By Neal Reid
Whoa Nellie! Miller’s talented mare Sister wins AQHA/WPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year
Consistent is a word often used to describe this year’s AQHA/WPRA Barrel Racing Horse of the Year.
Nellie Miller’s 9-year-old blue roan mare Rafter W Minnie Reba, or “Sister,” as she is known, was a model of consistency this season. Sister and Miller piled up $130,537 in just 47 rodeos and will enter the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo third in the world standings.
On average, that $2,777 per run was better than world standings leader and regular season record-smasher Tiany Schuster and her horse, Show Mance, as well as second-place Stevi Hillman and included victories in Reno, Nev., and St. Paul, Ore., in addition to a second-place finish at the Calgary Stampede. For those performances, and more, Sister was voted as barrel racing’s top horse for 2017 by Miller’s peers.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever won, and it’s really rewarding winning something like that when it’s voted on by your competitors,” said Miller, of Cottonwood, Calif. “It’s a big accomplishment for us.”
It’s an accomplishment for Miller’s entire family, as her father, former Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association team roper Sam Williams, raised and trained the horse. Sister is the daughter of Miller’s high school rodeo horse and the half-sister to Blue Duck, the steed that carried her to her first Wrangler NFR in 2010, so the award is certainly a family affair.
“My dad, who is the owner, got the phone call,” Miller said. “He called me and was like, ‘We got horse of the year!’ It was just really neat.
“He is a good horseman and has always ridden and trained young horses. It’s pretty special for him, because he (finally) gets the credit, which is nice. Usually, I’m the one who’s getting all of the credit, but he’s really the one who made that horse what she is. He’s a big part of the team.”
Their homegrown horse has not disappointed, and Miller vividly remembers when she realized the mare was the real deal. It was the first time Miller ever made a run on her.
“My dad was like, ‘Just go and make a run on her,’ all nonchalant like,” Miller said. “I loped her toward that first barrel, and she about turned out from under me and I almost fell off. I was like, ‘Whoa,’ because I wasn’t expecting her to be that good at that point.
“It was kind of a shock, and I was like, ‘Wow, she gets it.’”
Miller had taken a break from full-time competition to start a family with husband James Miller, who serves as general manager of the Red Bluff (Calif.) Roundup. The couple now has two young daughters in tow, and Miller returned to the rodeo trail in earnest aboard Sister last season.
They won California Rodeo Salinas, as well as the average in Ellensburg, Wash., and the California Circuit Finals en route to a 19th-place finish in the 2016 world standings. That success, along with her father’s confidence in the mare, buoyed Miller’s spirits and reinforced that Sister was ready for the big time.
“Her second rodeo was at Salinas (in 2016), and she placed in two go-rounds,” Miller said. “That was kind of an eye-opener, because that’s a big rodeo.
“My dad told me at the start of the year that she’s the best horse he’s ever ridden. He’s been on a lot of horses, so I definitely took that seriously.”
In addition to consistency, versatility is the quality Miller says makes Sister so special.
“She is just really willing,” she said. “She’s so willing to do work for you, and she can do anything. Anything you want to do on her, she’s good at.
“My dad ranched on her and branded on her, and you can rope and work cattle on her. She’s so versatile with anything you ask her to do, she just does it.”
Intelligence and an inherent instinct for knowing when it’s time to perform are other aspects of Sister’s personality that Miller believes set her apart from the rest.
“She’s just so consistent that she just hunts the barrels no matter what arena you’re in,” Miller said. “You can always trust her to go find those barrels. I’ve tried to practice on her at some of the rodeos, but she just fools around and is like, ‘Just let me do my job when it’s time. I don’t need to practice.’”
When the Wrangler NFR begins at the Thomas & Mack Center on Dec. 7, Miller believes Sister will rise to the occasion under the bright lights of Las Vegas.
“She loves a night perf, and I’d say she runs better at night,” Miller said. “I think we’ll just let it come to us. She normally will get better with each run, so she’ll get stronger and more confident.
“She’s been so consistent all year that I think she’ll do great and will do what she’s done all year. We’re just going to let it roll and see how it goes.”