By BRETT MARSHALL
INGALLS — Emily Miller can easily remember the first time she rode a horse.
At age 7, her babysitter (Jana Wehkamp Turner) had horses at her nearby farm and allowed little Emily to ride.
"I spent more time over there than I did at my own house," Miller recalled. "Jana sold me my first horse and that's how everything just happened."
It was love at first ride, according to Miller, now 18, and comfortably sitting atop the rodeo world after capturing the 2010 Little Britches World Championship All-Around Cowgirl in late July during the National Finals at Pueblo, Colo.
For Miller, a recent graduate from Ingalls High School, horses and rodeo have become the fabric that has given so much meaning to her life.
"I have most of my friends through rodeo, so many people who have helped me out through the years," Miller said.
When she arrived in Pueblo last month for the Little Britches National Finals Rodeo, she had come off frustrating performances at the International Finals Youth Rodeo in Shawnee, Okla., and the National High School Finals Rodeo in Gillette, Wyo.
It wasn't so much she had bad performances, though, it was that she was battling a severe case of mononucleosis, severely limiting her time spent with her horses and kept her from being at full-strength to compete in a grueling schedule.
Unlike most rodeo cowgirls, Miller competes in as many as six events — pole bending, trail course (includes a jump, putting a 3x5 card in a mailbox, opening and closing a gate, backing the horse between two barrels, jumping a short bridge and racing through), cutting, barrel racing, goat tying and breakaway calf roping.
"It has worked out really well because if I don't do so well in one event, I've always got another that can get me points for the all-around," Miller said.
Not only did the slightly-built redhead nab the World Championship All-Around, but she managed to come home with the saddle for winning the National Finals Rodeo All-Around Cowgirl competition in spite of the illness.
"I'd be laying in bed in the trailer, barely able to hold my head up and somehow I'd get up and go to the event," Miller recalled. "My head hurt so much I couldn't even turn it when I was riding."
Having finished second in the All-Around on three occasions at the Little Britches, winning this year was made all the more enjoyable for Miller.
"I've never had the finish at Pueblo that I had wanted and it was the third week of being out and I was just wore out," Miller said. "I just kept more rested and had friends go out and warm my horses up for me and there's no way I could have survived without them."
Miller does have her favorite events — the pole bending currently resides at the top of her list — but she has an affinity for each one of them.
"They all have something I like, but when I first started with pole bending (an event unique to Little Britches) I couldn't get through all six (poles) without knocking one over. Now, I've got a phenomenal horse (Brannon) that has helped me get to this point. He's just a wonderful horse that I can totally depend on."
Miller will usually take five or six of her horses to each rodeo because each of them is used for specific events in which they are trained.
Another one of her horses, Snickers, was just sold to a 7-year-old girl, who like Miller, is hoping to make a name for herself in rodeo.
"Snickers was a great horse for me and I'm sure he will be great for this girl. She really is excited to get him and I know he'll get taken care of very well," Miller said of the new owner.
Miller uses another horse, Rodney, for the goat tying event — and enjoys the speed of the horse where she has her left foot in the stirrup and is parallel to the horse while he is going full tilt. She then jumps to the ground, and has to tie the three legs of the goat for her time.
"I just like speed and that's why I like the goat tying and the barrel racing," Miller said with a big smile. "Those events are all about time. You don't have anything else to determine who wins. It's you against the clock."
In garnering the prestigious All-Around World Championship this year, Miller used points totaled from five other Little Britches rodeos in addition to points earned at the National Finals. In addition, she received $2,600 in scholarship aid for college.
The speed of which she enjoys was never more evident than in 2009 when she set a national record (International Finals Youth Rodeo) of having three times in the 19 second range of the pole bending competition. This year, it was an entirely different story, as she had to run once in muddy conditions.
"I wanted more than anything to win it for that horse (Brannon)," Miller said. Instead, feeling the effects of the illness, she hit a pole on her final run, thus knocking her out of the points for that event.
An honor student at Ingalls High School (she graduated with a 3.98 grade-point-average and was the class salutatorian), Miller plans to study dental hygiene in college and eventually hopes to train and sell horses for the rodeo circuit.
She had played basketball in junior high, but once high school arrived, a choice had to be made and rodeo easily won out. It was her father Tom's insistence not to drive all Friday night to Saturday rodeos that made the decision easier.
"We were able to leave on Friday early and got to the next rodeo in good time to get a good night's rest," Miller said. "A lot of my classmates and high school friends just didn't really know what I was doing but eventually when they found out how I was doing, they were like so supportive."
As a result of her choices, Miller said she never attended a high school prom and only made a couple of high school ball games and homecoming during her high school days.
"There are some people who might say I missed a lot, but for me I didn't," Miller said. "I've wanted to do rodeo all along and this was the only way I could do it. I like the individual part of this. I'd do it al over again."
High school rodeo in the state is not sponsored by the Kansas State High School Activities Association as it does with other sports, thus the Kansas High School Rodeo Association is its own entity and has its championship in the summer. Miller won state championships in the All-Around each of the last three seasons, won five event titles and garnered several other reserve grand championships.
Miller, who had an offer from nationally-ranked Vernon College in Texas, instead opted to stay close to home and will now showcase her skills at Garden City Community College this fall.
"I've known Jim Boy (Hash) since I first started riding and he's been supporting me since I was little," Miller said of the Broncbuster rodeo coach. "He's helped me out a bunch and this way I get to stay home, keep my horses here and compete for Garden for a couple of years. I've practiced with the GCCC kids and there will be five girls on the team and I'm really excited about our group."
At the collegiate level, however, Miller will only have three events in which to compete — breakaway roping, goat tying and barrel racing.
"I'm sure I'll miss some of the other events, especially the pole bending," Miller said. "But this will help me focus more on events as I move on to the next level of competing."
All this success has mellowed Miller considering she was a self-proclaimed "brat" at an early age.
"I had a terrible temper (she mentions her fiery red hair) but my parents stuck with me," she said. "I'm strong-willed and pretty serious and dedicated to this and I've been able to channel my emotions through rodeo. I'm a lot more calm outwardly today than I used to be."
Neither of her parents, father Tom or mother Margaret, were rodeo people.
"I'm very lucky to have the parents I do," she said. "They've allowed me to afford to do my habit and it's been a great ride so far."
She now has in her stable a horse, Corona, that she feels will be the horse in her future professional barrel racing career.
"He's got a mind of his own," Miller said of her youthful horse. "But he's got more talent than the three others combined. He came off the race track and then a week later he hits two barrels. He's a real challenge and it will probably take several years to get him to be the barrel horse I know he can be. He's the horse that's got me excited for the future."