A conversation with one of rodeo’s most inspirational cowgirls.
Mary Walker was 52 years old when her name became a household word in barrel racing circles. When she and the gorgeous bay gelding known as Latte won the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association World Championship in 2012, we knew from the opening round that they were unstoppable. They made the grueling test known as the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo look easy.
The truth is nothing about the campaign for a world championship is easy.
Far away from the spotlights and roaring crowd in any of the dozens of towns across North America Walker and Latte visit every year is the constant hum of a big diesel engine that eats an infinity of broken white lines, driving in shifts with Walker behind the wheel of the long-nosed Peterbilt tractor when the sun is up. The big rig is impossible to wiggle in just anywhere, so the food option is from truck stop sandwiches. Chocolate chip cookies are her favorite diet sin, but her spoiled-rotten little dog, Buster Brown, is sure to get his share, magically reducing her calorie intake by at least half.
In the last 14 days, they’ve won the Cinch Chute Out at Denver’s National Western Stock Show in front of record crowds. They ran at Odessa, Texas, and then went back to Denver for two rounds. They won the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo barrel racing finals handily. Next was Walker’s hometown rodeo at the Fort Worth Stock Show to win the Super Chute Out.
Just over 4,000 miles in the last two weeks, and the season is just starting. Before the year is over, she and Latte will log another 50,000 miles in search of the 2016 world championship.
“I missed the NFR in 1983 by just $2,000,” Walker remembers. “After that, I stayed pretty close to home being a mom. I went to circuit rodeos and the occasional jackpot. I loved those years, but never stopped dreaming about hooking up with that one good horse.”
Since she’s found him, she’s road foundered her husband, Byron, himself a world champion steer wrestler who’s worked the finals 16 times.
“I have a barrel racing traveling partner instead of a dedicated driver for the first time this year. Byron says he’ll come to the fun ones, but he’s done traveling full-time with me,” Walker says. “I never imagined being on the road at this pace at 57 years old.”
Her four-legged barrel racing traveling partner is game. Latte has never gotten road or arena sour. There are air ride suspension and closed circuit cameras on the rig. His hay bag is never empty on the road and waterers take care of any little thirst.
Walker hauls tons of extra grain so his diet is as consistent as possible. He gets off of the trailer to walk and sightsee regularly. He’s kind, but arrogant, firm in the belief that it’s his world and happy that Walker lives in it. Standing in his way isn’t tolerated, he’ll just shove her out. If there’s something interesting to see, she ducks because his head will be following his curiosity.
“The safest place to be around him is on his back. When he gets to a new place, he’ll spend 5 or 10 minutes bucking in his stall. Every time we warm up to run, he’ll come to a dead stop from any speed to scratch his left front leg,” Walker says. “I spend a lot of time looking into those deep, oval eyes of his wishing he’d tell me all of his secrets. I’d love to know what goes through his mind.”
The really good horses understand and love their chosen games. After a smoker, Latte struts back to the trailer. No matter what kind of tracks they left in the arena, Walker feeds him treats. If the run was good, he gobbles them up in celebration. On the rare occasion it wasn’t, he won’t take them. Just turns his nose away and pouts. Latte prefers the performance runs in front of the crowd to quiet runs in the slack.
Walker was severely injured when Latte fell on her early in their partnership. The wreck would put her in a wheelchair for a long, long time. Barrel racers ... well, all cowboys are notoriously superstitious. She was wearing purple when they went down and banished the color from her wardrobe as soon as she was finally released to ride.
“As time goes on, I don’t pay as much attention to the rituals,” she says. “We ran for the Cheyenne Frontier Days team at Fort Worth’s Super Chute Out last week; the team color was purple. It was a little unnerving, but we won it, so purple is now officially jinx-free.”
She does put three braids in Latte’s mane before every one and always puts on her left boot first.
“We make our own luck,” Walker says. “I always work to forget our last run and focus on the next one. With a horse like Latte, my job is to concentrate on riding correctly. He takes care of me.”
Mary spends most of her conditioning time in the saddle riding easy and just telling Latte, “Thank you.”
“He’s introduced me to so many friends and fans. I’d like to think we’ve touched lives and been able to inspire,” she says. “Often, people will find me on the grounds. Kids and their parents, boys and girls, from very young to old. I love that. We visit, I listen to their stories, we make pictures with Latte and feed him treats. I always tell the kids that the way to succeed is hard work and dedication. I remind them to respect their parents and live by good, moral values.”
The team’s success is amazing, given the fact that every time they fly down the alley headed to the first barrel, so many people ride with them. Friends, fans, barrel racers who qualify for senior discounts while harboring dreams of wild success, mothers, daughters, and sons who know how hard she’s fought to be where she is.