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Graysen O’Connor: Arlee’s newest rodeo star

by BERL TISKUS
Reporter | November 9, 2023 12:00 AM

Graysen O’Connor, a 13-year-old cowgirl from Arlee, returned from Las Vegas last week with the World Championship title in junior and senior barrel racing. She’s the youngest competitor ever to claim both junior and adult titles at the Indian National Finals Rodeo. 

Her hometown threw her a parade last Monday to celebrate. 

Her parents, Patrick and Ruby O’Connor, hauled Graysen and her horse, Fancy, to Las Vegas for the event. 

“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” Ruby said.

Graysen has qualified for the INFR three times, she added. The first year, when Graysen was 10, the neighbor’s dog spooked her horse. She got bucked off and broke her femur so there was no INFR that year.

“It (the INFR) was better this year,” Graysen said, since she was more familiar with “everything and everybody.”

She enjoys Las Vegas, “probably because of all the stuff you can do.” 

Her favorite rodeo though is the Crow Fair. Perhaps that’s because she won both a junior barrel racing saddle and a senior barrel racing saddle at this year’s event, held the third week of August along the Little Big Horn River.

Graysen’s barrel horse, Fancy, is a 12-year-old gelding of Dash to Fame breeding. The 14-hand sorrel was bred by her grandmother, Marjorie Schall, who gave her the horse when both Graysen and Fancy were just babies. Graysen raised and trained Fancy herself. 

“He’s sassy,” Graysen said. “If he doesn’t get what he wants, he gets really mad.”

“He’s very spoiled,” she added, affectionately.

Graysen has a 3-year-old horse coming along, but she explained he’s two or three years out before she can compete on him.

She rides every day, according to her mom.

“I never have to wake her up either. She’s gone, out the door to feed her horse,” Ruby said.

Graysen started riding when she was just a year old. Ruby was riding colts over at her Aunt Judy’s (retired barrel racer Judy Myllymaki), who watched toddler Graysen for her mom. 

“Judy worked with her a lot and put her on some of her old horses,” Ruby said. 

Myllymaki is a renowned barrel horse trainer and rider, who ran barrels at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association National Finals in 1998.

“Graysen is extremely coachable,” Myllymaki said. She will offer an idea and give the youngster time to mull it over, which Graysen likes to do. 

“Then she might bring the idea up by saying, ‘You told me this last week,’” Myllymaki explained. 

Myllymaki also believes the young cowgirl has a “God-given gift with a horse.” 

“A lot of people have a gift, but they don’t use it,” she added. “Graysen has a gift, and she is not afraid of the work.”

Myllymaki used an analogy of Graysen as a rose and her parents, her grandmother, her sponsors, and her supporters as gardeners. 

For instance, although Graysen loves horses and ranch life, the 8th grader is not a big fan of school, but she keeps her grades up. 

“That’s the deal,” her mom explained. “You’ve gotta keep good grades or no rodeos.”

Other gardeners may give her advice or constructive criticism or even lure her away to a football game.

”The thing I try to get her to do is savor the moment … realize how very special it is and cherish it,” Myllymaki said.

Her parents don’t push Graysen. Their gardening duties include seeing that she doesn’t burn herself out.

“We gardeners do our job,” Myllymaki said, “but when it’s time for her to shine, it’s between her and her horse as they’re going down that alley.”

Myllymaki said Graysen rides every day “if it isn’t 40 below. Sometimes you have to tell her not to ride. She is a competitor.”

Fans can expect more from the young barrel racer, who says her goal next year is to compete again at the INFR.

“The sky's the limit with her,” says her mentor. “She has a terrific work ethic for a 13 year old.”

    Arlee's Graysen O'Connor rounds the barrels at the 2003 Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, where she won both junior and senior divisions.
 
 
    Graysen O'Connor's barrel horse, Fancy, checks out the crowd assembled in downtown Arlee last Monday to welcome Greyson home after her victories at the Indian National Finals Rodeo. (Jamie Sievers photo)
 
 
    The community of Arlee turned out last Monday to honor Graysen O'Connor, who won both junior and senior barrel-racing titles at the Indian National Finals Rodeo. (Jamie Sievers photo)
 
 
    Fans of barrel-racing champ Graysen O'Connor welcomed her home during a parade last Monday in Arlee. (Jamie Sievers photo)