High school students around the country have been practicing their rodeo skills at home since the shutdown of all spring sports due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This month, one lucky Stanardsville teen will get the chance to showcase her skills at the National High School Rodeo Association (NHSRA) Finals in Oklahoma.
Rianna Brill, who completes much of her homeschool curriculum on the road and schedules her studies around her rodeo practice and caring for her horse, Reggie, has been competing in three rodeo events for the past three years: barrel racing, pole bending and goat tying.
“We have an arena where I practice regularly with the horse,” Rianna said. “It’s not something that I can just slack off with … if I don’t work with her she’s not going to want to listen and do it properly.”
In barrel racing, three barrels are set up in a triangle and the rider must circle each in a cloverleaf pattern in the fastest possible time. Pole bending is an agility event where rider and horse weave a serpentine path around six poles arranged in a line. In goat tying—the girls’ equivalent of the calf-roping event—the rider must race toward a goat (tied to a tether) and dismount at high speed, capturing and flipping the goat to tie three of its legs together. Each event has very specific rules and regulations in place to protect the animals and is scored based on speed, with penalties for knocking over a pole or for the goat getting loose too soon.
The 17-year-old first became interested in rodeo after seeing the event on television and started training with Reggie at the end of her eighth-grade school year. A first generation rodeo competitor, she learned everything from her trainer, Tiffiney Sims, who has pushed Rianna to keep trying and to get back up after every fall.
“It takes nerve to jump off a horse running 20 miles an hour,” said Kevin Brill, Rianna’s father and member of the Virginia High School Rodeo board. “From kids bull-riding all the way down to the goat tying, there’s always injuries. You have to worry and you always worry about it, but you just hope that it’s not so bad.”
Being a rodeo contestant hasn’t always been easy for the younger Brill. Last August, after returning from her first national competition, Rianna suffered a concussion after getting kicked in the head during practice with her horse.
“When we got back from national finals last summer we had very little downtime and getting ready to start the new season, she was down here practicing one morning when she had her accident,” Kevin said. “The horse kicked her in the head and gave her a concussion and it was like three or four days before the rodeo.”
Kevin, who acknowledges that rodeo is a dangerous sport, says he is proud of his daughter for overcoming the challenges and continuing to push herself to improve.
“She was lucky because the horse kicked her right on the temple and it could have fractured her cheekbone or fractured her eye socket,” he said. “The very next weekend was another (competition) in Pennsylvania, and then we went to Gordonsville so if she would have missed two, she would have been out; she wouldn’t have had a callback, and it’s very competitive. She just had to suck it up and go, and that’s just a part of rodeo.”
With Virginia Cowboy Association events every weekend and several annual state competitions, rodeo is a year-round sport, typically taking only the months of December and January off due to weather.
“Most states have stalls that you can rent for the horses because half of them are in bad weather whenever it happens,” Rianna said. “Like West Virginia, that one’s in March so it’s either snowing there or it’s raining. The first year in Pennsylvania, we had a downpour and the entire arena was a disgusting mess; the goat tie-ers would dismount and just fly; their feet would not stick.”
This year, with only two competitions under her belt, Rianna was disappointed by the cancellations of the remainder of the season.
“We didn’t have a state finals, we didn’t have the rest of the rodeos that we had scheduled, it was really just whoever had really kicked in from last summer to February,” she said. “I had a very good year up to February; I’m second in goats and that makes me the reserve state champion. There’s no telling what could have happened if we’d gotten the rest of the season; we didn’t have that opportunity.”
Because of the lack of a state final, the national board decided to allow contestants who had good scores for the beginning of the season a free pass to nationals this year. After seeing the junior high nationals canceled earlier this spring, Kevin is grateful to the board for ensuring the high school competition still happens this year.
“We were supposed to be going to Lincoln, Nebraska, and they had gone through thousands of new COVID precaution release forms, and then just like that the city of Lincoln informed the national association that sorry, you can’t come,” Kevin said. “I give them credit because they didn’t take no for an answer; they were like, we’re not going to cancel this, we’re just postponing it. The class of 2020 really got hammered because they lost so much, and (the board) really wanted to be able to do something for the kids.”
Unlike some other high school sports, rodeo involves a lot of responsibility as the athlete is responsible for not only themselves, but also the care and welfare of the horse.
“You don’t want your horse to get hurt because you can bounce back and recover, but if a horse breaks their leg and it can’t be fixed properly, you’ve either got to put them down or they’re going to be limping and can’t do anything for the rest of their life, and that’s not fair to them,” Rianna said. “So our main priority is that our animals are our partners. We do everything we can—the horse comes first.”
When arriving at a competition, Rianna will first tend to the needs of the horse, making sure Reggie has shavings in her stall, that she has food and water and her blanket.
“(Reggie) is the most important thing. Without her, I wouldn’t be doing anything,” Rianna said. “They’re the most important part of the rodeo and everyone takes extreme caution with the animals because while they may trust us, horses can get scared by anything like a paper bag or a loud noise, and you want to be able to trust yourself to calm your horse down and make them understand that you’re not going to put them anywhere that will hurt them.”
“Her horse is her partner, and they’ve got to work together,” Kevin agreed. “In the timed events, the barrels and the poles, it’s just the two of them.”
When she is not practicing, caring for her horse or working on her schoolwork, Rianna enjoys connecting with friends she has made through participating in the sport around the country.
“There’s a lot of competitiveness but it’s more like a friendly rivalry; there’s no spite,” Rianna said. “Last year we hauled a friend’s horse and her down to Georgia because her mom couldn’t get off work, so we took her horse and all the feed that we needed and we hauled her down to Georgia even though she was competing against me because friendship comes first. We’re just in it for the fun and to push each other to be better.”
“Last year was a perfect example,” Kevin said. “One of her really good friends qualified in goat tying, but it was the only event in which she qualified, and I told her dad if you want she can use (Rianna’s) horse for the goat tying … so here’s someone that was competing against Rianna and we let her use the horse so she could compete against her.”
The national competition will now take place at Lazy Arena in Oklahoma.
“It’s one of the first big arenas that was built just for the sole purpose of this sport,” Kevin said. “So it’s very well known, and it’s kind of like the ‘Yankee Stadium’ of rodeo. I have no idea how they pulled the strings to get us to go there. With 1,600 kids competing, 2,000 horses, 1,200 trailers … it’s the world’s largest rodeo. It’s a monumental feat for them being able to put it together and I tip my hat to them for being able to put it together and do it.”
As they prepare to travel to the competition, both Brills say they have been receiving a constant stream of emails updating participants on the new COVID precautions being put in place to protect the safety of all in attendance.
“I haven’t seen my friends since February, and it’s going to be awesome to go to nationals with them and actually rodeo again like we did before this entire mess happened,” Rianna said. “We love this sport, and we’re doing it because we want to make the people proud that have worked hard to let us do this. And I’m just thankful that they put this on because I can go places that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise.”
The competition will take place July 17-23 and will be streamed live through www.ridepass.com.