Sonya Dodginghorse still remembers the first time she competed in a rodeo.
Her entire family traveled to Broadview, Sask., for their hometown event — her father and brothers all seasoned tie-down ropers, her sister a barrel racer. Even at five years old, she knew she wanted to compete. She asked her dad if she could enter the rodeo, too, and he obliged.
Not yet properly uniformed, she says she grabbed a pair of black rubber boots, a raggedy old hat and a white and blue-striped blouse.
“It was so fun, and I was hooked since then,” she said.
The barrel races are what caught her eye — a timed event where racers try to get around three barrels placed in a triangular pattern the fastest.
Throughout the years, Sonya, 44, continued to compete in those events while caring for a number of horses at her home, DH Ranch, on the Tsuut’ina Reserve, where she also runs a number of educational programs alongside her husband.
She’s also instilled the racing passion in her daughter, Cayda Dodginghorse. And together, they’re turning heads.
The Indian National Finals Rodeo (INFR) holds the world finals for Indigenous people in Canada and the United States. In 2019, Sonya became the INFR ladies barrel world champion, while Cayda took home the junior title. They’ve got the belt buckles to provide it.
“It gives me such an adrenaline rush,” Cayda, 16, said.
“When I’m racing, I want to be like my mom. She’s like my biggest inspiration.”
They’re both incredibly proud of their rodeo accomplishments, but even more so, they’re proud of what they stand for.
They want to be an inspiration for up-and-coming barrel racers, especially young Indigenous women. Sonya says she has faced extra hurdles as a professional Indigenous racer, and she hopes by traveling and competing with her daughter, they can promote more awareness.
“People out there still have this ignorance.… I was at a couple of pro rodeos and I did hear some negative talk about Indigenous people,” she said.
“My parents are both residential school survivors and, you know, it has affected us. It has affected our family, it has affected our communities across Canada. And so we raise awareness wherever we go and on our travels.”
This year, they hope those travels take them to the Canadian Finals Rodeo (CFR), known as the Super Bowl of rodeo, and back to the INFR.
The more rodeos, the better, allowing the duo to continue to spread their message. They’ve made their mission known, covering their trailer with images representing reconciliation and healing.
“As Indigenous women, we have faced many years of oppression,” Sonya said.
“To be that strength and show that resilience to our future daughters, our future children [when they] are up and coming into the sport of rodeo, into anything they want to be. We set that pathway for them.… Our voices were once powerless. And we are now rising. We are healing.”
‘Rodeo is for everyone’
Being around horses for most of their lives has also helped to promote intergenerational healing, Sonya said.
She still remembers getting off the school bus as a little girl and running to the pasture. She’d whistle for her horse from her, Jughead, who’d carry her off to her from her next adventure from her.
Horses are spiritual animals, Sonya says, and they’ve had a place in Indigenous culture for a long time.
“They have the ability to heal your heart. They have the ability to calm your mind. And they are sacred medicine for our own spirits,” she said.
She built such a deep connection with her own horse that she stepped away from the sport at 17 when he passed away. She focused on university and earned a teaching degree, only coming back to the sport after some urging from her brother of her.
She says she ended up winning her first rodeo back, rekindling her love for the sport.
Cayda has also built a special relationship with the horses at DH Ranch. She says she wouldn’t be who she is today without them.
“They are like healers for me. So whenever I’m, like, feeling down or something, I … go ride some of my horses in the backyard and that just keeps me at ease.”
Caring for them can be tough, though. The horses are athletes, too, Sonya says, and they have a strict food, supplement and exercise program. At the ranch, the duo can be seen carrying buckets to and from enclosures where horses of all sizes and colors await.
The family also heads south to Montana every five weeks to get new horseshoes.
It’s a lot of work, but Sonya says she loves to see how caring for the horses is helping her daughter to grow.
“The responsibility that she’s learned through the spirit of the horse, the care that it takes… I’m so proud of her.”
And as Cayda continues to progress in her career — it’s her last season competing in the junior program — she wants to follow in her mom’s footsteps.
“Rodeo is for everyone. Everyone needs to feel included for it to work.”
But she won’t be taking it easy on her.
“I don’t want to let her win. I want to beat her.”