NEW PALESTINE –— Morgan McKinney is hoping for a smooth ride when she competes in a national rodeo next week. No matter what happens, however, it will be a memorable experience because of who will be with her.
For the third straight year Morgan, a recent New Palestine High School graduate, has qualified for the National High School Rodeo Association finals in Rock Springs, Wyoming, July 13-19.
This time around, before she even saddles up to take part in barrel racing and pole bending activities, it looks like things might be falling Morgan’s way.
Her lifelong friend, Juliana Wyatt of Greenfield, will also be making the trip to compete.
As the winner of this year’s Indiana High School Rodeo Queen contest, Juliana, a home-schooled senior has also earned a trip to the nationals.
The girls met when they were toddlers through a local gymnastics class and have bonded ever since.
“We were babies together,” Morgan said. “Then we grew up together and then through middle and high school we just got really, really close.”
The two girls learned they’d qualified for nationals during the recent Indiana High School Rodeo State Finals.
The young women will be each other’s biggest fan.
“It’s going to be awesome to get to watch and cheer for Morgan,” Juliana said.
“I’ll be screaming for her when she comes out on stage like everyone else does from every other state,” Morgan said.
While Morgan finished in the top third of all riders during her first trip to the nationals in 2012, last year, she and her horse, Brady, took a fall and didn’t fare as well.
That’s why Morgan is hoping her third and final time, with so much experience under her belt, will be the best.
While Juliana has not asked Morgan for advice, Morgan has tried to tell her about the world’s largest high school rodeo, featuring 1,500 students from 41 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia.
“She’s just said there are a lot of people out there,” Juliana said. “There are a lot of really good horses and a lot of really good competition.”
Juliana said she is somewhat nervous not knowing what to expect. However, she is comforted knowing her best friend will be there.
“I’m definitely glad she is going to be with me,” Juliana said.
It’s the same for Morgan, who said she jumped for joy when she heard Juliana had won the High School State Rodeo Queen contest.
“I was pulling for her the entire way and when she actually won it, I was like, it was so awesome,” Morgan said. “It was like, ‘Yes, my best friend is going to nationals.’”
Both young women have been riding since they were children, and both have been active in 4-H. But this was the first time Juliana had taken part in the state rodeo queen contest.
They say they will be living vicariously through each other during the nationals.
“I ran last year for the state rodeo queen contest and didn’t win,” said Morgan, who was voted Miss Congeniality at this year’s Hancock County 4-H Fair queen pageant.
“Now, I get to experience this through her and I am just really excited for her.”
As are the girl’s parents, who will make the trip to Wyoming.
“It’s just such a huge blessing,” Juliana’s mother, Janelle Wyatt said. “It’s bittersweet, because they are getting older and will be going off onto bigger and better things.”
Morgan’s mother, Julie McKinney, said despite it being Morgan’s third trip to the nationals, she just wants her daughter to have a good time.
“I just want her to improve,” Julie McKinney said. “I hope she makes it to that last Saturday night show, because that is why you go. But, obviously, we want her to have safe rides first.”
Morgan said regardless what happens, it will be a bittersweet experience knowing it is her last high school national rodeo.
She’ll head to Purdue University when she gets back; she plans to study animal science.
Juliana has one more year of home school before graduating and then will follow her best friend to college, where they may or may not be roommates.
“We’ll just have to see,” Morgan and Juliana said in unison.