What’s Happening in Harding County: Three Rural Community Women Head to Wrangler NFR in Las Vegas

Three women from Harding County, South Dakota will compete in the 2021 Wrangler National Finals rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada in December: Jessica Routier, Joey Williams and Sawyer Gilbert.

Jessica Routier is the veteran of the trio, this year being her fourth WNFR barrel race qualification. She gives a lot of credit to her horse ‘Missy’, owned by Gary Westergren: “Missy is the one and only that I’ve made money on in four years. She did it all, ”she says.

The former reserve world champion has unique challenges on the rodeo route, as few professional rodeo athletes compete while mothering five children. Yet, these are his biggest fans. Her oldest was in middle school when she first qualified for the final, and her secondborn was just a fifth grader. “They knew what WNFR was and they wanted us to do it as badly as anyone else,” she says. She attends as many youth football and volleyball matches and rodeos as possible. “I wouldn’t miss them for the world,” she said.



Harding County is like a culture in its own right. The school mascot is a rancher, and few regions are referred to by their county name. Yet for anyone who knows Harding County, those two words mean hard work, community, and fierce rodeo competitors.

Jessica Routier and Missy are the crowd favorites, making their fourth trip to the NFR this year. Routier appreciates the surrounding Buffalo community, saying “it takes a village” to advance to the final with five kids. Kevin springer
Courtesy photo

Routier says, “I really don’t think there is another place I would want to raise my children. It was a huge factor in helping me get there. It takes a village to get to WNFR, especially when you have kids in school and kids who aren’t. It’s not just the family that helps in Harding County, it’s the whole community. Everyone is like a big family.



Joey Williams had no plans to advance to the final this year, but when she won the tug-of-war breakaway at the Missoula Stampede and Gem State Stampede in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, placing her in the 16th place, her husband Taylor pushed her to go for this. “Without him, I would have stayed at home,” she laughs. She finished 14th in the standings, among the first 15 girls to qualify.

Williams will be competing in Las Vegas exactly one year after watching him on television at nine months pregnant. “To think that I would be there myself a year later amazes me. In a million years, I never imagined this would happen, ”she says. Williams, too, enjoys the support of her community and family as a professional rodeo competitor and mother of three. “I am so grateful to everyone: my stepmom, Sandy; my mother; Taylor. It definitely took a village last month, ”she says.

Joey Williams’ thrilling last-minute qualifying for the Breakaway Roping National Final is in part due to her husband’s encouragement. Growing up on her family ranch helped her become the competitor she is Jackie Jensen
Courtesy photo

Growing up on a remote Harding County ranch helped shape Williams, whose maiden name is Painter. She learned to rope and ride from her father, Joe, and her sister, Jessica. Even though Joe built an indoor barn to practice their events, the ranch still had to be operated. Working in inclement weather conditions, days in the saddle, the mental challenges of breeding and “growing tough” have helped put the rodeo into perspective. “When you take care of everything on a large cattle ranch in South Dakota, then the practice pen looks easy,” she said.

Williams also gives credit to the Buffalo Youth Rodeo Series, which takes place on weeknights during the summer for local rodeo kids. “This is where a lot of us got this competitive mindset. They were tough. You had to be in your game if you wanted to win anything there, ”she says. She currently resides near Broadus, MT with her husband and family.

At just 19 years old, Sawyer Gilbert was crowned with two of ProRodeo’s most prestigious titles: the Breakaway Championships at the Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Pendleton Roundup. “Not many people get to do that. It was quite special to win them both in the same year,” she said. Like Williams, this will be her first WNFR, and the first lasso breakaway will be billed as a WNFR event. .

Sawyer Gilbert (center) has accomplished a lot in his 19-year-old age, but it all dates back to the hours he spent in the rope pen of childhood. She wanted to do the NFR before it was feasible, so when the opportunity presented itself, she was ready. Jackie Jensen
Courtesy photo

Gilbert and her father, Lloyd, have spent countless hours in the rope chutes of their barn since she was a young girl, though they could never foresee the future of roping escapes. “It was kind of our goal even before it was a goal. When I was in college, the tug-of-war was far from what it is now. But we were still there practicing, because that was the goal we were going to reach at the [WNFR] before it’s even feasible. When that happened, we were just ready for it, ”she said.

“One of the luckiest things I have been able to do is grow up on a ranch. It shaped me into who I am now: being able to ride horses, rope, understand cows and have a good business sense, ”she says. His cow sense came in particularly handy during the Pendleton Roundup where reading cattle was imperative.

After spending about a year in Texas and finishing her season in Salinas, Calif., Gilbert only wanted one thing: “I just wanted to come home,” she said. “The only thing I love about Texas is that you have to do rope every day. […] in competition, but every other aspect is better in Buffalo.

As Gilbert, Sawyer is well acquainted with Harding County, nicknamed the ‘Bull Dog Capital of the World’ after the many great steer wrestlers who hail there including: Birch Negaard, Ivan Teigen, Chason Floyd, Frank Thompson and Pine, Matt, Denver and Lloyd Gilbert. The area has arguably produced as many talented riders as the trend in South Dakota. Now, however, the groundwork can be laid for another event to emerge from Buffalo. With two escaped rope access technicians in Vegas representing their Harding County roots, this is possibly the most per capita number of any hometown.

Other South Dakota NFR qualifiers are Jess Tierney, Steer Roping (the Steer Roping National Finals are held separately) and another fan favorite: Barrel Racing veteran Lisa Lockhart from Oelrichs, South Dakota. . Like Williams, her last efforts late in the season took her to the 14th hole, qualifying her for the 15th consecutive time.

The National Finals rodeo is scheduled from December 2, 2021 to December 2. November 11, 2021 at the Thomas and Mack. The Breakaway Roping National Finals will be held at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas from December 6-7.

About Keneth T. Graves

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