“The finals for Breakaway Roping will be held in conjunction with the Southeastern Circuit Finals Rodeo. The logistics for the breakaway event is currently being developed and information will be forthcoming.”
Those words were positioned at the bottom of the information sheet for the 2022 Southeastern Circuit Finals (SECF) but, for the breakaway ropers, it felt as if they were shouted off the tallest rooftop.
The Southeastern Circuit has fought an uphill battle whilst the rest of the country surged ahead in the advancement of breakaway roping in the past few years. They watched as the Columbia River Circuit set the precedent in 2016 by attempting an open format with their circuit finals, then looked on as the Badlands Circuit included breakaway in the performances of their circuit finals in 2019. Initially, residents of the Southeast expected the boom to hit their region quickly—after all, they have an extremely high concentration of breakaway ropers that regularly trek to high school, amateur and collegiate rodeos in the area—but nothing happened.
They watched as one by one, each circuit let the breakaway ropers play, but they continued to be excluded by the majority.
2021 rolled around. Permits and cards were purchased to attend the four rodeos that finally included breakaway. They watched as their neighbors in the Texas and Great Lakes circuits gained rodeos. In November 2021 the First Frontier Circuit became the 12th circuit to involve breakaway roping in their circuit finals, excluding only the Southeastern Circuit. That’s when the cowgirls realized that it was time to step in and act for themselves.
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Whitney Keller stood by her husband’s side at the Southeastern Circuit Finals (SECF) on multiple occasions, while she traveled to amateur rodeos. She finally had enough of sitting on the sidelines at the PRCA/WPRA rodeos and used the connections she gained as a lifelong competitor to go to the sources. Keller and her allies called up the committees, the circuit board members, WPRA Roping Director Jolee Jordan, and anybody else who would listen, and repeatedly asked what the cowgirls needed to do to earn their seat at the table. She encouraged other ropers to do the same, and eventually the buzz became hard to drown out.
“Whitney reached out to me,” said Jordan. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you can be a spokesperson!’ The ladies have done a good job of showing that it would be legitimate to have a finals because there’s enough interest in it.”
The combined effort of ropers like Keller, stock contractors, rodeo committee members and the WPRA finally resulted in change for the Southeast in 2022. The four sanctioned rodeos from 2021 bloomed into 14 rodeos in 2022, with more approvals rolling in as the year progresses. However, one issue remained despite the progress: Though the cowgirls were filling the shows at approved rodeos, without a guarantee of getting to rope at any circuit finals, let alone being included in the SECF, they were still being excluded from sending champions to the NFR Open.
The circuit board members began to meet and discuss the circuit finals. When the topic turned to breakaway, each reason for not including the fast-paced sport was met with a solution, not an argument.
Not enough interest in the event? Breakaway ropers are already entering and crowds are loving it. Tight Parking? They pledged to meet at a central location, share rigs and trailer in together. Time concerns? They offered to run two rounds in slack, and only run four in each performance for their third round.
“We are very flexible,” Keller said. “We’re not here to be entitled. We’re here to work to have our event added. We can show them that we are easy to work with and will do what they need us to do in order to have it added.”
There are still many details to be hammered out, and questions surrounding the format and added money for the event remain. However, the Circuit Board’s decision marked a historic win for the Southeastern cowgirls and all who have advocated on their behalf and serves as a lesson to others about the power of persistence.
“Breakaway ropers make my job easy,” Jordan said. “They’re willing to roll up their sleeves and help. They don’t just sit back and expect it to be done for them. They’re great at being their own advocates.”
For Southeastern cardholders, this announcement offered a chance to celebrate a huge victory on their own behalf. Makayla Mack is one of the cowgirls who hit the trail in good faith in 2022 and is currently No. 2 in the Southeastern Circuit ProRodeo Breakaway Standings with $1,294.94 in earnings.
“I’m very appreciative for everyone who has supported and pushed for breakaway to be here in the Southeast,” said Mack, who sat in on multiple Zoom calls and group meetings before the decision was made. “Breakaway has really been blooming the last couple of years and, for us as competitors, it’s amazing to get these opportunities.”