By Kendra Santos
The World Champions Rodeo Alliance has provided rodeo athletes with opportunities never before experienced by even our sport’s cowboy and cowgirl greats. In fact, in its first five years since stepping out into the Western-world spotlight in May of 2018, the WCRA has shelled out a whopping $16.7 million to those who chose to take them up on unprecedented opportunities for windfall wins without excessive year-round travel. Breakaway roper Kelsie Domer and barrel racer Michelle Darling are just two of the working moms who’ve been big cowgirl beneficiaries. They’re far from alone, and are excited to be returning to do battle here at the $400,000 Stampede at the E.
“The breakaway roping is pretty new to the pro rodeo world right now,” said Domer, who grew up in Cherokee, Oklahoma and now lives in Dublin, Texas, with her husband, Ryan, and little girl, Oaklynn. “The WCRA was the very first one to step up and pay us equal money, same as all the other events. From the very first WCRA event, we were equal to everyone else. That was huge, and has had a major impact on the growth of our event. The WCRA was first to treat us the same as contestants in every other event, and everybody else has followed suit.”
Domer is of the first generation of women with a legitimate shot at making a living with a rope. She just roped at her second National Finals Breakaway Roping in Las Vegas in December, and sees no ceiling in sight. She’s been with the WCRA since the start, and missed her first major at Rodeo Corpus Christi in Texas because she was pregnant. But after Oaklynn was born on August 11, 2022, Momma Kelsie returned to the rodeo arena—and went right back to winning.
“My daughter is always going to be my first priority, and having her has changed how many rodeos I go to,” Domer said. “But Oaklynn goes everywhere with me, and is thankfully a very good traveler. The plan is to rodeo again this year, and as long as it works for her, I’ll keep at it.”
The last event Domer competed at while pregnant was the Women’s Rodeo World Championship in Fort Worth. After taking a self-imposed maternity leave after Oaklynn arrived, Domer’s first big win was at the 2023 Women’s Rodeo World Championship last May. Extra cool was that she made the cut en route to that $60,000 windfall win by way of the aptly named Last Chance Qualifier.
Domer is a nine-time Women’s Professional Rodeo Association world champion, but the money she and the rest of the breaking roping pack are competing for now is without precedent.
“Two NFBR qualifications has been awesome,” she said. “And the money I’ve been able to win at two WCRA events, in Kansas City and Fort Worth, helped my family’s life in a big way. Money like that, that comes at one event instead of having to travel all year for it, makes a big difference to us.
“The WCRA concept is simple. I’m going to all these rodeos and jackpots anyway, and by nominating them with the WCRA I can double dip and get to rope for big money at major events. Why would I not do that? It’s easy math. I rodeo all summer, hit the big weekends with the WCRA, which never take away from my pro rodeoing, and have a chance to win real money.”
Domer will be riding her signature steed Little Man here at the Stampede at the E. He’s 18 now, she’s ridden him the last five years and considers him
“a huge blessing.” Roping here at the Lazy E feels like old home week, as Guthrie is only a couple hours from where Domer grew up.
“I always have family and friends come when I rope at the Lazy E, and that makes it even more fun,” she said.
After building momentum on a now solid foundation, there’s no telling how bright the future will be for cowgirls of Oaklynn’s generation.
“I think it’s going to be unreal for girls like her, if they decide to rope,” Kelsie said. “So much has changed for breakaway ropers in my lifetime, and there’s even more for young kids to go to now. I think girls like Oaklynn will be roping for big money all the time. For the first time in history, there’s a lot of incentive for young cowgirls to make a career of it. And I don’t see this progress slowing down.”
Then there’s Oklahoma barrel racing mom Michelle Darling, who’s lit up many a WCRA arena aboard her four-legged blonde bomber Morning Traffic, aka Martini. Darling lives in Medford with her husband, Cody, and kids, Talon, Case and Demi. Michelle takes the term “all in a day’s work” to the next level.
“Getting up at 4:30 in the morning to feed, going to work, then coming home and riding after work while juggling kids is a lot,” said the part-time nurse who scrubs in with two general surgeons at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Enid, and is a well-known trainer of young barrel horses. “I sometimes take off and rodeo in the summertime, but will probably rodeo closer to the house the next few years, because of my kids and my other career. The plan is to focus more on the WCRA events in 2024.”
Like Domer, Darling’s list of career accomplishments is long and impressive.
“Winning the $50,000 in Green Bay (in 2019) is still one of my absolute favorites,” Darling said. “Winning the Reno Rodeo in 2022 was cool, and medaling twice at the Days of ’47 Rodeo in Salt Lake City when it was a WCRA event was also memorable.”
Less travel might be an even bigger draw for cowgirls like Darling than the big money on the line, due to the lifestyle choice of minimized travel and time away from home.
“Not having to stay on the road all the time is a very big deal to me,” she said. “I went out there and tried that in 2022, and it’s just so hard. I also love that everyone can qualify for these big WCRA events, even without running the wheels off of their horses and rigs. It makes sense to me to run for a lot of added money at one major event instead of nickel and diming a bunch of small checks at a bunch of little rodeos. Our horses only have so many runs in them, so it makes sense to make them count.”
Darling’s been giving Martini a well-earned break, and at press time planned to ride Miz Fabulous—a 5-year-old Frenchmans Fabulous mare—here at the Stampede at the E. Michelle and Martini took the title at the first Stampede at the E in 2020.
“I just bought Miz Fabulous, who was trained by Colby Campbell, out of New York City,” Michelle noted. “And she’s amazing. I’ll probably have Martini there as backup, but it’s always fun to give the nice young horses a shot. Martini turns 13 in 2024. She owes me nothing, and I feel like I owe her everything. There are a lot of good horses out there, but she’s been a great one that’s touched my life in a big and special way.
“My plan for this year is to stay close to home, season young horses and make the (Prairie) Circuit Finals. The Lazy E is like my backyard round pen, and they always do a great job of getting the ground good for us and our horses. It’s an amazing facility, it’s an hour and 20 minutes from my house and everybody treats us good. I absolutely love the Lazy E.”
The WCRA’s Triple Crown of Rodeo presented by the Lazy E Arena is a $1 million cash bonus up for grabs to any athlete or athletes who win three consecutive WCRA majors. Four have tried their hand at it, including breakaway roper Tacy Webb. In December of 2022, bareback rider RC Landingham brought the house down at the Cowtown Christmas WCRA event in Fort Worth, and got it done.
“The million that goes with the Triple Crown of Rodeo is absolutely always on my radar,” Darling said. “I have a lot of young horses coming up, and it’s been proven that that million can be won. How cool would that be?”