Bayleigh Choate, 19, didn’t intend to make 2022 her first year competing in the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association.
The Fort Worth-based barrel racer was planning to get more experience under her belt before transitioning to the next rung.
But fate had other plans.
Winning first place at the North Texas State Fair and Rodeo in Denton meant that she qualified for the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo. To compete there, she’d need to buy her pro rodeo card.
What is a pro rodeo card?
Eligibility varies by competition. Some contests are open to permit holders, typically younger riders or those with less experience, trying to sharpen their skills. Contests with larger purses, or cash prizes, are typically geared toward cardholders. To learn more about the differences, click here and here.
By the end of the calendar year, Choate competed in 90 rodeos, was named the 2022 Resistol Rookie of the Year and earned $182,971.
The feat is all the more impressive, knowing that in those first six months Choate won less than $500.
She felt like she was wasting her rookie debut, but her luck started to shift after a performance in Montgomery, Alabama, where she hit a barrel. In barrel racing, a knocked barrel costs a competitor five seconds — precious time that almost always pushes them out of the running for a check.
“I was like, ‘I’m going home. My horses are tired. I’m tired…I’m done,” she recalled.
As they were pulling out of the parking lot, a Colorado number came across her phone. Her mom encouraged her to pick it up. She had been invited to compete in Austin.
They drove through the night, and Choate raced the next day.
“I don’t know what happened from Montgomery to Austin, but I backed my horse off (the trailer) in Austin and he won the round, then won the semifinal and then he threw two shoes in the finals … and placed second or third on average,” she said. “And I was like, holy cow.”
Earlier in the season, a fellow rookie’s mom told the family that just one rodeo can turn a whole season around, and she was right.
Choate won her next three rodeos, back to back to back.
“Honestly, it was a fairytale,” she said. “It doesn’t sound real, but I promise it happened just like that. I mean, I went from the legit bottom to the top in a matter of one rodeo.”
Choate’s parents, Mike and Mandy Ralston, put her on a horse as soon as they were able, holding her up in the saddle when she was just a baby.
As a toddler, Choate would ride on her pony, following her mom as she ran in front of them to the first barrel and other adults were stationed on the course.
By the age of 3, Choate decided she was ready to complete a run on her own.
“We were on our way to a race…holding her sippy cup in the car seat she said, ‘Hey Mom. I’m going by myself today.’ And I said, ‘OK, Bayleigh. Yes you will,’” Ralston recalled.
Choate didn’t want her mom to run to the first barrel this time — she wanted to go on her own.
Ralston remembers hearing her daughter say, “Mom, you can’t go. I can’t win if you’re in front of me,” but when they got to the arena and it was Choate’s turn to ride, her mom ran out to the first barrel and heard laughter.
Instead of entering the arena, Choate turned her pony around and headed to the trailer, telling adults nearby, “I’m not going if she’s going. I can’t win with her in my way.”
At the trailer, Ralston reminded her daughter she was there to help make sure she was in full control of the pony, but the 3-year-old was resolute, insisting that she couldn’t win with her mom in the way.
“I said OK, but you’ll never kick me out of the alleyway,” Ralston explained. “She won her first all-around saddle at 4 years old, and it just went up from there. She’s just been fearless and a wild child from day one.”
Going ‘all out’
Choate continued to compete, barrel racing at whatever rodeos she could.
Originally from northern Georgia, the family traveled a lot.
Without a team or athletic director to lean on, Choate and her family built their own support system.
“She has a little brother at home who really loves her a lot … She has a grandmother back home who watches her religiously on the Cowboy Channel,” her mom Mandy said. “Her support system is country-wide at this point now.”
As Choate got deeper into the sport, the family agreed the only way to continue was to go all out, and in 2021 they picked up and moved to Fort Worth.
“I felt like she needed to be amongst more of her peers that she could learn from,” her father Mike explained. “She needed to be in the action. We came out and found a house, bit the bullet and made the move.”
It paid off, he said.
While the family was still traveling a lot, they now lived only about 20 minutes from the grounds of the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, and Choate was able to sharpen her skills getting barrel runs in at the stockyards on Saturday nights.
Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo
Choate competes with four different horses, and each has its own distinct personality.
“Dash is pretty special. Boozer, he’s his own show and then you got Sidechick. If she’s bucking before she runs down the alleyway, she’s going to win it,” Mandy Ralston said.
The family credits Alan Fletcher for his help training Dash, who became an impressive rookie in his own right.
Even though Choate said she hates riding with split reins, which are a longer set of reins that aren’t closed into a single loop at the end, Boozer prefers them.
Sidechick is coming off an injury, but is at home and ready to compete in rodeos again soon.
A gelding named Preacher is also in the mix.
Switching between horses is not hard for Choate, who makes her decision about which one to run on competition days.
Sunday night at Dickies Arena, Choate chose Dash and got second place in her bracket, easily sailing into the next day’s rodeo.
Leading up to the competition on Monday evening, Choate said she was trying to treat the competition like “just another business run.” Her goal was to finish clean and advance to the next night of rodeo.
She and Dash completed the course in 16.73 seconds without knocking over any barrels, but were edged out of the competition.
They finished just 0.17 seconds behind the two fastest barrel racers of the night, Kassie Mowry and Bradi Whiteside.
Mandy said she and Mike are honored and blessed to be Bayleigh’s parents.
The plan is to keep praying and putting God first as they head to their next round of rodeos.
As they do that, an important lesson from last year still rings true.
“In every sport, there are highs and lows,” Mandy Ralston said. “You have to keep your composure, count to 10 and go on to the next one.”
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.