions, she explained the process. “It’s a pageant,” Ashley said. “We did a horsemanship test, so kind of like a fair, we did a pattern basically, and then you run a couple flag laps and stuff like that, and then we took a knowledge test of rodeo and horses. Then we did an interview kind of thing, and then we did a speech.”
Ashley was crowned Queen last year at the end of July.
In response to more questions, she explained the Manawa Rodeo Queen bling. “The buckle you get to keep, the chaps you have made and keep, the sash and the crown you give back to the next girl,” she said. “This sash is different than most sashes because it’s leather… it has all the initials of the people who have been Queen previously.” Some sashes, like the satin ones, Queens can keep, she added. “If it says the year, those you can keep.”
A bright future
While she’s living one of her dreams related to horses and rural life, Ashley’s life and dreams are really just beginning. “I’m starting to learn to rope now with my sister, so we will eventually hopefully be team roping,” she said.
And, “I’m going to school to be an agriculture teacher.” Ashley said. She currently attends Fox Valley Tech in Appleton and will transfer to UW-River Falls to complete her education.