Chasing the dream they call ‘rodeo’

Andrew Alexander

Chasing the dream they call ‘rodeo’

Photo by Angela Dalton

Kamala O’Neal Dalton, better known as Nealey, shares her name with the Hindu name for a beautiful and delicate flower—the lotus. The young blonde may surpass that flower in beauty, but she’s anything but delicate. She happens to be a gritty and grizzled rodeo veteran, and she’s itching to saddle up and gallop toward the Tennessee High School Rodeo Association State Finals in Lebanon, Tenn. June 7-9th.

The 17-year-old Adamsville High School graduate boasts distinguished honors, a 96.41 percent grade point average, a spot on the Farmers and Merchants Wall of Fame, and has served as the THSRA Secretary for the past two years. She will turn 18 years old the day after the state competition ends, and she hopes to be celebrating more than just her birthday.

Dalton does not want a big party or lots of presents. All she wants for her birthday is to move on to Silver Springs, Wyo. for the National High School Rodeo Association Finals (Nationals).

“I just want to wake up knowing that in a couple weeks, I’ll be going up to Springfield, Wyoming,” she said with a child-like gleam in her eyes. 

Dalton began riding at the early age of four years old. Her grandmother, Sue Prince, of Adamsville, was an avid rider. Her influence helped blossom Dalton’s love for horses, riding, and most of all, rodeo.

“On my fourth birthday, I went to my grandmother’s house,” said Dalton. “She had bought me a pony and a buggy. I just rode around in that little buggy everywhere... and I’ve been riding ever since.”

She specializes in barrel racing but also competes in pole bending and  roping events, and Dalton has been quite successful to boot.

She said that without rodeo, she would not be the same person.

“I wouldn’t have the opportunities that I’ve had or the life that I’ve had,” she explained. “I’ve had dreams that are big, and I know if I hadn’t had that, I don’t know where I’d be.”

Dalton is currently in second place overall in the THSRA Barrel Racing point standings, and the top four on the leaderboard advance to Nationals.

“I don’t have to win,” she said with 123 barrel racing points already under her belt. “I just need to place.”

Dalton said nerves, despite all her experience, were an issue in her last rodeo, which took place in Martin, Tenn. early in May. She was competing in front of her new coach, John Luthi, for the first time since signing a full athletic scholarship to become a part of the University of Tennessee at Martin Skyhawk Rodeo Team.

A penalty added five seconds to her time in the first round of barrel racing, leaving her with a 19.697-second finish and in 28th place overall. Take the five-second penalty off and Dalton would have finished seventh in the round.

“I hit a barrel. When you hit a barrel it adds five seconds (onto your time),” she said about her “bad” weekend, even though she finished sixth in breakaway roping. “I was just very nervous. The coach was up there, and it was just the worst rodeo I’ve had all year.”

Those nerves should be at ease when she heads to Martin this fall. Not only does Dalton already know her future roommates and the majority of her future teammates from her many years of competing in junior and high school rodeo circuits, a few of her closest friends will be right next door.

“I’m living off-campus, and my horses will be right beside me,” she said about her unique living arrangements.

Dalton and her quarter horses, Chick, McKenna, and Mango, have been preparing non-stop since last year’s State Finals competition in hopes of a better finish this year. She missed out on Nationals last year because of a mishap with her equipment.

“I went in sitting second (in the standings), and I came out sitting fifth,” she said. “I was fine, and I went in for my last run, and my rein broke as I was going through the gate. I still made the pattern; I had a good run, but it wasn’t enough.”

Dalton had made Nationals the previous five years and finished fourth overall in barrel racing in 2010, but she said missing the event last year was a blessing in disguise.

“Instead of going to Nationals, I went to Florida, and that’s where I bought my new barrel horse,” Dalton said about Miss Mango Tango. “I wouldn’t have gotten her if I would’ve made it to Nationals.”

Dalton has a special relationship with all of her horses, and says she spends more time with them than she does with people.

Mango is a 15.3-hand Palomino Mare (approximately 61 inches tall from the ground to withers), and Dalton thinks she will take her places in the future, but says her best friend, the one she cannot do without is Chick, who is also a Palomino Mare.

“I love all my horses, but I would absolutely die if anything happened to her,” she said about her beloved Chick.

McKenna, who is primarily used in Dalton’s roping events, is a Blood Bay Mare that Dalton purchased at Charlie Daniels’ Twin Pine Ranch.

No matter what horse she is riding, Dalton says there is nothing like the rush of bolting out of the gate with the lights gleaming in the packed arena as she goes into her first barrel turn while the dust flies and the crowd cheers.

She said, “If you’re not scared to death going into the first barrel then you’re not going fast enough...It’s an awesome feeling going through that gate. You come out, you’re out of breath. You’re excited if you did good, mad at yourself if you did bad, but you always know you can do better the next time.”

The most important thing, Dalton says, is that there has to be trust between the horse and its rider.

“You have to trust your horse. If you don’t trust the horse, you don’t have anything,” she said likening the process to building a relationship with a person. “They know. They can feel it. If you don’t trust them, they won’t trust you.”

On top of trusting in her horses to guide her to whatever future in rodeo she may have, Dalton also must trust in her instincts and heart while considering her future outside of rodeo in the back of her mind. She has sacrificed the normalcy of an average teenage girl’s life to pursue her dream in rodeo, traveling practically every weekend, on top of constantly training and grooming her horses.

Without her deep affection for her horses, her dedication to the dream, and her parents Claude and Angela Dalton’s unwavering support, none of it would be possible.

“I’ve always had a good support system with my parents and my grandparents always backing me,” she said. “I want to make myself proud and make others proud, and I’ve never wanted to do anything else.”

Dalton plans to study pharmacy at UTM, knowing that she will need to earn a good living outside of the sport, but admits its just an interest; rodeo is an addiction.

“The plan is to get a good job and then try to make it (in rodeo),” she said, “but if I have the opportunity and I think I can make it at the time, I’m going to go for it.”

Dalton’s next step to reaching her dream is the State Finals in Lebanon Thursday, and big points will be on the line. She is currently 55 points ahead of the third place rider and will need to maintain a top-four average to journey on to Wyoming for Nationals.