Long before Barbara Sloniker was the executive vice president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce, she was spending a great deal of her rime riding on horseback and slinging ropes around the hooves of steers in local rodeos.
Surprised? So are most folks who find out that little known fact about Sloniker’s past. Really?! You did that?! You betcha. She started competing in rodeos with her two brothers, Dick and Dave Frank, when she was about eight years old; although these days Sloniker has stepped away from the rodeo life. More than 20 years have passed since Sloniker participated in a rodeo.
Nevertheless, people are still astonished to know that she knows her way around horses and steers. Often times, Sloniker said, they’re kind of impressed.
“That’s a whole realm that people don’t know anything about,” she said. “And I think the image that they might have had of a rodeo person was someone who always wore boots and jeans and chewed tobacco. And they usually think of bull riding, and a lot of times they don’t think of women [in rodeo].”
Since the Barnes Bull Riding Challenge is in town this weekend at the Tyson Events Center, what better time to reminisce about Sloniker’s bull riding past, which initially began right here in Sioux City.
Sloniker grew up in the northern countryside of Sioux City. Both of her brothers still live on the property. “They still rope and rodeo,” she said. “One is older than me [Dick], one is younger [Dave].”
As a child, Sloniker and her brothers competed in the National Little Britches Rodeo Association, the same junior rodeo association her nephews, Trey and Colt Frank, currently participate in. She was also a rodeo contender in high school and college. Every sibling was -- including her older sister, Debi Weaver.
“My dad got us into it,” said Sloniker. “I was born in Minneapolis and my parents were both from there. He would have told you he was a ‘city slicker.’ Total city boy. He must have met this guy from Texas […] and he was a rodeo guy, and he sort of taught my dad and got him into cutting.”
Cutting is a western-style riding competition that demonstrates a horse’s athleticism and ability to handle cattle in a single run. It was the only rodeo sport Sloniker’s dad entered. When the kids were born, Sloniker’s dad and a family friend introduced them all to rodeo activities.
“We learned how to rope and I ran barrels and team roping and goat tying,” said Sloniker. “He was sort of our rodeo coach and a close friend of our parent’s. Back then, we only really did it during the summers.”
As kids, they would usually wake up at 6 in the morning and rope calves to practice. In between chores, Sloniker would practice goat tying and roping a dummy. By the evening, she would rehearse team roping drills with her brothers.
Team roping was Sloniker’s sport of choice. In team roping, two mounted riders collaborate to rope a steer. Her brothers would take the role of the “header,” the rider who is charge of roping the front of the steer and positioning the animal for the second rider, known as a “heeler.”
Sloniker was a heeler. It was her job to rope the steer by its hind legs after the header readied the animal into position. “Once you rope the back feet, you get it tight and you have to dally it around your horn,” said Sloniker. “I did get a pretty bad burn one time, but I’ve seen people lose fingers.”
It’s a fast-paced and potentially dangerous sport if a rider is unprepared. Sloniker admitted she had thoughts of returning to the rodeo to compete in some fashion, but stressed that she wanted to be well-prepared to avoid any possible injury.
In her heyday, Sloniker and siblings earned a handful of trophy buckles for their rodeo work.
“My brother [Dick] and I won the Little Britches nationals in Huron, South Dakota, in 1979 in team roping,” said Sloniker. “That’s what made it nice when we competed. In team roping, you needed two people. So I roped with my older brother and then I roped with my younger brother. You were practicing together and you learned how he’ll turn the steer, because every header is different.”
Summer weekends were reserved for traveling. The Frank family would pack up their horses and gear and hit the road to a rodeo somewhere in the Midwest.
One of Sloniker’s biggest rodeo accomplishments was becoming the Rodeo Queen for Iowa State University. That earned her a competing spot in nationals, representing Iowa State. Winning the title at her college was difficult for Sloniker, mostly because she never thought of herself as a “queen-y” person.
“But it was a really cool experience, especially at the college level,” she said. “You had a panel of judges and a sit down interview. They asked you everything. You had to know all about the horse, the tack you would wear, the bridle, the parts of the bridle, the parts of the saddle – it was crazy.”
To test out her rider skills, Sloniker was randomly assigned to a horse she had never ridden before and told to run a pattern. “The girl that won that year [at nationals], was riding my horse,” said Sloniker. “Well, at least she won on my horse.”
In addition to earning a respect for animals and the value of teamwork, the rodeo life was also a time for family bonding. Sloniker remembered how she and her siblings would sleep in the tent at away competitions and go to church riding on horseback. She remembered when some of the bulls escaped in the middle of the night were caught snorting around the tent. And she remembered eating her mom’s rodeo potatoes – which were essentially pan-fried taters doused in Lawry’s seasoned salt.
With Sloniker’s nephews now taking their turn at the lasso, rodeo life has practically become a family tradition that at this point has lasted nearly three generations. Sloniker said she feels a little bad that her two children haven’t had the chance to rope calves and goats in competitions. But at ages 19 and 21, who is to say they won’t take a liking to rodeo sports in the future?
“I’m passing on a love for it, if nothing else,” she said.