The Kiwi woman born to be a rodeo champ

Rhondine Long, of Middlemarch, is a national barrel-racing champion.

“I’ve been riding since day dot, really. I pretty much grew up at the rodeo. My dad Billy was a New Zealand rider way back in the day. He worked on the drilling rigs in Australia and rode while he was there as well. That’s where he met my mum [Kathy Tisdall].

We would go to bush rodeos and I’d ride my little pony. We moved back to New Zealand when I was 10.

My grandparents lived near West Melton and they bred show ponies, so suddenly my older brother Darryl and I were riding show ponies, and jumping and going to pony club. Then we got to choose whether we wanted to do rodeo or show and we chose rodeo. It was more our cup of tea, plus you got a couple of dollars in your envelope as prize money too.

Mum and my two younger brothers, Roy (20) and Scott (16), ride as well. Mum and Scott team-rope.

Mum would have to be my idol, I guess. She taught me how to barrel race. I wasn’t great at picking things up by reading when I was younger, but Mum would read me a book about barrel racing for a bedtime story. She’s spent hours over the years helping me. We’ve got a little side business together where we make bespoke rope halters and tack.

Dad passed away when I was 16 and I stopped riding for a while after that, plus I had my wee boy Elih. Then a friend of mine offered me a horse to train, with the option to buy, and we ended up in the national finals.

Roc, my horse, is one out of the box. I’ve ridden a lot of horses in my time, but Roc’s been amazing. I reckon he’s one of the best in the country. I put all my trust in him and he trusts me. I do fitness work with him pretty much every day. When we train, it’s mainly walking and trotting with a few fast runs through the season – they’re mainly for me!

During winter, I work on a farm and when the summer comes, I’m travelling for the rodeos. Between October and March, there’s probably around 19 or 20 that we go to. A lot of the cowboys fly to the events and use other people’s horses, but I drive everywhere with Roc. I think you’ve got to be connected with your horse if you want to run fast times.

Elih and I cruise around the country together. He started calf roping when he was seven. He’s 13 now and too big for the calves, so he’s taking this season off.

Women can compete in barrel racing and team roping. You can ask for a dispensation to ride in the other events, but bull riding’s not something I’d like to do personally – the calves scared me enough.

In barrel racing, you try to get around three drums in a clover leaf pattern in the quickest time possible. Mum won the rookie barrel title in ’91-’92, and I’ve won the nationals the last two years. You’ve got to be really in sync with your horse. It’s pretty intense, one little mistake – say, a stride past the drum – and you’re out of the money. With some of the girls, there’s as little as .02 of a second between them.

Thankfully, rodeo fashion has improved since the ’90s. Back in the day, the jeans would be way up over your waist. These days, they’re all low riders and there’s a whole lot more bling on them.

It’s a reasonably expensive sport. The prize money definitely helps and there’s certainly a lot more pressure at the higher paying rodeos where you can pick up $1000. I made just over $9000 last year. My boss Hugh McKay who has long horn steers that are used for breeding for rodeos, also sponsors me, which is great.

Barrel racing isn’t that dangerous. Clearly, if your horse goes down at top speed, then there’s always a risk, just like in horse racing, but I’ve only come off a couple of times in a rodeo arena.

I did fall a few years back while I was working a horse in a paddock. I needed two operations for that last year, but was cleared to ride three days before the Labour Day rodeo at Methven.

I love the rodeo life – the family aspect of it, the friends you meet, the horsemanship. There’s a junior division now and a high school team that goes to Australia to compete. The Rodeo Association is pretty strong in terms of developing riding skills and animal welfare.

Of course, there will always be people who don’t like rodeo. They have their opinion of the sport, so no matter what we say, they’re not going to change. But we look after our animals. There’s no-one that has a bigger love for animals and that’s all of them – the calves, the steers, the bulls, the horses.”

Quick fire

Describe yourself in five words… Passionate, honest, grateful, dedicated and determined.

What music have you been listening to lately? Charlie Puth “One Call Away” and country music.

Who would you take to a desert island? My son Elih.

As told to Julie Jacobson

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