Barreling Towards a Million-Dollar Championship

By Susan Bean Aycock

Barrel Racer Stephanie Fryar in position to make rodeo history

When she was just six weeks old, Stephanie Fryar’s mom held her up on a horse.

She’s been in the saddle ever since, chasing her rodeo career as a champion barrel racer where she’s amassed a series of titles that would run out of room on a wall plaque that tried to list them all.

Now 43, Fryar has been a rodeo competitor since fifth grade, winning more than $50,000 in prize money that first year. She’s now at the top of her game with a tantalizing goal in reach.

Since it was founded in 2018, the World Champions Rodeo Alliance [WCRA] has offered a $1 million cash bonus for three consecutive wins in its coveted Triple Crown of Rodeo title. So far, only one person has walked away with that prize.

Fryar has two championships under her cowgirl belt in the running for the Triple Crown. If she wins the third in May, she’ll be only the second person and the first woman in the organization’s six-year history to earn the title and the million dollars that go with it. The last, too, as the WCRA will change to a team competition model after that event.

She cinched her first win in a major WCRA event in October 2023 at Rodeo Carolina, held in Mill Spring, North Carolina. There she walked out of the arena as one of three competitors left in the running for the Triple Crown.

Fryar scored a second qualifying win at the Stampede at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma this past January. In Guthrie, she was the only one to win a second round. Which leaves her the last one standing with a shot at the Triple Crown and its million-dollar bonus.

Her third WCRA major rodeo to win the Triple Crown will be Rodeo Corpus Christi May 7-11. What will she be thinking at the gate?

“Go be smooth,” said Fryar. “Smooth is always fast.”

Fryar grew up with a legacy of horses and rodeo competition.

“Horses have been the majority of my life since I could walk,” she said. “To be honest, I don’t remember a day in my life that horses weren’t a part of it. It’s in my blood on all sides.”

Which she means literally — her mom, Dawn, trained and ran barrels her entire life and her dad, Steve, was a bulldogger [steer wrestler], team roper and rodeo judge for more than 20 years.

In 1980, Steve Fryar made the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), “one of the highest accomplishments an athlete can achieve in professional rodeo,” said his daughter. She herself achieved that accomplishment in 2008 at age 27, the same age as her dad at that milestone.

Fryar admits that she loves the pure speed of her sport, which is unique in rodeo competition because in barrel racing, everything relies on time and not form. Though both the rider’s horsemanship skills and the horse’s athletic ability are important for a clean run, the time clock is the only thing that matters for the score.

“Though I’ve never driven a racecar or done motocross, I can only relate barrel racing to it,” she said. “I love the adrenaline rush of feeling a horse run. It’s all about acceleration, angles, timing and trust.”

But at the end of the day for Fryar, it’s just about the horses.

“Horses are my passion in life!” she said. “They’re who I wake up for every day.”

She has fond and crystal-clear memories of all the horses she’s ridden and the awards they won together in competition. There was Mystic Bird, with whom she won Texas Cowboys Rodeo Association (TCRA) Rookie of the Year. Through high school, she continued her rodeo career on Oh So Sudden, originally one of her dad’s hazing [steer wrestling] horses.

Then there was Sail On Lena, who qualified Fryar for the National Finals Rodeo in 2008, as well as to multiple Texas circuit finals.

“She made all my dreams reality,” said Fryar. “I currently own her two maternal sisters that I’m raising babies from and will continue her story with the JL Dash Ta Heaven stud colt I’m riding now. Her legacy will live on for many years to come.”

These days, Fast Frank — her horse to contend for the WCRA Triple Crown — is her main guy. If he were a human, he might be the handsome captain of the football team, though one who’s nice and makes good grades. But Frank is a nine-year-old sorrel (dark red) gelding with a white blaze and four partial white socks — and a good bit of attitude.

Though Some Streakin French is his registered name with the American Quarter Horse Association, at home he’s just Fast Frank. That’s a holdover from a face and shoulder cut whose stitches “left him looking like Frankenstein,” said Fryar.

“He has a very large personality,” she said. “He can be very opinionated and will quickly let you know if he doesn’t like or approve of something.”

Fryar is approaching her shot at the Triple Crown the way she trains, rides and competes: 1000% all in, because she’s doing what she loves. All day, all year, at home and on the road.

“Once you’ve become a solid team with your horse, then comes the mental strength,” Fryar explained. “You know your job, the horse knows its job, so then it relies on your mental game learning to adjust, adapt and read situations.”

She believes that her best winning strategy is consistent training that produces consistent results in competition.

“You work every day to be one percent better than you were the day before,” she said. “You learn from mistakes and continually work to create good habits that become second nature to you. And teaching yourself, you also train your horse to do the same. You’ll win some and you’ll lose some. The goal is to be consistent.”

Though Fryar grew up in Big Spring, about 90 miles south of Lubbock, she’s called Waco home base since 2007 to be more centrally located to rodeo events. And that’s a distinction from just calling Waco plain home, as she’s on the road and rodeo circuit much of the year, especially June through September.

“Texas is the greatest state!” she said. “It’s loaded with multiple events everywhere. Living in Waco, I’m two hours from an event every day or night of the week. It allows me to make a living doing what I love.”

Travelling the rodeo circuit so much, she’s invested heavily in her comfort on the road. To and from her various competitions, you’ll find her driving or hanging out in her sleek 42’ Cimarron trailer, featuring five full horse stalls and 16 feet of deluxe living quarters including an over-the-cab full bed, kitchenette and sofa with table.

Her Waco home base includes sharing space with her mom in a house situated on 15 acres in China Spring. The property sports three pastures, a 15-stall barn, round pen, walker, arena and two large turn-out pens. Depending on the season, she may be working there with other owners’ horses as the owner of Fryar Performance Horses, for which she trains and ‘fixes’ barrel horses.

“‘Fixing’ means that I fix [the horses’] bad habits and season them,” said Fryar. “That means taking them into situations they haven’t been in so they’ll be prepared for racing the next time, confident and ready to perform better.”

Seasoning variables may include getting horses accustomed to different situations, such as whether the arena has light or dark walls, distracting banners or is indoors or outdoors. It may mean getting the horse used to performing with loud music or in relative silence, in a small or large arena, and staying focused whether bulls are present or not.

“Like humans, horses are creatures of habit,” said Fryar. “When you teach them something, you want to teach them correctly. When you create good habits in them, then they don’t know anything else and don’t question you.”

With all the years of hard-work and dedication under her belt, there’s the million dollar question: how much pressure does Fryar feel to make WCRA rodeo history by winning the Triple Crown in May?

“It’s not just the $1 million itself, but if I win, I’ll only be the second person ever to win it and the first and last woman to win it,” she said.

“Many have come close, but so far only one has succeeded,” she said. [RC Landingham, a 32-year-old bareback rider from California, snagged his third win in Fort Worth in December of 2022.]

“I’m the last competitor eligible for the million dollar bonus,” said Fryar. “This win would top all of my achievements so far and would be life-changing. But win, lose or draw — this competition doesn’t define me.”

Still, it’s hard not to ponder — just for a minute, anyway — what she would do with a million dollars in cash.

“Life really wouldn’t change much besides becoming debt-free and knowing I have a secured retirement,” she said. “I don’t have $1 million in the bank right now, so if I don’t win, nothing will change. If I do, I’ll be debt-free, but I’ll put most of it in the bank where I can’t get to it right now. And still nothing will change. But I’ll probably hire an investor to keep those million dollars working.”

Fryar says that she’ll only retire from barrel racing when she can’t do it any more.

“If it weren’t for my joints, I couldn’t be convinced that I’m not still in my 20s,” she said. “I’m glad I’m older heading into this. At 25, I didn’t have the 18 years more of experience I do now to not let the pressure get to me.”

Though she confesses to be “the most competitive person on earth” in the rodeo arena, Fryar’s cowboy boots are firmly planted on solid ground outside of it.

“I hope to be remembered as someone who’s a great competitor, coach and good person outside the arena,” she said. “I believe that people will remember you by your attitude and actions outside the arena more than the wins you achieve.”

Which, to Fryar, means paying it forward — not just being a top competitor herself but helping to guide the young female rodeo athletes looking to to fill her figuratively large boots.

At the Women’s Elite Barrel Racing Extravaganza held in early March at Waco’s Extraco Center, Fryar had just finished her own run when she noticed a young girl whose horse was balking approaching the start gate. Without dismounting or thinking twice, she rode straight over to help coax the nervous horse forward, and the rider was able to make a successful run.

“There are many people who have helped me get to where I am today and I hope to be able to do that for someone else,” she said. “Kindness goes a long ways in our world today.”

For Stepanie Fryar, there are life lessons to be learned in the rodeo.

“Barrel racing is like life,” she said. “It’s a journey of many highs, lows, hard lessons and lots of hard work. Life can knock you down, but you have to get up, continue to put one foot in front of the other, and trust God’s plan.

“This journey is all in God’s plan. I’m trusting it and enjoying the ride.”