Rodeo team rides for veterans
By Lea Kopke
MANAWA – During every performance, each member of the all-female Rodeo City Riders (RCR) carries an American flag as her horse performs intricate routines set to music.
For rider Debra Nooyen, a 2010-15 U.S. Marine Corps veteran, the flag holds a special meaning.
“When I came back from the service, I knew I wanted to ride on the team because they carry the American flag,” Nooyen said. “I had seen the American flag draped over several coffins of guys who either came back in a coffin or committed suicide. So to me, the flag is so much more.”
She said she joined the team shortly after she returned from service because she knew it would give her the support she needed.
“I had nothing up here and had no desires,” Nooyen said. “I have (post-traumatic stress disorder), so going in crowds isn’t my thing. But being out there with other people and the horses, there’s a different space and a different comfort level.”
Tabitha Luepke, team captain and rider of seven years, said since the team’s creation in 1999, the women have always ridden for veterans.
Luepke said at the end of routines, the team stands for a couple of minutes and riders bow their heads in thanks and remembrance of veterans.
“(My most special memory) was when a veteran stood in front of me and saluted me,” she said. “That was… I’ve never had that happen before, and it was amazing.”
While she had watched the RCR for years beforehand, Luepke said her friend Shelly Zeinert is the one who convinced her to try out for the team.
“We used to trail ride together, and one day I said, ‘Shelly, I really want to try it,’ and she said, ‘Then do it.’”
Zeinert, who joined the team a year after Luepke, said she used to sit in the grandstands at the rodeo and watch RCR perform.
Now, she said she’s grown to have more confidence in both herself and her horse.
“I started out on a different side of the arena,” Zeinert said. “And now I’ve worked my horse up in her speed and actually have the confidence. I’ve really grown this year with her.”
So far this year, the 13-rider team has performed at three rodeos in Michigan and two in Wisconsin and will finish out its season Sept. 11 in Rice Lake.
The team includes riders from De Pere, Ripon, Hortonville, Oneida, Denmark, Abrams, Iola and several from Hobart.
Each of the 13 women has to make the drive out every Tuesday for practice at the Manawa Rodeo Grounds.
Before its proper rehearsal, the team does two walk-throughs of the show in the parking lot, to make sure the routine is fresh in the riders’ minds.
Then the women mount their horses, walk in circles to warm them up and race into the arena to music.
This year, the routine begins with Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”
During the show, the horses weave in and out of each other’s paths, forming lines and curves, with American flags blowing in the wind.
The team’s July 13 practice came after a dry spell, so horse hooves pounded dust into the air, something Luepke said can be dangerous for riders as it creates poor visibility.
Zeinert said outside of practices, riders have to maintain their horses and set up the necessary vet, dentist, chiropractor and/or massage therapist appointments.
“With our horses, we have to treat them as an athlete,” Zeinert said. “If you were a basketball player, football player or a track runner, you have to take care of yourself, and we have to take care of our athletes, too.”
Mindy Zielinski, a Texas native the team playfully refers to as “grandma,” said joining RCR was the most emotionally and physically challenging thing she’s ever done.
But, she said she was proud to cross it off her bucket list.
“I wanted to quit, I was scared, and these ladies are awesome,” Zielinski said. “They pushed me, they encouraged me, and I love being a part of this team. I see so much support from each other, and it’s a family. It really is a second family.”
Tori Boyea, a rider and Manawa Mid-Western Rodeo’s 2020 Rodeo Queen, said after she found out about the team at a youth clinic five years ago, she fell in love.
“I’ve been with a lot of these girls for those five years,” Boyea said. “This is the best group of people I’ve ever found. Like, compared to high school sports, compared to any other hobbies I’ve had, it’s just been super, super fun.”