National High Stakes Barrel Race founder honors her mother, Ethel Whitcher |

National High Stakes Barrel Race founder honors her mother, Ethel Whitcher

T. Merrill won her first saddle at the Ethel Whitcher Memorial Barrel Race in Rapid City, S.D., in September. Ethel was a neighbor and friend to T. and her family; and the Merrills bought Ethel’s barrel horse, AZ (pictured), on whom T. won the race.
Photo by Leslie Merrill |

Shonda Boyd hopes that a new format in the barrel racing world will give barrel racers more choices.

The Wheatland, Wyo., woman, a team roper, has formed a barrel racing organization, called the National High Stakes Barrel Races.

It employs what she calls the “Ethel format,” named after her late mother, Ethel Whitcher. The format consists of three rounds of barrel racing and payouts for all three rounds plus the average.

The barrel racers who hit a barrel and have a 5 second penalty, in the first or second rounds, go to a consolation round for their third round.

The payout is 80-20. Eighty percent is paid out to the cowgirls and 20 percent is kept for costs. For the consolation round, the payout is 50-50. In the third round, competitors run from the slowest average time to the fastest times, making it more exciting.

Each round is paid out like a 5D barrel race, including the average, with a half second between the 1D, 2D, and 3D, and a full second between the 3D and 4D, and another second between the 4D and 5D. Ten percent of the payout goes towards each round and 70 percent goes for the average. Each competitor’s entry fee goes towards her division, not the others, which encourages participation, Boyd said. “You’re only running against your money. (If you’re a 3, 4 or 5D competitor) you’re not contributing to the 1D or 2D. That’s what makes this race different.”

The idea came, in part, from her mom, Ethel Whitcher. A long-time barrel racer, Ethel competed up until the time of her death in September 2016. She had good barrel horses but because of her age, didn’t want to run fast.

The idea also came from Boyd’s husband Tyler, a team roper in the World Series of Team Roping events. Tyler, a No. 6 team roper, has won money repeatedly at the WSTR events and has competed at the WSTR Finals in Las Vegas, and Boyd would like to make the National High Stakes Barrel Races similar to the WSTR events.


Last September, she produced the Ethel Whitcher Memorial Barrel Race in Rapid City, S.D., with 165 barrel racers competing. The winner of the event had a unique tie to Ethel; not only was Tearra Merrill, also known by her nickname T., a friend and neighbor, she was riding Ethel’s former barrel horse at the race.

T., who is 13 years old and lives with her parents Shawn and Leslie near Wall, S.D., bought Ethel’s 8-year-old mare named AZ in a unique way. The family went to the sale in Rapid City, S.D., hoping to buy the horse. But when the mare brought more than they planned to spend, the family went home without her. “We put it in God’s hands,” T. said, “and we didn’t get her.”

The next day, they got a phone call. The woman who had bought AZ changed her mind. The horse would have been a “lawn ornament” for her, so she gave her back to Jim Whitcher, Ethel’s husband. Jim knew exactly who wanted the horse, so he sold her to the Merrills. “It was just crazy,” T. said. “I just had a deep feeling that she would be ours.”

T. and AZ clicked, Leslie said, from day one, and T. won several honors on the horse. She won the South Dakota Junior High School barrel racing title on AZ, and qualified for the National Junior High School Finals Rodeo in Tennessee on the horse. She qualified for the National Little Britches Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma in June and finished seventh in the world, and she will run at the Junior National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas this month on AZ.

Ethel was a good role model, T. said, and a long-time family friend. “She was so nice and happy all the time, and she cheered for everybody.”

Before Ethel’s passing, she had given T. some good advice. T. was “moping around” after having finished second at several events, a few points or placings out of winning a saddle. “You hold on,” Ethel told her. “You’ve been pretty blessed. You’re going to get one.” “It made me think, I’d better be patient and be thankful,” T. said. The saddle T. won at the Memorial Race was her first trophy saddle.

Entry fees for the Memorial Race were $150 per horse for all three runs. Boyd added $500 to the 1D race at the Memorial and gave away saddles to first place for the 2D, 3D and junior 1D, a beaded belt and buckle to first place in the 1D, and other prizes. At the second race Boyd put on in Bowman, N.D., in October, she paid out one or two places in each division, in each round and in the average.

Barrel racer Heidi Jacobson believes in the National High Stakes Barrel Races. She and her daughters, Sheyenne, age 18, and Maddie, who is 13, competed in Rapid City at the Memorial Race. It’s a different format, she said. “I think it gives those consistent horses a better payout. The new format is enticing to me.” The high entry fees (oftentimes barrel racing fees range from $40 to $50 per run) might be an obstacle, but they shouldn’t be, Jacobson said. “You’re making three runs. It gives more incentive for lower end horses, whether they’re young, green, or will never reach the 1D or 2D potential.”

Boyd has plans for several National High Stakes Barrel Races. She made a stop in Gillette, Wyo., Jan. 26-28, and was in Bowman, April 7-9, Wright, Wyo., March 24-26, and Rock Springs, Wyo., May 25-27.

She’ll also produce the second annual Ethel Whitcher Memorial Race in Rapid City on Sept. 28-30, 2018, as the National High Stakes year-end finale, and she hopes to have 200-400 barrel racers at it. “In five years,” she said, “I want to have 1,500 barrel racers at the memorial, and it be a four day event. In 10 years, I’d like to see it as big as the World Series (Team Ropings). I’d like to have this event in Vegas. I have my sights set on Vegas. I see it working.” ❖

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