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Potawatomi barrel racer places in the top 10 at Indian National Finals Rodeo

Amber Alsterlund’s life revolves around animals. When not working as a veterinary technician, she travels to compete in rodeos and equestrian competitions in the northwestern portion of the United States. The time spent on her grandparent’s farm in Idaho cultivated her passion from a young age.

“I was on a horse before I could walk. My family, we’re pretty committed,” she said.

Alsterlund barrel races most of the year at rodeos throughout the northwestern part of the United States. (Photo provided by Shyanne Stillwell Photography)

She mainly barrel races but also likes roping and horse racing, and she won the women’s bareback race at the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon last September.

The Darling family descendant enjoys spending time with her horse and best friend, Six. In October 2018, the two came in sixth in barrel racing at the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada, marking one of their most significant accomplishments.

Road to Vegas

She grew up in northern Idaho, learning the basics of riding and caring for horses at her aunt and uncle’s quarter horse ranch. As she got older, she began participating in Gymkhanas, which are display and skills-based equine competitions. Attending rodeos also inspired her to take on more challenging, physical events such as barrel racing.

“I feel like it’s just in my blood. There’s nothing better than when you’re on your horse, regardless if it’s 100 degrees or negative 3,” Alsterlund said.

Three years ago, some friends she made while participating in rodeos near the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington told her about the Indian National Finals Rodeo. She researched the competition’s structure and then began regularly attending qualifying events.

“I honestly probably can say my life kind of revolves around it more than I revolve around it. … Usually on Friday, I’m loading up and heading down the road. So, it’s pretty amazing,” she said.

The portion of Idaho she resides in belongs to the King Mountain Indian Rodeo Association, and 2018 was Alsterlund’s second trip to Las Vegas as one of the region’s top contenders.

“I love traveling. I love being a part of the fundamentals of it, and I love being able to represent my Tribe in the best way I can,” she said.

Six of one

Tribal member Amber Alsterlund and her horse, Six, spend time together every day, strengthening their skills and special connection. (Photo provided.)

She bought her primary horse, Six, from a woman in Purcell, Oklahoma, four years ago. Alsterlund worked from the ground up on Six’s barrel racing skills. The two’s compatibility and reliance on one another account for much of their success.

“I couldn’t be more blessed to have such an amazing equine partner than her. She loves her job just as much as I do,” Alsterlund said. “She’s got such heart and try, and I know every time I go into the arena, I can count on her to give me 100 percent and always keep me safe.”

Six’s big personality comes out during competitions as well.

“She’s hilarious. When she gets out in front of a crowd, you can just feel it. She loves it. She loves to strut her stuff,” Alsterlund said.

“We’ll be in the warmup pin; her head’s down. … And then as soon as we go to walk in the arena, it switches, and it’s game time.”

Alsterlund described the experience as “exhilarating,” and said there is nothing more fun than hopping on the back of an exceptional mare. Both she and Six know what the other wants, which is essential during competition.

“One of my biggest goals always going down (to INFR) is just to stay consistent because I feel like consistency, it pays off bigger in the long run,” she said.

Family at South Point

Held at the South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa in Las Vegas, the INFR utilizes the establishment’s arena for the rodeo events. Alsterlund’s family including her dad, grandma and aunt made a vacation out of the finals.

She felt more comfortable and prepared, thanks in part to fellow Tribal member and rodeo participant Connor Osborne. He spent time with Alsterlund and Six before each competition and walked them toward the arena.

“I feel like that was really helpful for my horse and I as well because it kind of just let us relax and focus on the way down and just get into that groove to go make a run,” she said.

Over the years, and especially since she began the INFR series, Alsterlund became friends with people across the country. She receives pep talks and reassurance from fellow competitors, family and Tribal members that make it all worth it, regardless of her performance.

“That is one of my favorite things about rodeo is it’s a family. If you need help, somebody’s there,” she said. “I think that’s a pretty unique thing to have in this world.”

Finishing strong

For the 2018 INFR, Alsterlund calmed Six, cleared her mind and focused on the long game. They clipped a barrel during their first run, but Alsterlund saved herself from the time penalty by reaching over and setting it up before it hit the ground. Their runs improved following the mishap.

“As the week went on, (Six) started to speed up, which is pretty usual for her. If we’re somewhere for a whole weekend, usually once the first run is out of the way, it only gets better from there,” Alsterlund said.

She placed in the top 10 each evening for the rest of the week. In the end, she took home sixth place among 30 women from across the United States and Canada.

“I’m not going to complain about that at all,” Alsterlund said. “Because the way I see it, I’m competing against some of the toughest girls out there. … I can’t wait to get back this year and see what we can do.”

CPN sponsored Alsterlund for her trip to the finals, and she felt grateful for the assistance and the opportunity.

“To represent the Potawatomi Nation, it’s an honor, honestly, for me. I feel very blessed to be able to have that associated with my name,” she said.

Alsterlund recently purchased her second horse, a gelding named Rowley, as well as her pro permit. This year’s goals include training him, participating more in breakaway roping and making another appearance at the Indian National Finals Rodeo this October.

“Rodeo and horses,” she said. “They’re everything I could ever dream of wanting to have for my life.”