Like many cowboys and cowgirls, Kalispell’s Tammy Jo Carpenter is modest about her achievements; it takes some prodding about the state and regional rodeo standings and her name being either near or at the top of every list to get her to acknowledge she knows her way around an arena.
“It’s been a good summer,” Carpenter, 46, said last week.
It was her first summer riding pro, despite having been on horses her whole life. She wasn’t even expecting to place – she was breaking in a new barrel-racing horse – but has garnered just shy of $14,000 in winnings.
Carpenter is also No. 1 on the Women’s Northern Rodeo Association’s all-round standings list, and the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association of Montana ranks her as No. 5 in barrel racing in the state and No. 1 overall in breakaway roping.
As a kid in Billings, Carpenter had a horse or a pony ever since she was about 4 years old, and participated in high school rodeo. She went to Montana State University on a rodeo scholarship, and while roping, also earned a degree in electrical engineering.
She followed that up with a master’s degree in computer science, and another bachelor’s degree in web development. Now working from her home in Kalispell doing programming for an Idaho company, Carpenter said her work friends can hardly believe it when they find out she’s a dominant rodeo roper, and vice versa.
“It’s almost like a dual life,” she said.
But she didn’t stray too far from rodeo; she moved to Kalispell after marrying Rich Carpenter, whose family owns the Carpenters Arena south of town.
Being so near to an arena gives her access to practice barrel racing, to which she’s relatively new, having only spent seven or eight years honing her skills. There’s more to barrel racing than meets the eye, she said.
“One, you need a really good horse; two, you need to ride well and be good with your hands and quiet,” she said. “There’s just a lot of finesse that goes into barrel racing. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
She sold her tried and true barrel-racing horse in the spring, and now rides Obie, an 8-year-old brown quarter horse that she was just hoping to train during this season’s rodeos.
“I didn’t think I’d get a check all year,” she said.
So far, Carpenter has earned about $4,000 in the WPRA for roping and barrel racing, and from NRA rodeos about $6,000 barrel racing and $3,500 in breakaway.
As for being a woman in rodeo, Carpenter said she’s never felt ostracized by the cowboys, because “there have been women in rodeo forever.”
“My career is male dominated, everything I’ve ever done has been male dominated, so it’s never really bothered me,” she said.
In her rodeo career, Carpenter said she’s noticed more women roping now than ever before, likely because there are chances to win anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 in a weekend even while having a different full-time job elsewhere.
Carpenter acknowledged the risk inherent to rodeo, noting that other sports involve such risk of bodily harm as well, and said she sticks with it because of the adrenaline it induces and her love for the sport.
“On the second side of that, all the animals we ride we’ve trained, and so you get this inherent satisfaction from putting all the time and effort into making this animal into the athlete and having him succeed,” she said.
The rodeo community is also supportive and endearing, and Carpenter said it is family friendly.
And while Carpenter admits she’s had a pretty good season, she isn’t one to rest on her laurels.
“You’re only as good as your last run,” she said.
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