World Champion Barrel Racer Nellie Miller
By Melissa Mendonca
Barrel Of Fun
By Melissa Mendonca
IT'S WHEN NELLIE MILLER'S young daughters are with her on her parents’ Cottonwood ranch helping her care for horses that she fully embodies the reason three generations of her family have committed to life in rodeo. “It’s a great way to live and a great way to grow up,” says the 2017 World Champion barrel racer.
When Nellie and daughters Payton, 5, and Hadley, 2, are feeding, grooming and training with the family of quarter horses that have taken Miller to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas twice, she knows she is passing along a work ethic and values that have been handed down by her parents, Sam and Roxy Williams. “They’re outside a lot,” she says. “They’re always watching.”
In early December last year, it seemed the whole town of Cottonwood and much of the North State rodeo community had their eyes on 29-year-old Miller. It was the hometown girl’s second advancement to the National Finals Rodeo, and much had transpired since her first competition there in 2010. She’d gotten married to James Miller, had two children, and completed a college degree at Simpson University.
By the time Hadley was just a few months old, Sister, the half-sibling of Blue Duck, the horse she’d ridden in 2010, was ready to help her get back to professional barrel racing. “I rode her mom when I was in high school rodeo. We raised her from the very beginning and my dad trained her,” says Miller. “We’ve been the only ones to ride her.”
Of her dad’s horse training skills, she says, “He’s constantly reading and trying to learn about it, which is important. But I think he’s just a natural, as well.”
It’s the relationship between Miller, her dad, Sam, and both Blue Duck and Sister that make the story of the championship win all the more meaningful. Sam Williams is a quiet force behind Miller, observing the mannerisms of both the horses and his daughter to train both for wins.
“He’s always been my dad, so I’ve never thought of him as my coach until this year,” laughs Miller. “My mom told me that he didn’t realize it either. But he’s been coaching me my whole life.”
That’s why Sister’s award as American Quarter Horse Association Barrel Horse of the Year at the 2017 National Finals Rodeo held special resonance amongst the week of ceremonies and gala dinners that preceded the 10 days of competition. “My dad got to accept it because he’s the owner of the horse,” says Miller, clearly happy that the spotlight got to shine on him for once. “It’s great for him to be recognized,” she adds. “He’s always there whenever you need him.”
Additionally, Sister was voted Horse with the Most Heart at the end of the rodeo, an award bestowed by the top 15 barrel race contenders.
The road to the National Finals Rodeo is a long one, determined by cash winnings over the course of the season, which begins in January and builds to a crescendo with July rodeos that keep Miller and her family on the road almost constantly in the summer. They travel with a horse trailer that has a living unit. “There’s never enough room, that’s for sure,” she says with a chuckle. “You can’t get one big enough. But they love it,” she says of her daughters, “It’s like camping.”
To qualify for the chance to compete for World Champion in 2017, Miller competed in 47 rodeos, taking first at Reno Rodeo and placing high at the Calgary Stampede, which secured her place among the top competitors.
Her hard work and success were recognized in Cottonwood with a big celebration dinner for her at the community center not long after she arrived home from Las Vegas last December. “It was really fun,” she says, “and nice to be recognized like that.” Proceeds from the event will pay for signs at both ends of town acknowledging Cottonwood as the home of a World Champion Barrel Racer.
The 2018 rodeo season is already underway, and Miller set out for Texas mid-February to compete for about a month. California rodeos get underway this month, with the Red Bluff Round-Up being the big hometown rodeo that holds a special place in her heart. Husband James is the Round-Up’s General Manager and she’s been competing on the grounds since high school. She’ll also be at the Redding Rodeo in May.
“They’re hometown rodeos that are too big for us to miss,” she says. They’re big events for the North State as well, made all the more fun with a hometown competitor finding world champion success. •