Non-pro Kirstin Booth beats world class field in ‘best freestyle in the world’
$20,000 RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining Results (Top 5):
First Place: Kirstin Booth aboard Babys Got Blue Eyes — 227.5 points
Second Place: Randy Dooley aboard Nite N Gail — 225.5 points
Third Place: Dan James aboard Don Magnum — 225 points
Fourth Place: Bub Poplin aboard Smokin Custom Chrome — 223 points
Fifth Place: Sharee Schwartzenberger aboard Wimpy Sparkles — 222 points
People’s Choice Winner: Randy Dooley and Nite N Gail (with Lon Kraft)
Called the “best freestyle reining competition in the world” by well-respected reiners and trainers, the $20,000 RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining event at the National Western Stock Show attracts top-flight riders and horses to compete in front of sold-out crowds on an annual basis.
Boasting a 14-slot lineup that included three-time NWSS champion Bub Poplin, Aussie horse training sensation Dan James, former RFD TV host Aaron Ralston, and fan favorite Shane Brown, the contest took on immediate suspense from the start.
In just her second NWSS appearance, California equestrian Kirstin Booth was first in the arena on her 7-year-old horse, Babys Got Blue Eyes. While the first slot can be considered challenging for a competitor, as judges may often be fairly conservative in their ratings and the audience has not yet warmed to the action, Booth’s pre-event confidence never wavered.
“Last night, when she drew first, she said you guys are going to have to chase me,” said fellow competitor Shane Brown.
“They were all giving me grief about (being first in the arena),” Booth confirmed with a smile. “I said, you know what? I am going to make you run.”
True to her word, Booth defied all the odds in a flashy routine set to stirring music. Decked out in red and on a horse covered in red, gold and glitter, the Californian frequently dropped the reins during her ride, while Babys Got Blue Eyes did her part with fast spins, solid slides and responsive moves. Unexpectedly, the duo won the crowd early, as the stands roared for their maneuvers throughout the performance. The judges concurred, awarding Booth 227.5 points, and the gauntlet was properly thrown.
“I’ve never seen that happen. That was super impressive,” said Dan James of Booth’s winning score despite being first inside the arena. “Kirstin kind of played it off like, oh, you know I am going in first, ha-ha-ha. Yeah, yeah, she knew what she was bringing,” he said with a friendly grin as Booth laughed nearby.
REST OF THE FIELD
The rest of the field accepted the challenge of Booth’s high score, and the packed audience was the beneficiary. Scores of 220+ points flowed throughout the evening, with the closest being Randy Dooley, Elbert, Colo., Dan James, and Bub Poplin, who all ended within five points of the leader.
Dooley was 10th out of the gate aboard an athletic mount named Nite N Gail. Dressed in camouflage and having a compatriot on horseback with an American flag, Dooley showed off his horse’s skills in a routine designed to support American troops that have served, are serving and those who never came home. Nite N Gail flashed speed and agility inside the arena, prompting huge cheers from the gathered crowd. While his 225.5 score came up short of the lead, Dooley and Nite N Gail were rewarded with the People’s Choice Award by the crowd.
“It is awesome” said Dooley about the crowd awarding him the People’s Choice for his routine that honored American soldiers. “To compete where people are enthusiastic about it …” His voice broke as he couldn’t finish his description.
Dooley was able to discuss his reaction to placing second in such a highly regarded contest.
“It’s a big honor,” he said with conviction. “This is one of the biggest freestyles there is. Tough competition. It’s a huge honor to come in second place.”
CHANNELING JOHN WAYNE
After Dooley came up shy of Booth’s score, the big guns of the competition were left to go in the last two slots. James was NWSS co-champion in 2016, but hadn’t returned to compete until this year. Knowing the elite level of competition, he made use of a stirring entrance in tribute to an iconic scene from the movie True Grit. John Wayne’s booming voice filled the Events Center as James and his horse, Don Magnum, charged through the gates. True to the scene, James had the reins in his teeth and both hands filled with exploding pistols. A consummate showman, James went through the paces alternately dropping the reins around turns or in spins, as well as raising his cowboy hat all the way through a slide. It was a crowd-pleasing effort that rewarded him with 225 points and, ultimately, third place.
“It’s one of the most competitive freestyles in the country,” said James after his ride. “Like the caliber of the horses and the riders here, they are top notch. You can’t miss a beat out there to be competitive with these guys.”
One of the best is Bub Poplin, a trainer from Fruita, Colo., who was the first (and only, so far) competitor to win the NWSS freestyle for three consecutive years. Going for his fourth win in a row, Poplin pulled out the creative stops in a routine that pitted Spanish bullfighter against mechanical bull. It was a logical continuation of his winning routines in the past that featured a garrocha pole. Set to a backdrop of Spanish guitar and flemenco beats, Poplin kept Smokin Custom Chrome near the horns of the moving bull in a balletic performance that netted him 223 points and fourth place.
“I figured she had it won,” said Poplin afterward about Booth’s score at the onset of the contest. “I knew it was going to be really tough.”
Despite his fourth place finish, it was clear the Colorado horse trainer had no regrets.
“I had a lot of fun doing that,” he said about his choreography. “This is the best freestyle reining in the world. I’ve been to a lot of them. I have judged a lot of them all over the world. This is by far the best one.” ❖
— Rogers is a freelance writer and photographer located east of Parker, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can find him on Facebook at Official Lincoln Rogers Writing & Photography Page