Real Talk with Rodeo Woman Erin Johnson

Three–time WPRA World Champion Breakaway Roper Erin Johnson is as committed to the sport as they come and she knows the highs and lows of the rodeo road. She’s also a wife and mother and knows the suffering of unthinkable loss. As a rodeo woman, the remarkable part is making it all work together.

Erin Johnson smiling with her horse.
BRJ File Photo

(Original publication: April 2022 print edition of The Breakaway Roping Journal; updated Oct. 12, 2022)

At a fall photo shoot, three-time World Champion and BreakawayRoping.com coach Erin Johnson ran calves aboard her world-class horses and offered professional advice to the camera while keeping a mindful eye on her young daughter, who happily entertained the off-camera crew.

As covered in previous articles about the growth of the sport, being a woman of the rodeo road comes with unique challenges. While the men have long been in the practice of piling in a rig to cut the cost of covering miles, for instance, the women share their rigs with not-quite-ready-to-contribute kiddos. For the athletes who are also mothers, the inherent responsibilities of womanhood can be burden and blessing in one. 

Burdens and blessings, highs and lows, wins and losses. Rarely does one exist without the other, but as fans and proponents of the sport, the focus remains almost exclusively on the wins. In reality, though, there are truths about being a woman and mother that cannot be escaped, no matter the miles traveled. Truths that don’t care if you’re one of the world’s best ropers. Truths that, often, are only told within the safest inner circles. 

Truths that Erin Johnson, now a mother of three, learned just as her rodeo career was hitting its stride. And the truth is that, sometimes, pregnancies end.  

GETTING HOOKED

Erin Johnson grew up on an Eastern Colorado, fourth-generation cattle ranch. 

“Ranch work was always a part of our lives,” said Johnson, a three-time WPRA World Champion breakaway roper. “My siblings and I, we really didn’t get into rodeo. My parents took us to some gymkhanas when we were younger, and we learned to ride bareback. I don’t even think we had saddles until we were like 8, when we started showing in 4H. We showed cattle a lot.”

By 12, Johnson was learning to rope and discovering a penchant for team roping. When her parents split up, her mom moved the kids to southern Colorado and rented a house from NFR steer wrestling average champion Paul Hughes and his wife, Toni. There, Johnson took to roping with the Hughes kids—one-day NFR steer wrestler Kyle and his sister, Kashley—and began honing her breakaway skills and entering up in the National Little Britches Rodeo Association.

When she left to go to college in Chadron, Nebraska, she took her horses with the intention of finishing out her final NLBRA year at the rodeos that had been scheduled in the area, but discovered a whole new rodeo opportunity. 

“I kept my horses where the college kids were keeping their horses and I was practicing with the college kids and they were just encouraging, like, ‘Oh, you should college rodeo with us.’ So that’s where it started.”

After a year at Chadron, Johnson returned to Colorado and attended the University of Southern Colorado—now Colorado State University Pueblo—and pursued rodeo through the club there and then started amateur rodeoing in the Colorado Professional Rodeo Association before her final year of college rodeo. 

“I won one check that year at the amateur level, and it was Arthur, Nebraska. It was for $334. My mom still has a picture of it, and it was really one of the last rodeos of the year. And I remember I had already gone back to school after she got it in the mail and she called me. I was hooked after that, like, ‘I think I can really do it.’ And it really built my confidence for that last year of college rodeo.”

WINS AND LOSSES

That win was pivotal to her rodeo trajectory, according to Johnson, who had long considered herself an outsider to the sport. 

“Since I did not start rodeoing until later in life, I was going through those mental challenges later than a lot of people do. I definitely felt like an underdog. I was behind. I knew it. Everybody else knew it. I was behind the other kids my age in both my mental game and my ability, being able to put together a fundamentally correct run.”

With her exclusive pursuit of amateur rodeo in 2003, however, Johnson locked in on the opportunity to address and fix her mistakes as soon as possible. 

“Finally, after I was done college rodeoing and really started amateur rodeoing more, I could enter or three or four in a weekend. And if it didn’t go right on one, I could go fix it at the next one. And I just had that drive, and it was like a challenge. And I think that that’s where I started really developing and learning how to win.”

And win she did. 

real Talk With Rodeo Woman Erin Johnson
Johnson aboard “Bubba,” aka Rio Fols — Sire: Skips Fols; Dam: Miss Rio Ventur. BRJ File Photo

“The year after my last year of college rodeo, I think I might have been the reserve year-end champion in the amateur association. Then, the year after that, I won first,” said the now eight-time CPRA Breakaway Roping Champion.

In 2004, Johnson met future husband and PRCA tie-down roper Darnell. In 2007, the same year the couple married, Johnson, who became the CPRA breakaway director to grow the network of WPRA-approved rodeos, made her first Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Finals. 

“That started to become a goal then: to pay attention to the WPRA standings. So, from 2007 to 2010, I focused on that. So, in the fall of 2010, I lost the world championship to Lari Dee by like a few hundred dollars. And I was five or six months pregnant with [my son] Denton at that point. He was born in February and that was in late October that year, in Lincoln. 

“I don’t know what it was about having a baby, but I came back, and I was just hungry to rope and to win. I was so excited to be that close to my goal and to do it competing against the best lady ropers out there. It felt like I had unfinished business.”

In 2011, Johnson won her first WPRA Breakaway Roping World Champion title. Then, in 2012, she did it again. 

“Everything just kind of fell into place,” said Johnson, who was taking names aboard her iconic home-made gray, Rio Fols, known widely as Bubba.

“In 2013, I got pregnant with our second baby and I roped most of the summer with her. She was due Oct. 1. I think I quit roping toward the end of July. 

“We ended up losing her that fall. September 17.”

At 38 weeks, just two weeks shy of her due date, Johnson felt something was off. 

“I just quit feeling her moving that morning.”

When Johnson’s midwife checked, there was no heartbeat. The baby was delivered stillborn, the result of a rare, but true knot in the umbilical cord.  

“I was devastated,” Johnson offered. “It’s hard to even talk about. I curled up in a ball.”

RISING UP

Johnson had already qualified for the WPRA Finals that year, but the possibility of roping there didn’t even register. 

“The only thing that felt like it could make it right was to have another one,” Johnson explained. “We just started trying to get pregnant again right away and in December I was pregnant. That’s all I wanted. I didn’t care about roping. I didn’t care about anything else.”

Though Johnson did rope some during the pregnancy, she found herself being far more cautious. 

“I didn’t know,” Johnson said as she gave voice to a years-long internal debate. “I didn’t have any idea what would have made that happen, you know? And you always second guess, ‘What did I do wrong?’ You know, ‘Did I ride too long?’ Because, I mean, I can ride pregnant. My balance is great. I’m not worried about falling off but, you know, you just wonder: Was it the wrong decision? 

“And so, I was really cautious when I was pregnant with Evin, [but] I delivered her right at 38 weeks, too. On Aug. 9.”

This time, Johnson couldn’t get back to roping soon enough.

“After her, I was ready again. I went back to roping and right away. I mean, I actually entered the amateur rodeos the following weekend. I think she was seven or eight days old. I had her with me. It was a terrible idea, but it made me feel good.”

When Johnson returned to the arena in 2015, she brought with her the same drive that had often carried her to success, but also the confidence and knowing that comes from surviving unimaginable loss and picking up its pieces. 

“I kind of took a break through the winter, but I was ready to rope again the next spring. And I won the world again in 2015, with Evin being a baby. And it was the most fulfilling thing to have everything that I wanted.”

real Talk With Rodeo Woman Erin Johnson
Johnson won her third World Champion Breakaway Roper title in 2015 with baby Evin. Courtesy WPRA/Peggy Gander.

WORTH IT

Another little girl, Annie, was born in 2016 and, since then, Johnson has been a stay-at-home mom, while also navigating new levels of historic competition that have developed in the most recent years.

“I’ve been competitive ever since,” said the now three-time NFBR qualifier, “but I’ve been raising kids. I have three and I’m busy. I help Darnell do whatever he needs help with. We have a little farm. We raise hay and have a few mama cows. That’s really where my heart is. I love swathing hay. I love baling hay. I love calving cows. My dad passed away in 2018 and left me the best of his broodmares … so I do that, too.”

To be clear, Johnson’s story isn’t about martyrdom. It’s not a story about the extreme suffering a professional rodeo athlete must endure and it’s not a how-to story for overcoming pregnancy loss. The story is that she knows the devastation of that loss alongside the joys of being a mother and, almost a decade later, is able to share the story which shaped her particular path to becoming one of the best breakaway ropers in the world.

“I know I don’t rope as good as I used to, but I’m so happy to be included,” Johnson said, speaking of qualifying for the first ever National Finals of Breakaway Roping in 2020. “I really feel like it was God’s plan for me to make it [that] year. I think He felt like I was one of the people that needed to be at the first one when we made history. I made it in 15th by just a little bit and everything fell my way and I feel like that was God’s plan. I’m happy to be part of history because I feel like I’ve worked at it a really long time. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s so worth it.”

real Talk With Rodeo Woman Erin Johnson
The Johnsons at the 2021 NFBR, including Darnell, Annie, Evin and Denton (left to right).

REAL TALK ABOUT PREGNANCY LOSS

A 2016 CDC report says that for every 160 pregnancies in the United States, one will end in a stillbirth, amounting to as many as 24,000 each year. When miscarriages are also considered, pregnancy loss can occur at a rate as high as one in four, according to Stanford Children’s Health. 

“True knots” occur in less than 2% of pregnancies and, according to a 2021 report in the Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, increase the chance of fetal demise ten-fold after 37 weeks. 

COACH ERIN

Erin Johnson—3X World Champion Breakaway Roper—provides online breakaway roping instruction through breakawayroping.com. Use promo code ERIN15 for 15% off a membership, with access to hundreds of videos of breakaway roping instruction from the best in the world.

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