By Jolee Jordan
In 1983 the idea of a WPRA barrel racer winning $1 million was merely a dream. Most of the biggest rodeos of the day did not give equal prize money to the ladies nor did the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo (WNFR). In fact, the 1982 WPRA World Champion, Jan Hansen, won just under $41,000 en route to her title.
It was a full year before a teenaged blonde would join the ranks of the professionals, a New Mexico cowgirl named Charmayne James would not only rack up 10 straight WPRA World Championships (later adding an eleventh), but who would become the WPRA’s first ever million dollar cowgirl.
Another cowgirl joined the WPRA in 1983, making a big splash in her opening season and just narrowly missing out on a trip to the WNFR in Oklahoma City. Though she soon sold the horse and semi-retired from the sport, Mary Walker was destined to become one of the WPRA’s small handful of millionaire cowgirls.
It was a fairy tale story spread out over three decades.
Her first year was a busy one for Walker. She hit the pro trail after WPRA legend Wanda Bush signed off on her card. In the summer, she married her husband, PRCA World Champion Steer Wrestler Byron. And, thanks to the help of a horse named Jet Barb, who was her high school rodeo horse, she nearly qualified to rodeo’s biggest stage in her first year as a pro.
“I missed it by $2,000,” Walker remembers. She soon sold Jet Barb and settled into a life as the head cheerleader for Byron and for her son, Reagon. Though her own competitive career was paused, she always bought her WPRA card, every year.
“Of course, Byron would say, ‘I don’t know why you have a card, you’re not going anywhere,’” Mary laughs. “I would say, ‘you never know.’”
Living just 30 minutes from the famed Mesquite Championship Rodeo, Walker often competed there in her limited time. “I could go over there every week and win a couple hundred dollars.”
Walker’s career earnings total was inching upwards very slowly while she watched her family succeed at the highest levels. Byron became a million dollar cowboy and Reagon seemed destined to follow in his footsteps.
PHOTO BY: Mike Copeman
Tragedy struck the Walker family in 2011 when Reagon was killed in a car accident. The upheaval in their lives was compounded when Walker, seasoning a young horse to the rodeo scene, suffered a nearly catastrophic fall which forced her into a wheelchair for many months.
Her inspiring comeback is now the stuff of rodeo legend. Getting back in the saddle aboard the very horse that she’d been riding when she fell, Walker punched her ticket to her first WNFR in 2012 and won four go rounds en route to her first WPRA World title and a WNFR earnings record.
Four years later, Walker and Latte, who is registered Perculatin, are still one of the best teams in professional barrel racing. Competing in the Calgary Stampede’s Showdown Sunday on July 17, 2016, Walker ran to a second place finish by just one one-hundredth of a second to champion Mary Burger. The second place paycheck of $25,000 pushed Walker’s lifetime earnings over $1 million.
“That’s crazy,” Walker marvels. “I didn’t even know I hit the million. I knew I should be getting close but I thought it might be at the Finals this year, if I made the Finals.”
Walker read about the milestone like everyone else in the next day’s news coverage of the Stampede. She immediately called her husband.
“He’s a million dollar cowboy too,” she notes proudly. “We’re actually both in the Hall of Fame, we’re both million dollar winners and we’re both World Champions. It’s pretty cool.”
In a year when Sherry Cervi became the first WPRA cowgirl to hit $3 million in earnings, Walker became the WPRA’s seventh millionaire, joining Cervi, James, Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi, Lisa Lockhart, Lindsey Sears and Kristie Peterson.
“The money has helped a lot with the Finals paying what it does and the big paying rodeos,” notes Walker, who has been in the game long enough to remember the days before equal money. “I talked to [2015 WPRA Rookie of the Year] Jackie Ganter the other day and she congratulated me. I said, ‘girl, you’ll be there before you know it.’”
“It’s taken me 33 years to do it but you’ll be there in a few years.”
The WNFR has been integral to her march to a million. She has the second highest earnings in a single WNFR with the $146,941 won in 2012 and has accumulated over $300,000 in WNFR earnings in four qualifications.
She gives the credit to the incredible bay horse who has helped her through her darkest days and brought her to her biggest professional triumphs.
“He’s such a trooper. He doesn’t care what kind of position you put him in, he just goes and does it every time,” Walker says of the now 12 year old gelding by Dash for Perks out of Curiocity Corners, who was voted the AQHA/WPRA Horse of the Year in 2012. “He just doesn’t actually care, he just wants to go and do it.”
“He’s got that heart,” she continues. “You can’t replace that heart. He’s got the biggest heart in the world and he’ll do it every day.”
In fact, Latte owns better than $880,000 of the $1 million Walker has collected from WPRA official earnings.
It was fitting that Walker crossed her milestone north of the border in Calgary. Since garnering her first invite to the prestigious rodeo in 2013, Walker has qualified for Showdown Sunday every year, winning second twice out of four tries. She has earned $111,100 in the Stampede alone.
“Calgary’s been wonderful,” says Walker, who was part of an incredible race in 2016 at the Stampede in pouring rain and soupy arena conditions. Credit again to Latte. “He stepped up his A game and trooped right through it. I thought, ‘I don’t know how you keep doing this but you do.’”
Now ranked third in the WPRA World standings, Walker is assured a fifth trip to the WNFR in December. She always says it takes an Army to get her down the road, which includes her sponsors Justin Boots, Panhandle Rock and Roll Cowgirl, Platinum Performance, Browning, Viagen, MGM Grand, Kawasaki, Horsewear of Ireland, Theraplate, Texas Equine Hospital, Relentless, American Hats.
“I’ve had a couple people say, ‘man are you going to loan me any money?’” she laughs. “I don’t know where that million went but it is gone.”