Ashley Mills – Winner of the Walt Garrison Award

It’s no surprise that Southern Arkansas University’s rodeo champion Ashley Mills was chosen for the prestigious Walt Garrison Award at the College National Finals Rodeo (CNFR) in Casper, Wyo. Just like its namesake – a rodeo and professional football great – the award is given to rodeo students who exemplify integrity, commitment, loyalty, honesty, leadership and perseverance.

Her parents laid the foundation of those traits in their little cowgirl, but life experiences and adversity honed them into a deeply refined, quiet strength that belies her shy facade.

In high school, she watched her mom fight and win a vicious battle with breast cancer. In her freshman year at SAU, she would lose her father at Christmas to brain cancer, but not before that legacy of perseverance was instilled deep within her. The loss left a burden of financial struggles and worry on her young shoulders.

“She worried and worked through it, never stopping,” said SAU Rodeo Coach Rusty Hayes. He told “Arkansas Life” writer Bobby Ampezzan in a feature story about Mills that the shy cowgirl from Live Oak, Fla. is likely “the best overall cowgirl” he has had on his nationally competitive team. “It’s a combination of her rope-handling skills, horsemanship, competitiveness and academic success. She has roped professional as a team roper, she won the United States Team Roping Club’s Cruel Girl Team Roping Championship three years ago, and was second this past October,”  Hayes is quoted as saying.

Mills shows leadership, integrity and perseverance in all she does. Those qualities didn’t just land on her – they were instilled by parents who knew their value in the making of a cowgirl, and the hard lessons that honed her perseverance started early in her life.

After falling off during her first experience with a horse, it was her father (with her mother’s encouragement) who lifted her up to put her back on the pony to make sure his little cowgirl learned to face her fears and keep moving forward.

Her father had been there by her side from the start of her rodeo career. It was he who was beside her in every event as she learned the ins and outs of calf-roping as a little girl.

“He was always right there in the box with me, pushing them (to run out of the shoot for the events),” said Mills. When Mills wanted to take a break from her studies to be home with her dying father, it was his encouragement that made her stay up on the proverbial horse and to keep riding.

“He wouldn’t let me quit. He told me to keep going – to keep doing what I love,” she said.

When her horse, Badger, was among five stolen from the SAU stables in November 2011 – the night before the annual Ozark Region rodeo at SAU, Mills drew from those hard life lessons to become a leader and a source of strength for her rodeo teammates. As McCurtain County, Okla. law enforcement investigated the theft, information trickled in indicating that the horses were somewhere in a vast and thickly forested area of the county. It was Mills and Coach Hayes who braved storms, coyotes and the dark of night to search the area. They took a mare named Cotton Candy – Badger’s stable mate. The two were inseparable at home in Mulerider Stables. The moment the mare nickered and they heard a distant response from within a deep thicket, Mills knew it was her Badger.

“I looked at Coach, but I couldn’t get the words out. Once I did, he knew by the way I said it that I wasn’t playing,” said Mills. “We heard stomping, but they weren’t getting any closer. Coach said, ‘I’m going in’ and the sheriff said ‘I’m going with you.’”

After two weeks tied to a tree without food and water, Badger emerged at the end of a rope in Coach Hayes’ hand.

“I stood in awe,” Mills recalled. “Coach said it took a minute before I took the lead rope from him. I was in shock. He looked so bad, but he was still nickering at the mare. Once she was brought into view, he was fine.”

Recalling the moment of realization that she was experiencing another great loss – that her horse, her teammate, her source of revenue was missing, Mills said, “I don’t think it actually set in until the day we found them. I didn’t want to think that I would never see him again, so I kept it out of my head.”

Only four of the five horses would return home to Mulerider Stables. Credit Card, the fifth horse had been killed. In honor of the lost teammate, a scholarship will be endowed as soon as the final $1,100 is raised. If it is raised before July 1, 2012, the scholarship can be granted to a rodeo student in the fall of 2013. If not, the scholarship will sit unused until the remainder of the money is raised. That gift would bring closure and healing to the painful chapter in the SAU Rodeo Team’s year.

“The scholarship means a lot to a rodeo member,” said Mills. “You have to pay for school, for food for you and your horse, for travel and upkeep. It gets expensive. If some good will come from this event… well, [that scholarship] would mean a lot to somebody.”

As most rodeo students from Florida’s panhandle do, Mills had the option to attend Troy University, in Alabama. It was closer to home, but Mills wanted to see her options. Her friend, Cody Prescott, an SAU Rodeo team member who was world champion calf roper in 2009, was here. She found information online about SAU’s program and came to Magnolia to tour the campus. Once she saw Mulerider Stables, SAU’s campus and toured the community, she surprised her parents with her decision to come to SAU.

“They thought I was too shy and would never go that far from home,” said Mills. “But, everyone was friendly. I felt like it was home. I had a good place to keep my horses and everything just seemed to be growing and expanding for the rodeo here. It seemed like an easy choice to me.” Her greatest influences on campus are Coach Hayes and his wife, Dina. “Coach Hayes is the closest thing to a father figure that I have in my life,” said Mills. “They call me daughter and I call them mom and dad.”

In her role of leadership in the region, Mills presented Hayes with the award when he was honored as the 2012 Ozark Region Rodeo Coach of the Year.

She credits Dr. Pierre Boumtje, her agriculture business professor, for keeping tough classes interesting.

Continuing her education in pursuit of a master’s degree, Mills was able to compete one more year in collegiate level rodeo. 2011-12 was her last season. She was awarded the Betty Gayle Cooper-Ratliff Scholarship at the CNFR in June. She will graduate in May 2013 with a master’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in agriculture.

“It’s kind of sad. The new rodeo arena is going up and I won’t even get to ride in it,” she said. “I met so many great people here and we’re all moving on.”

Aside from the moment of wavering during her dad’s illness, Mills never considered stopping her educational journey.

“Once I start something, I am going to finish it, no matter what,” she said, in a believably determined tone of voice – a voice of someone who knows the meaning of perseverance.

“The Walt Garrison Award is extremely tough to win,” said Hayes. “For us to have one of our own get that award is as big an honor as winning a national title. It couldn’t have happened to a more deserving kid.

To donate toward the “Credit Card Scholarship” visit www.saufoundation.org and choose “Make a Gift”. Be sure to specify that the donation is intended for the “Credit Card Scholarship.”

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