Every athlete has a dream school.
Michaila Raby’s no different in that sense. She just competes in a sport not usually associated with high school athletics.
Basketball players may envision themselves playing at Syracuse, or volleyball players at Penn State.
But what about cowgirls?
Michaila has her mind set on earning a rodeo scholarship to Montana State University, and the early indication is she’s on the right patch.
“If she stays on the same track, her opportunities are endless,” said Melissa Koser, nationally renowned rodeo instructor and owner of MK Quarter Horses in Wilson.
The seventh-grader at Lewiston-Porter just wrapped up her second straight year competing at the National Junior High Finals Rodeo in Lebanon, Tennessee. The world’s largest junior (sixth to eighth grade) rodeo is a weeklong event featuring about 1,000 contestants from 43 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia who compete for $80,000 in prizes and $200,000 in college scholarships.
Raby didn’t place at nationals her first go-round, but she did gain valuable experience witnessing the times and level of competition she’s working toward.
“One thing about coming to nationals is it’s an eye-opener for any contestant,” Koser said. “You can be the big fish at home, but everyone here is on a level playing field. For her first year she had clean runs, and that’s all we can ask for.
“It lit a fire in her and under her to work even harder, which was hard for me to believe.”
That’s because when Michaila’s not at school, she’s at the barn. And that’s not an exaggeration.
She gets dropped off every day after school and doesn’t get home until either 7 or 9 p.m. She spends almost every weekend there, as well.
It’s a level of dedication Michaila has shown ever since she began training at MK Quarter Horses as a 6-year-old.
“She’s definitely one of a kind,” Koser said. “Extremely hard-working, dedicated, very mature for her age. It’s something we strive for at the barn with all kids.”
Even the older teenagers admire Raby, who turned 13 in January.
“All the girls look up to her,” Koser said. “She holds herself to a pretty high standard as well.”
That's in addition to Koser's barn rules, one of which states that riders need to maintain a “B” average in school to compete. Michaila’s own requirement is a 90 average and a spot on the honor roll.
Michaila has learned a tremendous amount working with Koser the past seven years, which has sparked an interest in studying veterinary/equine science and business management in college.
The list of responsibilities around the facility has also grown as Michaila's gotten older. Duties range from feeding the 60-plus horses in the stable, to getting them ready for lessons, to using a tractor to gather hay.
Michaila also trains her own two horses, Fletcher and Laretta, who each specialize in two events.
She’s been working with Laretta (barrel racing and pole bending) for three years and Fletcher (breakaway roping and goat tying) for four. Fletcher was named the 2017 American Quarter Horse Association Horse of the Year.
Much like bonding with new teammates, it sometimes takes awhile for horses and their riders to form a trusting relationship.
Michaila would know. She went through six of them until she found the right ones.
“You might ask a horse to do something and it may just completely ignore you,” Michaila said. “It’s like, do you want to listen to your mom or your sister?
“It has a lot to do with respect. Some don’t listen, but some find something in you. It’s that bond that’s totally unique with a horse.”
In Laretta’s case, Michaila didn’t like her that much at first. But her mother, Suzanne, told her to give the horse another chance.
“Now she really only does the best job she can for me,” Michaila said.
While some girls specialize in one or two events, it’s just a matter of preference on how many skills they want to work on and develop.
“Scholarships look for roping,” Michaila said. “I like to do a little bit of everything.”
For the second straight year Michaila earned a position on the New York State National Junior Rodeo Team in four competitions. She finished third place in pole bending, barrel racing and breakaway roping, the reserve champion in goat tying and second in all-around cowgirl.
Last year Michaila was awarded Rookie of the Year after placing fifth in pole bending and goat tying, reserve champion in barrel racing and not placing in breakaway roping. (Places are determined by adding up all points earned at the end of the season. The top four in each event have the opportunity to go to nationals.)
Watching Michaila's maturation as a rider has been a bit of déjà vu for Koser.
She’s seen this type of dedication and talent before in Meghan Ebert, a former student who was once named Rookie of the Year herself. The Lew-Port grad just wrapped up her sophomore year at Casper College in Wyoming, where she’s on a full rodeo scholarship.
Ebert has always been someone Michaila’s looked up to, always wanted to be like.
But Ebert’s response to Michaila has always been the same: You don’t want to be like me. I want you to be better than me.
In the eyes of Koser, “If Michaila stays on this track, she will be.”