Lauren Keeney initially became attracted to the attire.
The cowgirl hats. The fancy western boots. Anything “blinged out,” from shirts to ponchos to pants.
“When I saw all these pretty cowgirls, I was like, ‘I want to do that,’” Keeney said of her first rodeo outings.
Participating in rodeos wasn’t a problem for the 15-year-old from Myersville. With her parents, Pam and Jake, having owned horses for as long as she could remember, Lauren gained riding experience at age 4. So Keeney got her wish, slipping into those fancy cowgirl outfits and thoroughly enjoying the festive atmosphere in rodeo. She participated in barrel racing and pole bending along with her horse, Girl, but never really taking on a win-at-all-costs mentality.
That all changed when the then-13-year-old Keeney and Girl went from consistently slightly above average to excellent during a Wednesday night jackpot race at J Bar W Ranch rodeo, completing a pattern they usually finished in anywhere between 16.3 and 16.4 seconds in 15.9 seconds.
“Everyone was just clapping and cheering, and they’re all so excited because I’ve been working with it. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is real,’” said Keeney, who has earned her second straight trip to the National High School Finals Rodeo, which begins today and runs through Saturday in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
The feeling was intoxicating, bringing out competitive juices that have, along with the ability to perform at a high level, remained with her since that exhilarating ride with Girl. The strong performances continued in the following month, including a top-10 finish in a rodeo featuring more than 200 riders.
Keeney suddenly didn’t enter rodeos for the sole purpose of pure enjoyment.
“As I got older, I was like, I want to do something where I can make money, get in a different environment where there’s people watching,” said Keeney, a rising junior at St. Maria Goretti High. “It’s exciting — loud music blaring and all that.”
Before her first streak of notable rides, Keeney asked her mother for a horse that specialized in barrel racing. Pam Keeney obliged — under one condition.
“She’s like, ‘OK, as long as you promise to work hard,’” Lauren Keeney said.
The younger Keeney held up her end of the bargain, with the hard work being manifested in improving performances and the willingness to take on new challenges.
Throughout her initial period of prolonged success, Keeney never became complacent, always wanting to improve and make jumps in levels of competition. She credits Girl for some of that desire to get better.
Keeney said Girl was hampered by a leg injury when the family first purchased her but eventually healed. Keeney will ride two other horses, Booty and Stinger, in the barrel racing and pole bending competitions, respectively, at the NHSFR.
“Once my horses were stepping up, I needed to step it up and take it to the next level,” Keeney said.
Lauren’s sister, 19-year-old Morgan, wasn’t too shabby herself in rodeo competition, which also helped push the younger Keeney.
Keeney made her first NHSFR appearance last season but made significant strides this year, earning All Around Cowgirl honors at the Maryland High School Rodeo Association finals. In the process, she won the barrel racing competition and took reserve champion, or runner-up, honors in pole bending, qualifying her for those events at the NHSFR. Keeney also qualified in goat-tying but will focus on barrel racing and pole bending — her strongest events — in Wyoming.
When talking about the NHSFR, Keeney expressed just as much excitement over the perks of traveling.
“Wyoming, it’s beautiful,” Keeney said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s something I would not want to miss. There were loud horses roaming around, mountains everywhere. It’s gorgeous.”
As for the competition, Keeney said she’d like to progress further than she did last year. Competitors put forth two efforts in each event, and the top 20 advance to the short-go portion — a target for Keeney.
Regardless of how she does, Keeney’s banner season has her already thinking about the next step up in competition. Prior to her standout performance at the MHSRA finals, Keeney had won between six and eight rodeos during the high school season.
“Last year, it was just me getting used to it,” Keeney said. “This year I started winning a lot, and it was getting exciting. Now, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do professional rodeos.’”