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Drilled To Thrill

Texas Spirit Riders’ razzle-dazzle aims to rise above other rodeo performance squads

“Look good. Ride fast. Dazzle the crowd.”

The moment the Texas Spirit Riders enter the arena, their motto becomes a force of nature.

“We! Are! TSR!” the riders chant as their horses trot into formation before breaking off and zooming past bleachers. The riders whoop and holler with joyful abandon.

The rodeo drill team based in Winnsboro, about an hour north of Tyler in East Texas, performs choreographed maneuvers on horseback for audiences all over Texas. The all-woman team appears most often at cowboy and cowgirl sporting events, and they’re part of a decadeslong tradition of rodeo drill teams in Texas that has included Terrell’s Cowgirl Congress, Magnolia’s Lone Star Cowgirls, Refugio County’s Independence Belles, Jack Sellers’ Bexar County Palomino Patrol and many more. But none, one might wager, embody their appellation more than the Texas Spirit Riders.

Riders feed off energy from the crowd at Winnsboro Rodeo Arena in May.

Dave Shafer

The Spirit Riders, who range in age from 8 to 60, with coach Rachael Kiowski.

Dave Shafer

Every time these ladies swing into the saddle, they draw on the memory of a fallen teammate.

“We started out with huge dreams and lots of ambition,” explains Erica Bednarz of Bullard, who was named captain of the Spirit Riders in August 2020—about 24 years after the team was founded, in 1996. She picked her friend Lynsey Berger of Wills Point as co-captain. “We wanted to make a difference in the rodeo industry and really grow the sport of equestrian drill teams.”

Casey Partanen, left, and Keahey perfect their makeup early in the morning before a parade through Winnsboro.

Dave Shafer

After the team’s first organizational meeting with its new leaders, however, Berger, 29, was killed in a head-on collision. Bednarz was on the phone with her friend October 2, 2020, when another car drifted into her lane. “There was a loud noise,” she recalls, “and then everything went silent.”

The Spirit Riders’ first performance under Bednarz’s captaincy was for Berger’s funeral. “The team was shaken,” she says. “Our world was forever changed, and I wasn’t sure if I could find the strength to keep the riders going.

“In the midst of tragedy, we found strength in each other. We vowed to honor Lynsey by following her dream of making it all the way to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.”

The “rodeo road,” as the drill team calls it, is a long, hard one. Heck, it’s a long, hard road to just make the rodeo in Mesquite or Wichita Falls. The Spirit Riders rely on their reputation to land bookings. The NFR would be the ultimate gig.

Erica Bednarz parades the Stars and Stripes.

Dave Shafer

Bednarz, atop Blue, has led the Spirit Riders since August 2020.

Dave Shafer

“What we do is not easy,” Bednarz explains. “We travel hundreds of miles—some riders haul their horses that far just for a practice—and spend countless hours away from our families. The drills require exquisite horsemanship and trust in 11 other horses and 11 other riders, who at any moment could make a wrong move and seriously injure you or your horse.”

As the Spirit Riders burst into the arena for an official rodeo performance, lights flashing off their shiny, Texas-themed outfits, the horse-savvy crowds recognize equine athletes who, in many cases, have been livin’ large in the saddle since they were toddlers. Former captain Rachael Kiowski of Lone Oak, who passed the TSR torch to Bednarz and now serves as a coach for the team, first perched on horseback at the tender age of 2. Senior rider Ellen Larue, 60, of Cooper waited till the advanced age of 7 to mount up, acquiring her first horse, a Welsh pony named Lightning, at 10.

Larue currently rides a 16-year-old sorrel mare named Reba. “She’s a little spoiled and doesn’t like to get her feet dirty,” Larue says. Reba will retire from drills after this year but will serve as a flag horse in military rides. Most drill horses, Larue says, are 3–10 years old, though the younger the better. The drills are such a workout that older horses can develop arthritis. “And it’s generally quarter horses, thoroughbreds and mustangs. Gaited and saddle horses, not so much.”

Katrina Czarnecki sprinkles glitter on a horse.

Dave Shafer

Shelby Woolly sports a personalized belt buckle.

Dave Shafer

In a practice session in March, Larue participates in a flag drill that pays tribute to every branch of the armed forces. “We Support The Troops,” reads the flag of the next-to-last rider who solos through the arena to join the other riders carrying flags of each branch. The last rider, 19-year-old Savannah Nichols of Leesburg, stands on her horse’s saddle and holds the Stars and Stripes aloft as her mount gallops across the arena. It’s a stirring display.

Nichols says it’s an adrenaline rush to ride into the arena for a roaring crowd. Even the horses get pumped up, Larue says. “They start dancing in the alleyway, and their ears perk up,” she says. “And the louder the crowd whoops and hollers, the faster they run.”

The Texas Spirit Riders’ performance style, Larue says, is more intense, with faster riding and two to three times as many maneuvers in a drill as other teams. “Even our music is different,” Bednarz says. “In addition to pop and country, we ride to heavy metal.”

The team incorporates cross, charro and pinwheel maneuvers into its routines. In the standard cross, riders crisscross the arena diagonally, each passing through just as another has moved on. A more complex variation is a box cross. “That’s when you have four horses to a ‘box,’ ” Kiowski explains, “and they cross other boxes in the center of the arena. It’s scary to watch, and the riders really have to be on their toes.”

The charro is a drill in which the horses all line up behind a lead rider, each horse’s head tucked at the knee of the rider in front of it. “Teams generally include several standard drills, mixed with elements of their own choreography,” Kiowski says. “We still have Lynsey’s handwritten drills, and we’ll be honoring her with those.”

The team’s leaders have also worked toward Berger’s desire to grow the Spirit Riders. A team of just six riders appearing at five rodeos a year has expanded to four teams with a total of 32 riders, with performances for at least 14 rodeos booked this year.

A young fan gets a celebrity pic with some of the riders.

Dave Shafer

Following tradition, a group from the Spirit Riders went to a McDonald’s drive-thru (ride-thru?) for cold drinks after the Winnsboro Rodeo parade.

Dave Shafer

“Doors opened left and right,” says Bednarz, “and riders just began falling from the sky.” The 2022 Texas Spirit Riders team includes a novice team, ages 4–8; a junior team, 8–13, which trots through maneuvers; a semipro team; and a pro team that usually performs with 12 riders. Most of the pros are in their 30s. All four teams have performed in (or are scheduled to perform in) at least three appearances this rodeo season, which began in May.

“Erica’s a dreamer with big goals,” Kiowski says. “And she doesn’t stop until she reaches them. She’ll make it to the NFR.”