For some, rodeo is a fun sport or leisure activity. For Kelli Cripps-Tully, rodeo is a passion.
Like most of her family, Kelli has been rodeoing all of her life and team roping for approximately 28 years, she said. As one of the few female team ropers, she sees herself as an influencer for anyone who wants to try it.
Kelli said her first time on a horse was when she was only a few days old. She lived on the same farm all of her life, she said. Her father and uncle both rodeoed and her brother, Jake Cripps, also rodeos, Kelli said. Growing up, Kelli participated in playdays at the Siloam Springs rodeo and the junior rodeo for a long time, she said.
“I’ve goat-tied, barrel raced, breakaway roped, and now I team rope,” Kelli said.
Kelli is a “header,” which is the driving force of the entire run, she said. When the steer is released from the pen, the header has to wait for the steer to reach a certain distance, otherwise, penalty points are added to the team’s time, she said.
The header then runs her horse to the steer, throwing a loop around either the steer’s neck, horns or half head, turning the steer to the left, Kelli said. Then the header has to create a turn so the steer stays on his feet, keeping a controlled steady speed which allows the heeler to come into the run to catch either two of the steer’s feet or one foot, she said.
Once the steer has been roped, the time stops, Kelli said. Basically, the header starts the run and the clock, and the heeler helps finish the run, stopping the clock, she said.
Kelli began team roping at the age of 12.
“Honestly, you see very few girls in team roping,” Kelli said. “Around here, I was one of the very few.”
Kelli Cripps-Tully met her husband, Mackey Tully, in 1999 in Sydney, Iowa, she said. Mackey Tully thought his future wife was too young, but when the couple met again in the same place a year later, the couple started dating, and Mackey Tully moved his ranch from New Mexico to Arkansas, Kelli said.
The couple got engaged in 2001 and married in 2002, Kelli said. She jokingly said they were way too young.
“We weren’t even old enough to rent a car on our honeymoon,” she said.
Kelli had her Women’s Pro Rodeo Association (WPRA) card as well as several more. A few years ago, she won Circuit Rookie of the Year in 2015 for heeling instead of heading.
“I have headed for years, until 2013,” she said. “I started to heel so my husband could rodeo using my head horse. We basically swapped ends.”
Kelli realized she could win a lot of money heeling in the women’s team roping because there were fewer women healing than heading,” she said.
After her son was born, Kelli transitioned back to heading. The couple wanted to start roping together at the jackpots and the winning team would be Kelli heading and her husband heeling because he never misses the feet of the steer.
Kelli and her husband started Extreme Roper, a banner from which they could host team roping events around 2009, she said. The couple hosted team roping events on their land and at other venues.
“We used to promote a lot of stuff on our Facebook page and people would know to go that page to find the venue that we were at,” she said.
When Kelli had her son, Kreese, she and her husband stopped setting up larger rodeos but still attended and participated in other rodeos, she said.
A family affair
For Kelli, rodeo is a family affair. Her parents join Kelli and her family when they go to compete in different rodeos.
“My dad, he team ropes, and my mom, she’s our backbone and she goes and my brother and his family go,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter where we are. We might be in New Mexico and we’re all there. That’s just what we do.”
While Kelli is focusing on honing her skills, she is also focusing on her kids as well. Kelli’s son Kreese, 6, is already competing as a team roper in both the heading and healing positions and has a sponsor with Cactus Roping; and daughter Klaytsie, 4, likes to be known as a trick rider, she said.
Kelli said her daughter Klaytsie is still too young to compete for prizes except for the playdays. This year she was not able to compete in the playdays because the overflow was too late for a four-year-old, she said.
Most recently, the Cripps family donated the belt buckles for all of the events at the Colcord Rodeo and $2,000 in added money for the team ropers’ jackpot, Kelli said.
After doing this for a long time, Kelli has come to realize that everybody is an influencer regardless of age. Kelli sees herself as a human influencer, not a social media influencer, she said.
Kelli is also grateful to Kaci Reed-Johnson for taking a chance on her and sponsoring her.
“For me, when you’re 40 years old and you’re trying to raise a family and still continue doing what you love, to find somebody like Kaci, who will step out and be like ‘I want you on my team,’ that’s huge to somebody like me,” Kelli said.
A lot of people sponsor the younger generation of rodeo performers, so for Johnson to sponsor someone who is almost 40 is a big deal, she said.
For years, Kelli said she was holding herself back by not thinking she was good enough. When she finally got past the negative thought, she was able to focus on getting better at her sport, she said.
That is something Kelli wants to pass on to not only her kids, but other kids as well, she said. In the end, the most important word in team roping is “team,” Kelli said.
“It takes all of us,” she said. “It takes every one of us. To be able to go and do this and watch my kids compete in the rodeos and stuff like that.”
Marc Hayot/Siloam Sunday A steer trots towards the chute at the opposite end of the arena. Kelli Cripps-Tully owns several steers that are trained to be non-aggressive, she said.
Marc Hayot/Siloam Sunday Kelli Cripps-Tully raised her lasso as she prepares to rope a young steer as it runs to the other side of the arena