Lincoln horse breeder finds success in barrel racing circles
Gary Westergren thought 2019 might be the big year for Missy, his barrel racing horse.
The Lincoln resident had spoken with the horse’s rider, Jessica Routier, in October of last year, the beginning of barrel racing season, about earning enough money to qualify for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. The high-profile rodeo only takes the top 15 highest-earning entries in each of its eight categories.
Westergren and Routier, who had worked together since 2010, thought they’d take their time with reaching this goal. After all, Missy was only 6 years old, with most barrel racing horses reaching their peak years around the age of 15.
“One of the things early on when I started working with Jessica is, we both realized we had a mutual dream of someday getting to the National Finals Rodeo,” Westergren said. “It’s like the Super Bowl or the World Series of rodeo. And things kind of came into place this year.”
Westergren and Routier’s dream came a year early, with “Team Missica” winning over $98,000 competing in 57 rodeos around the United States and Canada through September.
That qualified them for the 2018 NFR held earlier this month, entering as No. 8 in the world. They climbed to second place in the finals, placing in seven of 10 rounds and earning $153,000.
“It was a pretty amazing feeling to see this all happen, and it’s pretty amazing that they had so much success,” Westergren said. “I enjoy helping people have success, so the other part of it is Jessica realizing her dream of getting to the NFR, and then her success just was beyond belief.”
Westergren, who has raised horses for nearly 20 years, didn’t always have this passion. He grew up in Holdrege and became a consulting engineer, then worked with HWS Consulting Group and retired in 2014 after serving as CEO.
“I started wondering, ‘What am I going to do with my career?’ back in the late 1990s,” he said. “I knew I needed something to keep me interested and excited once I retired from my professional career.”
Westergren found his love of raising horses while working in South Dakota and Wyoming in the 1980s and ’90s. He worked as a liaison between a land acquisition team and farmers on a railroad project.
The land acquisition team for the project had family ties to raising horses, and Westergren soon became involved in helping tend to the animals. He named one of their newborn mares Sunshine, the same nickname he gave his father in the hospital when he was grumpy at the nurses.
After Sunshine failed to be sold, Westergren bought the horse himself and began raising horses on his own. He currently has a stallion and several broodmares.
Part of their training includes doing work around the farm, which Westergren said is a requirement for every one.
“We kind of joke that if you’re going to make a good horse, they got to have a job,” he said. “Otherwise, they get bored. They get lazy.”
Routier, who grew up in Wisconsin, attended college in Rapid City, South Dakota, on a rodeo scholarship.
She started riding for Westergren on a full-time basis a year after competing on one of his horses.
For five years, Routier has ridden Missy, who she described as “gritty.” Together, they placed at multiple major rodeos in 2018, including first at the Badlands Circuit Finals, second at the National Circuit Finals and third at the Calgary Stampede.
“(Missy) tries really hard, no matter what the circumstances,” Routier said. “She’s always been very mature for her age and stays really focused and just has never let anything outside of what she’s supposed to be doing interfere with what she’s doing.”
Routier said having a horse at such a huge event in Las Vegas, with a lot of distractions, could have kept them from performing their best.
“It’s 10 runs, 10 days in a row, so it can be pretty strenuous for them,” she said. “But (Missy) just has such a calm and cool attitude about everything, and she’s young and very fit, and so it didn’t physically seem to bother her at all, and she just handled it all very well.”
Westergren ultimately sees barrel racing as a fun way to meet people across the country. He said he tries to support as many rodeos in his area as he can, even if his horses aren’t participating.
“It’s really a fun sport, and a lot of people at different skill levels are able to compete,” he said. “Not all go to the NFR, but they’re all trying to find out how good they can really be, and that’s what’s fun.”
Although there is no guarantee that the next year will go just as well, Westergren said he is staying optimistic.
“I think the goal is to try to make it back to the NFR again next year, but we’ll probably just kind of do the same thing we did and see how things play out,” Routier said. “If they go well, we’ll hopefully be there again next year.”
Westergren views barrel racing as a team event, with two athletes: the rider and the horse. But he said it’s been his compatibility with Routier that has led them to so much success.
“We both share the same values and same ethics, and so it’s been a win-win for both of us,” Westergren said. “We both achieved the dream of getting to the NFR, and now the paper’s still white, as far as we know, as to where we can go from here.”