Rodeo is much more than a competitive sport to 43-year-old barrel racer Brenda Mays - it's a way of life.
Ever since she was born, Mays has been engulfed in the rodeo lifestyle.
"Well I was kind of born into it, as they say," Mays said in a phone interview. "My great-grandma did it, my grandma did it and my mom went to the national finals in 1975. I've always wanted to do it. It's always been a dream of mine."
Even Mays' husband, Andy Easterly, is involved in rodeo. He's a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association steer wrestler.
Mays has been living out her dream since 1995 when she was first awarded her professional rodeo card, though she said she's been "going really hard" professionally since 2006.
With her No. 1 horse, Jethro, by her side and her backup horse, Dora, Mays has made a name for herself in the rodeo world circuit, recording a number of first-place times and top-10 season finishes.
Last year Mays, who calls Terrebonne, Ore., home, finished seventh in the world rankings with earnings of $120,268.52. In 2010, Mays finished sixth in the world. Dating back to 2006, Mays has placed in the top 10 every year but 2009 when she finished her season ranked 12th.
She's seventh in the Women's Professional Rodeo Association this year and is looking to improve her standing during the Eighth Annual PRCA Lynden Rodeo Friday-Saturday, Aug. 24-25, at the Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden.
"Jethro has been feeling really good, and my backup horse has been picking up the slack," Mays said. "(The season) has been pretty good. It's been great."
Like many events in rodeo, success in barrel racing is largely a result of the animal a cowboy or cowgirl is working with. Mays has a gem of a horse in Jethro.
A 13-year-old black gelding, Jethro has been raised by Mays since he was 2.
"We saw him on the Internet when he was 2 years old, so he was an unbroken horse," Mays said. "We knew we needed a young prospect for a horse. We ended up getting him, and the rest is history."
It didn't take long for Mays to realize Jethro's potential.
"The fall when he was 3 years old, we took him to an exhibition," Mays said. "His first time, he showed really well. For only a 3-year-old, he clocked really well. We knew by his ability he had all the talent in the world. If he can take the hauling from being on the road, we knew we'd have a shot (to be great)."
Barrel racing is as a women's rodeo event, although men compete at an amateur level. The objective is to successfully maneuver one's horse around three barrels in a triangle-shaped pattern in the fastest time possible. The event tests the horse's athletic ability, as well as the horsemanship skills of the rider.
Mays has competed with Jethro enough to know the ins and outs of her horse.
"He is -- I wouldn't say cocky -- but he is a confident horse," Mays said of Jethro. "I've trained him from the get-go. Since he was young, we've built a trust. He knows that, and I know every part of him."
Mays has recently been giving Jethro time off. She said she's been traveling with WPRA standout Lindsay Sears, who shares advice with Mays. Through conversations with Sears, Mays decided it may be a good idea to run her 9-year-old mare, Dora.
The move has given Dora extra experience and has allowed Jethro additional rest.
"He still knows he's the No. 1 guy," said Mays jokingly about jealous feelings Jethro may have toward Dora. "It's OK to let him go have a rest."
On her road to become a professional, Mays attended Walla Walla Community College on a rodeo scholarship. She said her career really took off when she acquired Jethro. It was then she "got really serious about having a shot in the (NPR) National Professional Rodeo."
Though Mays loves what she does, she said the life of a cowgirl can be exhausting. Sometimes she is able to bring her son with her, but she said it's hard when she's out on the road without her family.
"You have to love your job," Mays said. "I'll tell you what: It's hard. Today my son was at football practice, and I have to leave tomorrow. When (my family) can come with me, it's a great lifestyle. I like it, but I definitely miss out on some stuff."
Still, she's been able to reach high points in her career, which Mays considers her six year string of qualifying for the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
"Not until I go back to the hotel and watch myself compete," said Mays, when asked if she gets nervous competing on such a large stage. "I'm with these girls all year long, so it's just like another rodeo, but once I got back to my room, its like, 'wholly cow, that's really me on TV.'"
Mays said her goal coming into a rodeo is always to win, and the PRCA Lynden Rodeo is no different.
She has competed at Lynden more times than she can recall, and Mays said she's recorded a top time at least once.
"Lynden has been good to me," she said. "I like coming up there. The committee treats you as well as anyone can treat you. I think everyone should come out. We'd love the support."
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
EIGHTH ANNUAL PRCA LYNDEN RODEO
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Aug. 24-25
Where: Northwest Washington Fairgrounds in Lynden
Cost: $15 per person
More information: Visit nwwafair.com/rodeo
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.