Iowa Sisters Combine Skill and Spectacle on the Rodeo Circuit
Story by Deborah Jansen, photography by David Peterson
“Put your hands together,” shouts an announcer, and the Wild Riders burst into the arena, their horses rearing and pawing the air, the performers clapping their hands overhead and throwing kisses to the crowd. Fans clap a deafening beat. Cowboys wave their hats and whistle. Mothers jiggle toddlers on their hips.
After an opening lap, Meishja Petersen and Junior, her copper mustang, lunge into form — Junior galloping, Meishja grabbing his mane with one hand and the saddle horn with the other. She balances on one leg, spreads her arms, and extends the other leg backwards — a Crane Stand. Her trick wins a nod of approval from a bronc rider on the sidelines.
Before the applause subsides, Abigail Petersen surges into action on Poco, her wide-flanked American Paint horse. Securing her right ankle in a looped strap, she slides to one side and freefalls off the saddle.
The Cossack Death Drag requires her to dangle upside down, hands free, dragging her arms and left leg through the dirt. Poco rounds the arena at a steady clip but shaves too close to the side. Abigail’s right foot catches the fence, and her eyes flash. A split second later, the foot is back in position, but her left knee slams her face. Meishja stares momentarily before launching the next trick. The show must go on.
A week before the Wapello Rodeo, a blue minivan arrives at the Petersen farm just outside Sperry. Twenty years ago Ambrose Monroe, a Lakota Sioux, came to give Emma Petersen her first riding lesson. Now he comes whenever her daughters — Abigail and Meishja, known on the rodeo circuit as The Wild Riders — call him.
From their herd of 16, the women work to condition their primary trick-riding horses, and each trains two additional horses with Monroe’s help. He asks both Abigail and Meishja to mount their horses. Placing himself in the center of the makeshift arena, he watches the women ride.
While still a teenager, Monroe worked on a horse ranch in South Dakota and began to notice certain dynamics between horse and rider. A horse that turned his rump toward a trainer refused to listen and showed disrespect. A horse that turned his head sideways to gaze at a trainer with both eyes showed respect, giving a trainer the position of “herd boss.”
Today Ambrose taps into that lifetime of observations as a trainer. His method is that of a horse listener — he teaches riders like Abigail and Meishja to interpret a horse’s expressions. It’s equally critical, explains Abigail, for trick riders to clearly communicate with their horses so animals understand expectations once they’re up to full speed and reins are dropped.
The sisters work on delivering one-word cues such as “Whoa” with consistent tone and body language. They apply steady pressure to the lead line to make the horse halt. If the horse doesn’t stop, the rider backs up a few steps and tries again. Eventually the horse responds to vocal cues without the added pressure on a lead line or reins.
Both Abigail and Meishja studied equine science at Kirkwood Community College, learning from courses such as horse anatomy and horsemanship. “As riders, it’s important for us to understand a horse’s body and what’s going on with it,” says Meishja. She leads her new trick-riding horse into the arena and croons in his ear, “Easy, easy.” The simple cue lets the horse know it’s time to quiet his mind. She strokes his neck, back, flanks, and legs.
Once she’s in the saddle, she lunges forward, makes a double-kissing sound, and shouts “Trot!” When he reaches full speed, she pulls her feet up, squats in the saddle, and stands upright — the Hippodrome. She lowers herself to the saddle again, praises her horse, and pats his neck.
Trick riders want to perform with precision, says Abigail of a profession that trusts horses with lives, but sometimes riders make mistakes. “Sometimes we throw our weight too far to the right or left, but well-trained horses can shift their weight under us. They can balance out a rider’s mistakes.”
The morning of the Wapello Rodeo, Abigail and Meishja step out of one end of a 34-foot aluminum trailer. This home on wheels — where the sisters eat, sleep, and shower — pulled into the fairgrounds behind a black Silverado 3500 a day earlier. The other end of the trailer serves as the portable horse stables, and Poco, Junior, and Appy arrived in tow. The trailer’s center compartment is jammed full of costumes, makeup, blankets, ribbons, glitter, even hoof polish.
Meishja rakes the straw bedding around the trailer and scoops manure into a bucket. Abigail brings fresh water and mixes feed to boost their horses’ iron and electrolytes. Poco and Junior are tethered to one side of the trailer.
Alone on the opposite side, Appy the Appaloosa nuzzles his hay basket and dumps it on the ground. He paws the dirt to stir up dust. Abigail walks to his side, strokes his neck, tells him she’ll ride him soon. “Appy is my first trick-riding horse, and he loves coming along,” she explains. “If we don’t take him, he pouts when we leave the driveway.”
The trailer has only two tether rings on each side, and Appy doesn’t like this arrangement, says Abigail. He prefers to be with the herd. Abigail smooths his flanks and massages his legs. “Later we’ll let him hang out with Junior and move Poco to this side.”
Back home, when the horses run in the pasture, there’s a clear pecking order, explains Meishja. “Junior is a stud and leader of the pack,” she claims, “and Poco is near the top. But Appy is in the geek squad — pretty close to the bottom. When we take him to a rodeo, he thinks he’s hot stuff.”
A stock contractor is exercising horses and bulls in the fairgrounds’ arena, so the sisters choose a grassy spot near the campgrounds to rehearse. Meishja practices the Back Bend, a demanding move that requires her to stand in the saddle and bend backward slowly.
Utilizing strength and concentration built through aerobics, yoga, and Pilates, she reaches her arms overhead, bends back and slightly to the left until she grabs both handles on her saddle. Her quadriceps, abdominals, pectorals, and biceps work together to form a graceful arch on Poco. She performs the trick multiple times in slow motion — all the while smiling for the photographer.
“We actually have to practice smiling,” says Abigail. “Meishja smiles comfortably when she performs. Tricks come more readily for her because she has a compact, athletic body — like a gymnast. On the other hand, it takes me longer to learn tricks.”
Abigail’s 5'10" frame is nearly unheard of among trick riders. Gravity works against a long, lanky form. “When I concentrate, I don’t always remember to smile,” she admits. “But smiling is what makes a trick look easy and beautiful!”
Abigail decides to practice the Stroud Layout, a trick named after Leonard Stroud, the rider who developed it in 1923. The rider secures the right foot in a strap on top of the saddle and the other foot in a stirrup attached to the left saddle cinch. The rider lowers her body sideways until it forms a 90-degree angle to the horse’s body. Finally she stretches out both arms, twists her torso, and holds it parallel to the ground — all performed at a gallop.
Meishja holds a short lead attached to Poco’s bridle and slowly guides the horse. Abigail completes all but the final step. She can’t quite get parallel to the ground. Her legs quiver, and she grabs the saddle horn. Tonight’s performance doesn’t include that trick, she says, but it’s still a good physical and mental workout. “This sport is a mind game. Whatever you can do to face your fears is a good thing.”
Abigail remembers once practicing a Full Fender with her horse at a gallop. In this stunt a rider lets go of the saddle horn, twists her right leg out of the stirrup, lowers her body, and hangs cross-legged in midair on the left side of the horse. “As I got into the trick, my horse spooked and took off. I reached for the saddle horn, but he jumped to one side, and I fell under him.”
She admitted her horse was still in training, and he wasn’t ready for that trick. “He couldn’t help stepping on my abdomen. I’m sure he diverted his weight because nothing broke.” She sustained a chest contusion, an injury that made breathing difficult. “My abdomen was purple and swollen — I looked five months pregnant for weeks.”
In 2008 Bob Barnes was looking for a trick-riding act to fill a rodeo program. He called Karen and Harry Vold, fellow rodeo stock contractors in Colorado, knowing they were good judges of talent. Karen described two up-and-comers who had proven themselves to be determined, quick learners while enrolled in her trick-riding school in 2006 and 2007.
Abigail and Meishja recognized their big break. Previously the sisters had booked only county fairs and local horse shows. With Barnes’ encouragement, they launched the yearlong application process to join the six-decades-old Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). Membership would mean new opportunities, allowing them to ride a professional rodeo circuit. Abigail and Meishja got to work booking shows to feature in audition videos and gathering letters of recommendation.
The selected performance arena for their final entrance evaluation in 2009 sat in the lowest spot of an outdoor amphitheater in Emmetsburg. Heavy spring rains throughout the week had drenched the arena with water. “The mud was so sloppy that when we made footprints, the holes filled with water,” remembers Meishja. “We tried a short practice the night before the rodeo. Our horses did their best to stay up, but they slid to the side on the curves. We didn’t even feel safe rehearsing, so we quit.”
Both sisters recall praying for the arena to dry up before their evaluation performance. It didn’t. Minutes before the show Abigail gave a pep talk to herself and Meishja. “Our horses know what they’re doing,” she assured her sister. “They’ll look out for us, and they’ll hold us up.”
Meishja started the performance with a Side Layout, a move that requires her to throw all her weight to the left side of her horse. Junior cantered sideways to offset her weight. Abigail saw him slip in the mire and start to go down. She yelled at Meishja, who was able to right herself in the saddle just in time.
Abigail didn’t fare as well on her first stunt. The Cheyenne Drag required her to draw her hand and foot along the ground — now thick with mud — while her head was just inches from the ground. “My hair filled with so much mud that I thought my horse was running on it — it was that heavy. I came up like a Dalmatian, mud spattered all over my face and body.”
When the rodeo ended that night, the two women cried. They understood that their evaluation would be judged on form and technical execution, and neither had gone as planned. They were convinced they’d failed a chance to earn a professional rodeo card.
The evaluator saw it differently. “Compared to what could have happened, you girls really rocked out there,” he told them. “The crowd was blown away. First of all, that you even tried it. Second, you held your composure, and you looked great!”
Professionals have to be ready for anything, he reminded them, even poor arena conditions. The Petersen sisters had proved that they were. “Nobody handed trick riding to us on a silver platter,” says Abigail. “For six years we’ve worked hard for everything we’ve gained.”
“Ninety percent of rodeo trick riding is getting ourselves and our horses ready,” says Meishja. “It means big hair, lots of glitter, and flashy costumes.”
Trick-riding outfits aren’t easy to find, so dance costumes are their best alternative. Meishja and Abigail select matching arm wraps or long white gloves to accent graceful limbs and death-defying tricks. They add matching sequins and trim from the fabric store to embellish necklines, bodices, and hemlines.
They pick out fleece fabric to make saddle blanket covers and polo wraps for their horses’ legs. Belly dancing scarves decorate breast collars, and glitter gussies up horses’ tails and manes. All the items for horse and rider are color-coordinated, creating one glamorous package.
As showtime at the Wapello Rodeo approaches, the sisters begin readying their horses. Each one’s entire body is brushed, including mane and tail. Puffy dirt clouds float away on the wind. Horses and riders head to an outdoor hose and faucet for a final rinse. Back at the campsite each horse stands in the shady breeze to dry.
The next stage is horse makeup. Abigail’s horse, Poco, has white legs that sometimes appear dingy, so Abigail applies color-enhancing spray— an equine formula developed for show horses — to brighten. She paints hoof black, the equivalent of fingernail polish, on Poco’s hooves and winds fleece polo wraps — colored purple to match her costume — around his legs. She applies clear hairspray to Poco’s mane, tail, and rump. She scatters purple glitter over all three and seals the glam with a second coat of hairspray.
Saddling the horse is the most important element of preparation. Saddles are spot-cleaned and hand-rubbed with oil; all stirrups, reins, and straps are inspected for safety. Abigail smooths out Poco’s saddle blanket and layers it with a purple fleece cover.
Abigail’s steel-frame saddle, custom-designed by a former trick rider, weighs 50 pounds. She bends her knees, hoists the saddle up from the ground, twists her upper torso, and releases the saddle as though uncoiling a spring. The saddle plops into place. She fastens the front and rear cinch straps and adjusts her stirrups. She tugs to check if they’re snug. “I’ll check the stirrups and straps an hour before we enter the arena, too,” says Abigail.
If Poco sweats, he can lose several pounds. His back may become slippery, causing the saddle to move and the straps to slacken. “Our lives depend on secure straps and a well-fit saddle. We never let anybody else check them!” She drapes a purple belly dancing scarf, complete with glittering bangles, across Poco’s breast collar.
During the final hour, she and Meishja duck inside the trailer for quick showers. They wriggle into small costumes and create big hair with a curling iron. With headbands and feathers pinned, they dash outside with dime store mirrors to paint bright eye shadow, thick eyeliner, and jet black mascara in the fading sunlight. Their faces — smooth as a porcelain doll’s — each flash a smile. And they’re off.
This summer the sisters will travel as far east as Pennsylvania and as far west as Nevada. There will be long days and long nights. Sometimes they won’t remember where they sleep, says Abigail. “We may get tired, but we’re fulfilling our dream. Every rodeo season is a cowgirl’s Christmas.”
They’ll perform time-tested classics, but they’ll also imagine new ways of combining mastered moves. Abigail dreams about a new act — her own invention, which will, of course, be named after her. The performance will incorporate a large flamenco skirt. Meishja’s future goals include Roman Riding — an act achieved with each foot planted on the midback of two different horses.
In the Wapello arena tonight, years of training, trials, and showmanship enable these two professional trick riders to execute eight astounding stunts — Crane Stand, Hippodrome, Cheyenne Drag, Back Breaker, Mane Drag, Over the Neck, Layover, and the Cossack Death Drag — in less than three minutes. On with the show.
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"Of all the tricks, this is one you really don't want your horse to go down on," says Abigail, dangling close to Poco's pounding hooves as they perform the Cossack Death Drag (top).