The sport of rodeo is steeped in tradition. Unlike other mainstream sports, rodeo isn’t just about the love of competing or the lustrous trophies, it’s about honoring heritage. Each rodeo athlete—whether they’re a bull rider, steer wrestler, or breakaway roper—uses skills that cowboys and cowgirls have honed for decades. And rodeo athletes aren’t done as soon as they step out of the arena. Win or lose, they’re caretakers for their animals and stewards of our land.
Perhaps nobody knows the meaning of rodeo better than Bailey Bates, a Navajo breakaway roper who comes from a long line of rodeo athletes. After a week of fierce competition at the 46th annual Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Bates rode away with her second world championship title in breakaway roping.
After her big win, we talked with Bates about how her roots influence her love for rodeo and agriculture, what it takes to be a champion, and how she plans to impact others through competing.
COWGIRL: Congrats on your recent win at the Indian National Finals Rodeo! That was not your first world championship title in breakaway roping though.
Bailey Bates: Thank you. No, the first was in 2017 at the INFR as well.
COWGIRL: What does it mean to you to compete in a rodeo that’s dedicated to the finest Native American rodeo athletes?
Bates: It’s awesome because it kind of gives you pride to be Native American. And it’s unique because you always think “cowboys vs. Indians,” but this is just it compiled into one. We’re not just Native American. We’re not just cowboys. We’re Native American cowboys.
COWGIRL: How long have you been rodeoing and breakaway roping? And what inspired you to get started?
Bates: Since junior rodeos, but I don’t think I got competitive until high school. My dad and my uncle Indian rodeoed, and my grandpas on my mom’s side and on my dad’s side both rodeoed and Indian rodeoed too.
COWGIRL: A family tradition. What was it like competing at INFR this year? Did going into it with a world championship title under your belt put some added pressure on you, or did it give you a confidence boost?
Bates: Going in, I didn’t really have the mindset that I’m already a world champion. I haven’t had that mindset in a while. I think more this year it was focusing on my horse. I have a new horse and I wasn’t sure how he was going to handle it because it was a big stage.
I’ve taken him to some performances—some pro rodeos—and he got really nervous, so I was nervous about that. But, surprisingly he handled the week pretty well.
COWGIRL: Yeah, it sounds like he turned out alright. Tell me a little bit more about the horse that you competed with.
Bates: I just played with him and worked on him throughout the pandemic. This past year was the first year of seasoning for him. I’ve had some ups and downs with him, so it’s a learning process—and learning how to trust and not only focusing on seasoning him and being a good rider for him, but also being competitive too. I think that’s something that I’ve struggled with this past year is focusing on trying to do my job at the same time as trying to trust a horse that I don’t have all that trust in.
COWGIRL: Right, that’s important. What’s his name?
Bates: Rocket. I bought him off of Facebook and he came with the name. I tried changing his name multiple times, and it just didn’t stick. Every time I would talk about changing his name, we had this joke that he launches. When I first started taking him to jackpots, he would always jump the barrier. We’re like “rocket’s launching,” and every time I try to change his name, then he’ll do some kind of launch. So we’re like, “Okay, well I guess he wants to keep his name.”
COWGIRL: That sounds like the perfect fit. What advice would you give to young cowgirls that are wanting to get into rodeoing?
Bates: Put in the work and believe in yourself. I think that belief is something that you need to have—and to think positively in life. Being in rodeo, it’s a very humbling sport. One day you might be on top, and one day you’re back at the bottom of the totem pole. So, just the constant belief in yourself I think is something that I work at. And I think what I think that that makes the difference.
COWGIRL: Do you feel like you’ve ever been at the bottom of the totem pole and worked your way back up?
Bates: Definitely. I feel like that because I not only Indian rodeo, but this past year I started professional rodeoing—and having my mindset is really what got me this past year and having my confidence in myself is what got me. But going back home and working on it is a big, big part if you want to succeed in it.
COWGIRL: Did you get to spend much time at home last year, or did you spend most of your time traveling and competing in rodeos?
Bates: Well, I was focusing on my career. I have a bachelor’s degree in range science. And before the whole breakaway thing took off, I was a high school agriculture teacher in Arizona. And then I was a 4-H youth development program coordinator. Just earlier this year in April is when I left my job and I moved home and I wanted to hit the road.
COWGIRL: I love that. That’s a pretty big leap of faith.
Bates: Yeah, it’s been a rollercoaster of a year. I was at the point where I’m thinking Did I make the right decision? So, I just kept working on my horse and just focusing on that.
COWGIRL: Do you think that you’ll ever go back to your career in ag education?
Bates: Yeah, definitely. I’m just putting things on pause right now because of rodeo. I feel like it’s something that you should do when you’re young. And [laughs] I’m not getting any younger. I’m 29, so I think that now is the time to do it. At least try it for a couple of years—and if it doesn’t fit, if it’s not going well—I have my education to fall back.
COWGIRL: I don’t think you’ll ever look back and regret pursuing your dream.
Bates: Yeah. But if I continued my career, I’d always think, What if I go? What if I never go? Then I would regret it.
COWGIRL: Did you choose to be in ag education because of your love for the Western way of life?
Bates: Yeah, and it’s not particularly like being an ag teacher, but just working in agriculture in general. Being Native American… you have respect for your land, you have respect for Mother Earth. Everything is like a big cycle and it’s so much bigger than you, and it’s just giving back and taking care of Mother Earth and trying to do your part.
COWGIRL: Can you expand on your Navajo roots and what your heritage means to you?
Bates: Thinking about being Navajo, it just makes my mind go to one word—resiliency. That’s one thing that we pride ourselves in is that we are resilient. The Navajo people are resilient. We went through the Long Walk, and we’re a pretty big tribe. We’re the biggest tribe in the U.S.
The land that we are in can be a harsh land, but we are still here and we’re making what we are able to make living on the land and taking care of it.
COWGIRL: That’s really special. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Bates: At the INFR, I did an interview with PBS on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. The INFR has a red shirt night that is focused on MMIW.
That is something that really hit home to me… especially being Native American myself. You think about traveling on the road alone, most of the time you’re just with your horses and your dog and it’s scary being out there. It’s scary for anybody, let alone being a woman, let alone be a Native American woman.
I have never really told anybody why, but I always try to have a red flag on my rope [when competing] because of that… it’s always in back of my mind.
COWGIRL: Are there any other ways you plan to bring awareness to MMIW through rodeo?
Bates: Well, rodeo in the Native American world is kind of big—the fans are really rodeo fans. Because of that, people know who you are. And I want to get people to think more on the subject.
COWGIRL: What a great way to use your platform for good.
Bates: I love rodeoing, I love roping. But that is not everything in life, especially after the pandemic. [The pandemic] really got you thinking about just wanting to be a good human being, wanting to be happy, and wanting to live a good life, you know? I think there’s a lot of trauma, and people are hurting that you don’t know are hurting. So, just being able to be a good friend to someone or being there. I mean, you don’t know that they might need someone.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Photography: (Featured image) courtesy Bailey Bates/Rodeo Ready Photos, (All others) courtesy Bailey Bates
The COWGIRL Conversation column is written by Kaylee Brister, a born-and-raised West Texan whose way of cowgirlin’ is through wranglin’ words on her computer. She’s passionate about telling stories of cowgirls making a difference—whether that be on a ranch, in a rodeo arena, or in an office. Stay tuned for more conversations with trailblazing women!