She's already the National High School Rodeo Association's student president and a champion competitor, but this summer Raley Mae Radomske will take on a new set of challenges—college, developing a career and reluctantly parting with the horse that helped fuel her success.
Seven years ago, a horse-crazy kid and a reject cutter joined forces. Then-11-year-old Raley Mae Radomske wanted a horse she could spend every waking moment with, and then-5-year-old Venture On Me, also known as "Harry," needed someone with a lot of free time. Together, they've ridden seemingly a million miles on the Radomske family's Venture Farms and Caribou Creek Ranch in Ellensburg, Washington.
Two months from now, the pair will make what could be their last ride together, at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Farmington, New Mexico. Raley Mae will try to become just the second cowgirl to win three NHSFR girls' cutting titles.
But when the lights go down in the cutting pen, a new chapter of Raley Mae's life begins, a chapter that likely won't include Harry. Raley Mae will attend New Mexico State University, where she plans to major in athletic training and compete on the college rodeo team. There won't be much time left for entering Harry in the area's few-and-far-between cuttings.
"It's a hard decision for me," Raley Mae admits. "He's only 12 years old. I don't want him to waste away, waiting around on me for the next four years. He needs to be with someone who can use him.
"I can't be selfish about it. I have to do what's right for my horse."
Harry carried Raley Mae to the 2004 world championship in the National Cutting Horse Association's $10,000 amateur division, so there's no doubt someone will be interested in stepping aboard Harry. Seven years ago, the family couldn't have given the horse away. Now, tears will be shed when someone hands over a check.
But that day is at least two months away. The Washington State High School Finals Rodeo, the NHSFR, and possibly a few cuttings are still on the horizon. There are still goals to accomplish for the driven 18-year-old.
"My biggest goal coming into the season is to match what Cody Hedlund did in 2008 [in the boys' division] and win a third cutting title," Raley Mae says. "Sometimes the cards aren't in your favor. I just want to do the best I can and leave knowing I did all I could to win."
Raley Mae took a major step in cementing her cowgirl status at the 2008 NHSFR. She qualified to compete in pole bending, goat tying and cutting. She turned in her first-ever 19-second pole run in the second round and went on to win the NHSFR all-around cowgirl championship. That pole run came just 20 minutes before her final-round run in cutting.
"I was so excited about it, and I got over to the cutting pen where my mom was riding Harry and my dad was watching the cows," Raley Mae recalls. "I remember my dad telling me over and over that I had to calm down so I could cut."
Raley Mae scored a 221 to win the final round and claim her second cutting championship by four points over California rider Hollie Kucera.
"I thought about not even making my second pole run," she admits. "I'd hit a pole in the first round, so there wasn't anything riding on that second-round run. But I decided that God doesn't give me more than I could handle, so if I drew up in the same performance and had to make those runs 20 minutes apart, there was a reason for it."
That "meaningless" pole run, in which Raley Mae finished third in the round and earned 180 points, made the difference in the all-around race, in which she finished just 10 points ahead of competitors from Utah and Idaho.
Two hours after her cutting run, the 2007–08 NHSRA student vice president was elected the association's president for 2008–09. And later that night, she was handed the all-around cowgirl buckle and the keys to a new horse trailer.
"I guess I had a pretty good day," Raley Mae says.
The daughter of cutters Harland and Jody Radomske, Raley Mae has been riding cutting horses since she was 7 years old. She watched an older stepbrother compete in high-school rodeo and always knew that she would, as well. The family kept an eye out for potential rodeo horses, but Raley Mae put minimal time into preparing for the sport until her eighth-grade year.
"A friend of my brother's taught me to rope at a local pen that had practices twice a week," she says. "My mom had tied goats in high school and college, so she helped me with that. But my only real rodeo experience before high school was the yearly Ellensburg Junior Rodeo."
A family horse that failed to make it in the cutting pen was supposed to be Raley Mae's barrel and pole horse. But the horse suffered a shattered leg, likely from being kicked while out in a pasture, which led to his being put down.
Along came Smart Power, a barrel and pole horse owned by Karen Hansen, who knew the family through the cutting-horse world.
"I started running him a little in my eighth-grade year, but I absolutely hated the horse," Raley Mae says. "He wasn't my horse. At least that's the way I looked at it at the time. I wanted the horse I'd lost, not this horse.
" 'Power' and I went through some hard times. We fought big-time, and I seriously considered selling him and quitting rodeo. But my parents aren't ones to let me quit something just because it's hard. Now, I'm glad I stuck with it. He's a great horse and we've had a lot of success together.
"Looking back, I wouldn't trade those difficult, sad, frustrated moments for anything. Without them, I wouldn't feel like I had accomplished much in the last few years."
Looking to the future, Raley Mae surprised many of her friends and family by announcing she would pursue a degree in athletic training in college. Most figured the horse-crazy cowgirl would look into a career that involved horses.
"This could change 35 times in the next four years, but my mindset right now is that I didn't want to make my hobby into something I'm obligated to do," she says. "I enjoy being around horses, and I'd like to keep it that way."
Raley Mae will leave the Pacific Northwest behind when she heads to Las Cruces, New Mexico, for college in August. She says she'll enjoy the warm weather and doesn't know if she'll ever be able to leave the Southwest. She'll miss her family and high-school friends but believes there are great things awaiting her in life's next chapter.
Kyle Partain is a Western Horseman associate editor. Send comments on this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.