Riding toward the Vegas lights
The business of riding horses is one of muscle memory. That's what North Marion High School freshman Payton Johnson says – and she ought to know.
Johnson took her riding skills to Las Vegas in November where she mounted her trusty steed, Doc I Am Guy, to compete in the pole bending category of the 2019 Junior World Finals rodeo competition.
She is one of just 15 qualifiers nationally in that category, for which she qualified during an earlier competition held in Red Bluff, Calif.
Pole bending is just one of the events that Payton competes in as a statewide standout with the Oregon High School Rodeo Association. Last fall she finished 5th overall in girls competitions, and she was the No. 1 ranked "Rookie" competitor. Three of the top four overall winners are seniors; the other is a junior.
"Oregon is pretty tough in rodeo, in my opinion, for both boys and girls," said Northwest Youth Rodeo Association President Trevor Scott, of Richfield, Wash. "For her (Payton) to go in there and place in all the events as a freshman says a lot. She definitely showed that she belongs there.
"It's pretty typical for kid to go in as a freshman and get beat up for a couple of years, going against (experienced upper-class) girls who know the ropes," Trevor said. "That hasn't been the case with her."
Payton is described as an all around cowgirl, adding barrel racing, team roping, breakaway roping and goat tying to her slate.
It comes naturally to her, but there is a tremendous amount of work involved as well.
"I've been riding since I was about three months, and riding on my own since I was five," said Payton, who turns 15 in January.
Her parents, Grady and Tami Johnson of the Broadacres area, have both ridden competitively, and Payton can't remember not being near horses, having been saddled up with her mom since infancy. Making it work competitively and with Doc I Am Guy – who she calls "Hooch" at home – is a practiced pursuit that draws from her rooted experience.
"It's a lot of muscle memory," Payton said. "A lot of people think (riding horseback) you just kind of sit there…For a rodeo you are always using your feet and using your hands, but you are also trying to be as quiet as you can with your hands – if that makes sense.
"It's a lot of muscle memory, mainly."
Payton said the work she puts into it is worthwhile because of what she gets out of it, including the camaraderie with other rodeo competitors.
"With this (rodeo competition) I love the family; I love the people who are in the sport, they are awesome," she said. "But half of my friends are a good 8 hours away, which is tough."
Among the other top overall girls in Oregon High School Rodeo Association are Kennedy Buckner of Powell Butte, Michelle Williams of North Powder, Gwyneth Cheyne from the Klamath Basin, Brooklin Quisenberry of Roseburg and Taelor Hammack of Crane.
Another draw to the sport is the execution.
"You have to do everything perfectly," Payton said. "You have to do everything fast, and you don't have time to think…that's what I like about it – and I like to travel."
She has made a name for herself in those travels.
"She is competitive little (whip)," Trevor said. "She rides her horse really good and is very competitive and works at it pretty hard.
"Losing is not an option for that girl."
Trevor said Grady and Tami's role has been crucial to that end.
"It's a huge asset to her that she has parents that (support) her," he said. "One of them is taking her somewhere all the time. There's a lot of practice time that goes into it. From practicing as much as she can at home this time of the year, to going to indoor arenas to practice and traveling to events."
That doesn't escape Payton.
"Oh definitely! I wouln't be where I'm at without my parents," she said. "They always give me the opportunty to go and practice. They are only going to put in as much effort as I do; haul me around and stuff. If they saw I wasn't putting in the work, they wouldn't be going these places.
"They also help me take care of my animals when I'm not home or have a lot of homework."
Tami Johnson said they are delighted that Payton has shown such a fervor for the sport her parents both love, and they stress that she takes the ups and downs in stride.
"We have always believed in giving her the tools to make her successful, but it was up to her if she used them," Tami said. "Her Dad helps her with roping and I with her poles and barrels.
"We have always stressed to her that to be a good winner you must be a great loser," she added. "She has five events and can't be successful in every single one, but she's learned to move on to the next event and give it her all.
"People don't remember if you win or lose. It's how you react outside the arena that people remember. It's about integrity."
That's a lesson Payton has apparently learned.
"I think with kids, getting them to have the drive to go and put the work into it is a challenge," Trevor said. "Some have the natural work at it ethic. Some just want the easy road.
"That is a kid that wants to put the work into it. She's a little more hungry for sure."
Payton will take that appetite to Las Vegas and see how she stacks up.
"Yeah…I'm a little bit nervous, but I try to put that off to the side," Payton said. "I try to get myself mentally prepared for the ride. I know if I do my job, my horse will do the rest."
Tami marvels at her daughter's perspective.
"I swear she has ice in her veins," Tami said
It's just a matter of enjoying the ride – that and muscle memory.
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