CAVALIER, North Dakota — Since she was 2, Jezimay Watson’s dream of competing in the National Finals Rodeo has been riding on horses.

Watson began entering barrel racing and pole bending competition at horse shows, astride her pony, Rosie, 15 years ago. Now 17, the cowgirl from a northeast North Dakota farm near Cavalier, competes in rodeos across the United States on weekends, riding in five different events on her three quarter horses.

It's apparent that Watson shares a bond with Chloe, 14, Badger 12, and Peppy, 18, that is strong whether she is on their backs or standing next to them on the ground. On a late September day, the three horses nudged her and vied with each other for attention when Watson stood with them in the corral and Badger made no move to get away from her when she went to catch him after he wandered out looking for greener grass.

Jezimay Watson leads her horse, Badger, down the driveway of her farm near Cavalier, North Dakota.
Ann Bailey / Agweek
Jezimay Watson leads her horse, Badger, down the driveway of her farm near Cavalier, North Dakota. Ann Bailey / Agweek
Watson’s affection for the horses is mutual, talking to them softly and swishing away flies from the three as she talks about why she enjoys riding and rodeos.

“I just like being around them,” Watson said.

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She also is fiercely competitive, working to better herself and move to the next level of rodeo competition. For example, she watches and re-watches videos of herself competing after rodeos, striving to figure out where she needs to improve, and then practicing to do it.

Rodeo is a “mental game,” which involves executing the fundamentals and “using everything you know,” she said.

“Every weekend I go make a run to the best of my ability,” she said. She thrives on each week working to exceed her previous personal best effort.

“Setting a goal and reaching it, that feels pretty good,” Watson said.

Jezimay Watson competes in the goat tying event at the North Dakota State High School rodeo finals in June 2021 in Bowman, North Dakota.
Photo courtesy of Chuck Miner / 4-C Photography.
Jezimay Watson competes in the goat tying event at the North Dakota State High School rodeo finals in June 2021 in Bowman, North Dakota. Photo courtesy of Chuck Miner / 4-C Photography.
During the week, Watson rides her horses three or four hours each day after school. This year, Watson, a Cavalier High School senior, is taking her classes online, which gives her more flexibility to ride and to travel for practice. She trailers her horses to Wyoming, Montana and around western North Dakota, where family and friends help her to hone her rodeo skills.

“She’s made a lot of friends in that world who are like-minded kids, pushing each other to get better,” her father Rob Watson said.

Besides barrels and poles, Watson also is in events including team roping, breakaway roping, and goat tying, which is her favorite.

Watson’s affinity for horses was apparent when she was just three and a half weeks old, and her parents Cyndi Hummel and the elder Watson laid her on the back of a barrel horse, where she reached her out her hands and felt the horse as they held her there.

By the time Watson was 10-months-old, she was competing in lead-line barrel racing classes on her pony Rosie with her father or mother at the helm, and at age 2, she led a group trail ride near Cavalier, Rob Watson said.

“At age two and a half, Jezimay didn’t want me to lead anymore. She said ‘I can do it myself,’” Hummel recalled. By the time Jezimay was 3, she was in the North Dakota Rodeo Association finals in the peewee division.

Since then, Watson has competed in rodeos across the United States and has won dozens of buckles and ribbons and several saddles and cash prizes.

In 2020, Watson competed in the National High School Rodeo Finals in barrel racing, poles and goat tying, in Guthrie, Oklahoma. In July 2021, Watson was in seven events in the National Little Britches Rodeo in Guthrie, where she won reserve all-around world champion in the senior girls division.

Her success in rodeo is well-deserved and hard-earned because their daughter is self-taught and sometimes trailers her horses hundreds of miles to practice events such as roping, her parents said.

Jezimay Watson has won dozens of prizes over the years in rodeo competitions, including buckles.
Ann Bailey / Agweek
Jezimay Watson has won dozens of prizes over the years in rodeo competitions, including buckles. Ann Bailey / Agweek

“It’s fantastic to watch her grow and succeed and mature,“ Rob Watson said.

Rodeoing also has taught his daughter independence and confidence in her abilities.

“She can take that pickup and trailer and head out across the country,” he said. ”She’s gone to Oklahoma on her own. She goes to Gillette, Wyoming, on her own.”

Once at her destination, there always are family and friends there who make sure that Watson is safe and are available to help her, her father said. Watson has gained not only the respect of her peers but also that of the judges and announcers who are part of her "rodeo family," and often comment to him about his daughter’s respectful, helpful attitude.

Though she's developed a lot of skills and garnered a commensurate amount of success during the past 14 years, Watson won’t be satisfied until she attains the goal she set for herself at age 3.

“I want to win a world championship at the national level,” Watson said.