More than just horsin’ around! Mackenzie Herman of Waukon rides her passion for horses and rodeo to growth in many aspects of her life

Riding to new heights ... Mackenzie Herman, an eighth grade student at Waukon Middle School and the daughter of Rick and Cathy Herman of rural Waukon, bursts into the arena on her horse, Missy, for one of their events during a recent Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin competition season. She is now in her fourth year of competing in that rodeo organization, training with Missy to make the horse and rider pair a consistent top-10 fixture in the events they compete in. Submitted photo.

Finishes among the top four in pole bending ... Mackenzie Herman of Waukon (pictured at far right above) stands with her fellow overall top-four placewinners in the Junior Girls pole bending competition based on points accumulated during the entire 2021-2022 season of the Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin. The young ladies received their belt buckle awards at the season-ending banquet held in November of last year. Standing with Mackenzie are, left to right, first-place finisher Kinzi Martin, second-place finisher Kloey Paulson and third-place finisher Kayden Schlewitz. Submitted photo.

Hardware with Hailey ... Mackenzie Herman of Waukon (at right) is pictured displaying the belt buckle she won for riding to a fourth-place finish in the Junior Girls pole bending competition for the overall 2021-2022 season of the Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin. Pictured with Mackenzie is Hailey Hines (at left) of Lancaster, WI, a Senior Girls Division competitor who the Hermans give a great deal of credit to for helping Mackenzie with advice and tips on improving her performance, especially during this past season. Submitted photo.

First buckle ... Mackenzie Herman of Waukon proudly displays the first belt buckle she ever won in competition in the Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin, an award she received for finishing third in the pole bending competition during a rodeo competition held in Amherst, WI in August of the 2020-2021 season. Right beside her is her award-winning partner, Missy, a horse her parents bought in 2020 and that Mackenzie has trained to become a strong competitor with her. Submitted photo.

Peyton is next to compete ... Mackenzie Herman of Waukon sits atop her first horse, Peyton. He is the first horse the Hermans bought, and Mackenzie will be training him to compete with her once the current rodeo season resumes in May of this year. Submitted photo.

Participation in the Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin over the past several years has gained Waukon Middle School eighth grader Mackenzie Herman some good memories, good friends, and within this past year or so, some high-end awards to show for her work.

But her parents, Rick and Cathy Herman of rural Waukon, say the greatest thing they have seen their daughter gain from participating in the rodeo is confidence in herself and growth as a young lady in most everything she does, even beyond rodeo.

“I’m just amazed at how it’s helped her grow in so many things in her life,” Rick said. “Her grades have improved. I think rodeo had a lot to do with teaching her that the more you try, the better you’re going to do. And that means a lot. She’s shy, but she’s really coming out of her shell more and more. She may not be able to get up in front of a crowd, but when she’s up on that horse, out there doing those rodeos, it’s like the audience isn’t even there. And we’re just so proud to see how much she’s grown as a person, just from having the horses and the rodeo; it’s a really good thing.”

Although neither Mackenzie nor either of her parents grew up on a farm, a horse is something Rick always wanted growing up, and he wanted to give his daughter that opportunity at an early age. A purchased horse - named Peyton - stabled out at the rural Waukon home of Rick’s sister and brother-in-law, Sandy and Al Halverson, was the beginning of the Hermans’ own horse experience, but they give full credit to many others who were involved in developing that experience into fulfillment of a dream of rodeo competition for Mackenzie.

“I started riding horses when I was five, and I started getting interested in barrel racing and pole bending as I got older,” Mackenzie said. “I would ride with my friend, Ali (Nagel), and as we got more experience, it was her mom (Lacey Dee) that started getting us to ride barrels.”

That local riding then grew into participation in a horse game series held at the Houston County Fairgrounds in Caledonia, MN, along with other more local competitions. The Hermans also give credit to the Carlson family that owns and operates C5 Arena north of Decorah for hosting clinics and competitions that helped further develop Mackenzie’s love for riding and competing, and they also appreciate Emily Rocksvold for allowing Mackenzie to use her horse, Flossy, in her early competitions before the Hermans purchased Mackenzie’s current competition horse, Missy. The Hermans say it was also Lacey and Ali who first exposed them to the Little Britches Rodeo as well.

The Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin describes itself as a “non-profit organization created to help young children reach their goals, develop their skills and promote the highest level of conduct and sportsmanship in the sport of rodeo.” With participants from ages six years old on up through seniors in high school, competition for both girls and boys is divided into a Pee Wee division for participants six years of age on up through fourth grade, the Junior division for fifth through eighth graders that Mackenzie has been competing in, and a Senior division for freshmen on up through seniors.

Within those different divisions, there are also different events that participants can compete in. In the Junior Girls Division, Mackenzie competes in barrel racing - a race on horseback around barrels in a clover leaf pattern; pole bending - weaving on horseback through six poles positioned in a straight line; and goat tying - which involves riding into the arena on horseback to a position where a goat is tied, dismounting, flipping the goat to its back, and wrapping up three of the goat’s four legs that must stay tied for six seconds after the competitor steps away from the goat.

Mackenzie says she also wants to try the breakaway roping competition this season - which is an open class in the Junior Division where a competitor has to ride after a calf and throw a rope loop over its head from horseback. For right now, her favorite of the three events she is competing in is the pole bending.

“Missy is the best at poles, and that’s why I think that’s my favorite event right now,” Mackenzie explained. “I want to try and start roping this year, and I feel like Missy already knows what to do in roping, even though I’ve never done it with her. She knows how to chase the calf, so I’m excited to get to do that with her this year.”

At many of the rodeo events through Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin, the competition is broken down into two different days. The Saturday competition is open to all competitors in each event, and the Sunday competition is typically reserved for the top 20 competitors who have accumulated the most points as the Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin season progresses.

There is an annual membership fee to be part of the Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin, and there are also registration fees for all events a participant wants to enter at each of what amounts to nine or 10 different rodeo weekends throughout the course of the season that starts in the fall and carries over into the late spring through the summer of the following year. The Hermans agree that it can be a somewhat spendy venture to be a part of, but also agree that the cost is well worth what their daughter has learned, not only about the sport of rodeo or her horse, but about herself as well.

“It’s good, it gives the kids a sense of responsibility - especially with the horses,” Rick and Cathy agreed. “They have to be fed, watered and taken care of. They have to make sure their camping area is cleaned up before they leave the grounds.”

The requirements of simply being a member of Little Britches Rodeo and participating in those weekend events further adds to that responsibility and accountability, for both participant and parents who want to be involved.

“At least one parent is supposed to be there in order for the child to participate, and they have mandatory meetings each Saturday morning before the rodeo starts,” the Hermans explained. “You not only have to take care of your own horse, but you have to prove that you have respect for it. If they see you being mean to your horse - smacking it on the head or jerking on the bit, they’ll let you know about it and you can be disqualified. And there’s a dress code, not only for the kids but also for the parents if they want to be there with their child.”

Parents and competitors are all required to wear long-sleeve western-style shirts, jeans, cowboy hats and cowboy boots while participating in the rodeo activities. Each child participant is also required to wear their rodeo membership number on their back throughout the entire rodeo weekend, whether competing or not, or they may face disqualification from the event.

The Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin also offers a variety of volunteer opportunities throughout each rodeo weekend, for both parents and participants. From timers and flaggers, to set-up and clean-up, the Hermans say it’s the volunteer efforts of all involved that really help make the Little Britches Rodeo a special experience.

The couple says they’ve gotten more and more involved with those volunteer efforts as they also gain more experience with rodeo. As owner of Herk’s Lawn and Garden in Waukon, Rick even took his garden tractor to the Viroqua, WI Wild West Days Rodeo to till up the rodeo arena surface and keep it groomed throughout that weekend.

Now starting their fourth year of participating in the Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin, the Hermans say that the whole atmosphere of the organization and every weekend activity feels like it’s just one big family. Even though the rodeos are ultimately a competition, they say there is also an aura of wanting all the competitors to be as successful as possible, with a willingness to help each other out in order to make that happen.

“Everybody helps one another, from advice to helping with horses, and even letting other competitors borrow your horse if they need it,” the Hermans said. “You get to meet a lot of people, and we’ve gotten more and more comfortable over the years, so we’re starting to volunteer more. And you’re camping out at each of these rodeos, set up right next to other people so you get to know them really well. It seems like, pretty much every time, a horse will get loose, and when you catch them you know who it belongs to so you always know who to return it to or who to call to let them know you caught it. It’s just everybody helping everybody when they can, it’s very good.”

Even in the heat of the competition, that sense of family remains. That’s one aspect that the Hermans hold highest in their appreciation for their daughter’s experience with Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin.

“When they’re running, everyone’s standing along the side yelling for them,” the Hermans said. “Everybody wants to do well, and that’s the fun of the competition. And that’s how they learn too. Some of those girls get mad or upset, but they learn to get over that, and say, ‘It’s OK, everybody has days like that’.”

One of those closer “family” members the Hermans give a lot of credit to is a young lady who become somewhat of an “older sister” for Mackenzie on that rodeo circuit, especially this past year. Hailey Hines of Lancaster, WI completed her final year of the Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin competition this past year after graduating from high school last spring.

“Hailey has been very good about helping Mackenzie tweak some things here or there so she could get a faster time,” the Hermans credited. “She was a huge help in this past year.”

The experience Mackenzie has had with her horse, Missy, in her rodeo participation almost never came to be, as a mishap in mid-July 2020 resulted in injury to Mackenzie and consideration by her parents of selling the horse. Having just purchased her in May, the two were out riding in mid-July that year near their Rossville home when Rick looked out the window and saw the horse return without Mackenzie in the saddle.

“I looked out the window and I saw Missy come into the yard without Mackenzie, and I was panicking,” Rick admitted. “I couldn’t hear any screaming, or crying, nothing. And when I went looking for her, the neighbors had her, and they had called the ambulance. We just had new shoes put on Missy, and she went to stop but slid, and the horse went out from under Mackenzie and ended up rolling over top of her hip and knocked her into the ground.”

Help from good neighbors who always like to watch Mackenzie and Missy in their neighborhood riding adventures helped ease the situation a bit. “The neighbors were watching her ride - thank goodness, because they called 9-1-1 right away,” Cathy said.

The spill resulted in Mackenzie suffering a concussion, stitches above her left eye and some “road rash” scrapes on her hip and knees. There were no broken bones, but the incident did keep her in the hospital for three days and gave her parents plenty of time to contemplate their daughter’s future with a horse.

“When Rick called me at work and said, ‘Mackenzie had an accident on her horse, meet me at the hospital’, I thought all the way there, ‘Oh, we’ll be getting rid of the horses now’,” Cathy reflected.

“I was going to get rid of the horses,” Rick said. “But, five days after she got home, she was back out there on that horse. That ended up being a good thing, not being afraid to get right back on. You could tell she was holding back a little bit when she was competing in the rodeo after that later that year, but the next year she opened up.”

For Mackenzie, there was no question as to whether she wanted to keep Missy, much less get back on her as soon as she could. “When I was in the ambulance, all I was asking my did was, ‘is Missy OK?’,” Mackenzie said. “So, I already knew that I was going to get back on. And over that summer, from one season to the next, I would just ride her more and do slow work, slowly building up to getting faster and faster each time. I would ride every single day, even after school.”

As the remainder of the 2020-2021 rodeo season got underway, many took note of the difference in the horse and rider pair from the fall competition to the spring. That difference was evident to more than just those who knew her best.

“That first rodeo in the spring of 2021, at Gays Mills, when she came in to do her poles it was like, ‘Whoosh’, and I was like, ‘holy buckets!’,” her mother beamed.

“One of the flag ladies came up to us afterwards and said, ‘Miss Mackenzie, when you came in, I thought, ‘who is this girl?’, normally you hold back, but you just let that horse go’,” Rick added.

Mackenzie’s newfound zest for competing and her continued work with Missy throughout the remainder of that 2020-2021 rodeo season began to pay dividends, as she won her first belt buckle after riding to a third-place finish in the pole bending competition in Amherst, WI, the last rodeo of that season. She said she noticed a change in how other competitors perceived her after winning that first buckle, getting more attention from older competitors who would offer her advice and having some younger competitors ask her how she does this or that.

“When I won that first buckle, it seemed like people started to pay more attention to me,” Mackenzie said. “That gave me a lot more confidence. There are some kids who have been competing longer than I have that have never won a buckle, but they keep trying, just like I do.”

Her continued efforts carried over into last year’s season that began in the fall of 2021 and wrapped up in late summer of this past year. Although she may not have won another individual rodeo buckle during that season, she was a consistent top-10 placewinner throughout the season at many of the rodeo events. That more long-term success of accumulating her placewinning points paid off in her winning a second buckle at the completion of this past rodeo season as the Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin fourth-place finisher in pole bending in the Junior Girls Division from throughout the entire 2021-2022 season, an award she was presented at the season-ending banquet held in November of this past year.

Her efforts and growing experience have also already started to show as the current Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin season got underway in September of this past year. Mackenzie has already recorded numerous top-10 finishes in many of the events she competed in at the season’s first two rodeos in Holmen and Viroqua, including a first-place finish in the Saturday pole bending competition at Viroqua. Those early efforts currently have her listed sixth in the overall Junior Girls Division standings.

Mackenzie’s slow but steady climb up the ladder of success is something the Hermans give their daughter an abundance of credit for. They say she has certainly found a passion in what she’s been doing, not only with Missy but with her other horses as well, including her original steed, Peyton. They realize that passion is something that Mackenzie has developed on her own through the experiences of others, and the occasional online video, fully admitting they have been very little help in the training of the animals.

“The bond that her and this horse (Missy) have now, from the accident they had to now, it’s amazing, because she can do a lot of stuff with this horse that I didn’t think she would ever be able to,” Rick said with a smile.

“She has no fear now,” Cathy proudly chimed in. “When she started she was hesitant at first, but not now.”

With the usage of Missy in all her rodeo events over the past several years, the Hermans acknowledge that the mare is beginning to show signs of the wear and tear those activities are taking on her. Mackenzie fully intends to begin incorporating her original horse, Peyton, into some of the events once this current rodeo season resumes again in May.

“Horses are something I think I’ll always love,” Mackenzie said. “You build a bond with this animal, and you have to be partners. If you give up on them, it’s sad. You have to have a lot of patience with any horse you’re training.”

As she continues with her final year in the Junior Division through the end of this summer, Mackenzie says she fully intends to keep rodeo in her future and see where it may lead for her. The Senior Division of competition awaits her next year, and Little Britches Rodeo of Wisconsin also offers an opportunity to be its Rodeo Queen each year, and there are further scholarship and schooling opportunities in the sport of rodeo that can also offer further goals to pursue.

For right now, however, Mackenzie is thoroughly enjoying doing what she’s doing with her developing passion. She would encourage anyone who has a love for horses or thinks they might be interested in trying to compete in rodeo to give Little Britches Rodeo a try, just like she did.

“I would tell them to go for it because the more you do it, the more you learn, and you also make really good friendships, and it’s also a good way to bond with your horses,” Mackenzie shared. “Everyone there is so nice and friendly. If you need help getting into the arena, they will step up and help you get in. They want to help you as much as they can, and they’re always willing to give you advice. It’s also a good way to come out of your shell; I’ve really started to come out of my shell more and more, both at school and at rodeo, all because of rodeo.”