LOLO — In a quiet stable south of Lolo, Stephanie Rollins prepares her rodeo partner, named Juicy, for their day.
“She loves it, this is her favorite time," Rollins said while brushing her horse. "All shiny and clean.”
Rollins, a Great Falls native and CMR High School grad, is a senior pharmacy student at the University of Montana, and competes for the Griz rodeo team in breakaway roping and barrel racing.
She says balancing school and rodeo is tough.
“It ends up being about five-hour days, but it’s worth it when you’re out here with your friend," Rollins said.
Juicy is her best friend. Competing together for six years, Rollins said their bond is critical to her success.
“We’re both so competitive," Rollins said. "I think that's what makes each other better that if I miss a calf, don’t worry, I get some attitude from her. And it’s all motivating because it makes the win so much better.”
But one year ago, their competition almost came to an end.
Rollins was hit by a truck going more than 100 miles-per-hour while leaving a rodeo. She broke an arm, both her legs, and lost vision in her right eye. Ten surgeries in three months kept her alive, but unable to walk.
“I honestly didn't know after the accident how my horses were doing," Rollins recalled. "I didn't know about a lot of things.”
She did know she had to get back on the saddle — not just for herself, but for Juicy.
“I can't let her sit," Rollins said. "She wants to be competitive, I want to be competitive too, and that really drove me to perform. Get stronger every day and make a quick recovery so I could get back with her.”
Rollins had to relearn how to walk, ride, and throw the rope with her rebuilt body changing how they competed.
“You don’t realize just how much your legs do for you on your horse," Rollins said. "I lost a lot of core strength which is incredibly important as well, but just balancing that and just figuring (out) depth perception, which is big, because I have one side of me that says oh you're close but the other side is saying no you're not close.”
Since then she’s had a lot of practice, getting stronger, and bonding with Juicy, and her team. Her mindset sharper than ever.
“I’m been thinking about this time, waiting for it since my accident," Rollins said. ”She really feeds off the crowd. I’m amped up, Juicy is amped up and we just know we’re going to lay down a run for our crowd.”
The hometown’s energy at the recent UM Rodeo is just what Rollins said she needed to do her best.
“It’s just an incredible experience being in front of your hometown crowd," she said. "You can go into that head-space where it’s full concentration. You just black out, you know. Block out any distractions or sounds and get the job done."
Even so, Rollins isn’t taking life for granted.
“I am the fighter I think I am," Rollins said. "I am going to continue to push through these injuries and setbacks that I have because I want to be back to where I want to be.”