Donene takes care of her horse as she would her own children.
It only took her 38 years to do it, but for 52-year-old Donene Taylor, it’s all just part of the ride. In her mind, she’s just happy to see all that hard work finally pay off. A week ago, she was just one of a dozen women who were really good at tie-down goat roping.
Today, she’s the best in the world.
“Oh man,” the petite cowgirl says, shaking her head as she admires the gold buckle encased in glass that she’s dreamed about winning since age 14. “You have to be pretty gritty to hang in there that long with that goal.”
Along with the buckle, winning best of the world also nets her a coat, saddle, horse blanket, boots, a hat and a moped scooter. She’s dreamed about this victory for a long time.
While other teenagers were busy obsessing about boys, weekend plans and about who liked whom, Donene recalls sitting in high school English class dreaming about being out on her horse in an arena with a lasso swirling in the air above her head.
“I’ve been riding since I was 2 years old,” she says, recounting her first memories in the ring with her professional rodeo cowboy father, a man who encouraged her to rodeo from day one. “I can’t remember a day in my life when I’ve ever wanted anything else.”
She’s always been a natural at roping. Always a stand out, she was good and did well but never felt like she was among the best, despite a handful of junior national titles, including first place wins in National Junior Britches Rodeo, as well as a successful rodeo career in both high school and at Casper College and Chadron State, where she earned a degree in physical education.
Her first job out of college was working for the IRS. She went door to door collecting delinquent taxes – a horrible job, she says. And a far cry from her first love, rodeo.
After years of dabbling as an amateur, she finally went pro in the early 90s. Since then, she’s let her passion lead her, and as hard as she tried, she was still only finishing in the middle of the pack.
What was she doing wrong? She knew she had the talent to be good but something was holding her back. Then she’d get frustrated and take a break.
The breaking point for Donene came one day after a rodeo in which she’d finished fourth. One of the other rodeo girl’s fathers, a complete stranger, approached her as she stood outside the arena tending to her horse and gave her what felt like a staunch warning.
“Not everyone can be a world champion,” he’d told her, sadly shaking his head as he gave her a few insights about why he thought she couldn’t be one.
She just nodded and listened until he walked away, at which point she burst into tears. No way was she going to let him know that he got to her, and what could have broken the spirit of anyone else, had the opposite effect on Donene. At that point she was determined to win a world title, if just to prove this guy wrong.
“I don’t know why he did that or if he was just trying to be mean, but oh man,” she said, shaking her head with a determined smile. “Boy, did things get good after that.”
Hard work is not above Donene’s pay grade, she points out, so from there it was a matter of grit and determination, and most importantly, reaching out to seek some professional help in the form of coaching and mental preparation.
It wasn’t as easy as it sounds.
Truthfully, she had a few major obstacles to overcome. For starters, she had suffered since childhood with an eating disorder, anorexia, coupled with obsessive compulsive disorder, which finally in 2002 led her into rehab.
Once home, she immediately backslid, and in 2003 relapsed and went back into treatment.
“You just don’t get rid of something you’ve been fighting with your entire life,” she said. “I knew it was going to take a little time.”
The second time did the trick, and Donene got even more serious about her mission.
“I realized I needed some help, and so I called up the best,” she said, explaining how she reached out to a world-class champion roper she’d long admired, Lari Dee Guy, who signed up Donene for her roping clinic in Abilene, Texas.
“I told Lari I wanted to win world, and she said come on down,” Donene said.
The pair instantly hit it off and Lari Dee took Donene under her wing. In no time ,Donene was steadily inching her way up to the head of the pack.
Still, first place remained out of her reach.
It was time to do some renegotiating. In order to do this right, Donene realized, she also needed to make a no-fail contract with herself that would prevent her from giving her any excuse to quit. Three years seemed like a fair time frame, then she’d revisit the terms.
That deal saved her. Personal circumstances during that time frame would have been excuse enough to quit. First, her brother killed himself and less than a year later her mother died.
Along with the contract, she had a hearty team of support behind her in her husband and two sons, Hunter and Roper, all of whom stood behind her, cheering her along, every step of the way.
It wasn’t easy. The rodeo circuit is pretty tough. Spreading over the year from August to September with rodeos in nearly every western state, Donene estimates that in one year she put 130,000 miles on her brand new truck.
And despite the fact that under Lari Dee’s tutelage Donene’s physical skills were steadily improving, her mental game was still off, suffering under the stress of her desire to be the absolute best.
She was focusing on stuff that was out of her control, she realized, and as she’d learned in the past, the only way to fix something is to ask for some help. True to Donene’s style, she went straight to the best.
Enter Brian Cain, mind coach and the foremost authority on mental toughness, who along with baseball player Matt Morse, has helped hundreds of athletes find their best mental game.
Typically, Cain sticks to the baseball diamond, but after hearing Donene’s story, he decided to make a foray into the rodeo arena. Like a good coach, he was up for the challenge.
The pair went to work. Cain had several things to teach her, and within her studio she has shelves of books to help her. First lesson was for Donene to walk with presence.
At just over five feet, Donene doesn’t exactly have a commanding stature. Notice how she walks with her back slouched and head bent, he pointed out, teaching her to learn to walk tall and be big regardless of physical height.
She throws up her arms in a commanding V above her head and lets out an impressive growl, then laughs. That’s part of filling up a room. Not only does it kick in your natural testosterone but it also makes you more confident and strong.
Along with a lack of confidence, she realized she had a tendency to apologize for her successes, particularly last year when as one of the oldest cowgirls competing for the world title, she’d taken second place.
Own it, Cain urged her.
She points to a half dozen of books, that along with Cain’s daily coaching, have helped her learn to stay calm in the ring and to focus only on the things she can actually control, namely herself.
“You’ve got to let go of the outcome,” she recited, quoting one of her favorite mantras. “It’s all about the process.”
Along with having the best roping and mental coach, Donene also turned to Trevor Brazile, a 23-time world champion roper with 13 PRCA All-Around Cowboy World Championships under his belt, for her horse Chester, who she credits for hard-earned success.
Together, all of the elements finally fell into place this fall, and two weeks ago in Waco, Texas, Donene finally took first. She couldn’t believe it when she heard the announcer say her name. She’d finally done it and achieved that elusive goal.
Next year, she’s thinking, she’ll do it all again.