There’s a lot about Kayla Olson that stands out—she’s a grandma who has roped calves since the 1970s—but perhaps the thing that might get the most attention?
The fact that Kayla Olson is a left-handed breakaway roper ready to compete with the best in the world. Hailing from Chadron, Nebraska, the 58-year-old is currently holding her own in the top 10 on the Women’s Rodeo World Championship Breakaway Challenger Leaderboard with 1,740.75 points.
Olson learned to rope with her left hand as a youth from dad Rodney Rayhill before picking up heading and heeling with her right hand later in life. For her, breakaway roping with her left hand made sense because it is her dominant hand.
“My dad wasn’t left-handed so he would stand facing me and you can mirror what [right-handed people] do,” Olson explained.
“You do rope a little bit different left-handed,” Olson said. “I have to make my own momentum with my loop. When a right-handed girl ropes a calf, her horse is moving left and so is her loop. They have that momentum. For me, I am already on the right side of my calf, so I don’t have that [momentum] option.”
To manage the difference in momentum, Olson focuses on keeping her tip down and practicing in all positions on her dummy.
“It’s a lot of muscle memory,” Olson said. “I generally try to rope calves that are off the left. My horse doesn’t cross over behind them and that usually forces them left. That’s my sweet spot because It’s an easier shot because I don’t have to bring my momentum all the way across.”
Roping left-handed means Olson must make her own horses, too, since she needs a horse with some custom buttons for her left-handed loops. Right now, she’s converting her husband Brad’s 13-year-old heel horse Scenic Shining Lynx or “Cartman,” into her newest breakaway teammate.
Changing of the Times
Roping left-handed coupled with a 15-plus-year-hiatus to raise children Aaron, Ariana and Andrea, Olson has had to reckon with the explosive growth the spot of breakaway has seen.
“Getting back into competing has been really hard,” Olson said. “Things have really changed since I roped and you have to move along with the times. These days there are so many people roping that you can never luck out, get a calf caught and place. You have to go at it.”
First competing in 1970s, Olson says she’s had to shrink her loop size in breakaway to keep up—since the newest generation of ropers get their ropes up faster and make sub-two-second catches.
Despite the challenges, Olson placed in the 2022 Douglas, Wyoming, Pro Rodeo and the 2022 Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo, winning a check in the first round of the fourth bracket.
Finding New Ways to Win
Olson first caught on to the opportunities in the World Champions Rodeo Alliance in 2022 and began nominating her events in the fall. Now, she has her sights set on the Women’s Rodeo World Championship that will take over Fort Worth’s Will Rogers Complex in May 2023.
“That’ll be my first WCRA event,” Olson said. “I’ve been nominating the jackpots I go to, and I nominated the Cowgirl Gathering that was in November. I won a good check there and it got me a lot of points. The thing is, you can go to these events and win $60,000—That’s pretty exciting.”
The WCRA’s Virtual Rodeo Qualifier system changed the game for breakaway ropers and other rodeo athletes. The system operates by letting athletes nominate and garner points in ropings they were already competing in, creating a “double dip” effect. Competitors can simply select the event they wish to compete at and pay a small nomination fee proportionate to the size and payout of the event. Points build up and allow competitors to qualify for the WCRA’s Triple Crown Events, where hundreds of thousands of dollars are paid out every year.