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Queen of the Rodeo
An ex-teacher learns to be a rising star of barrel racing.
By Patricia B. Gray

(FORTUNE Small Business) – Like most champions, Rocky is accustomed to a good deal of pampering. A chiropractor is on call to make sure his bones and muscles are in proper form. Fee: $150 a visit. Add $100 to the tab for a massage if his muscles seem sore. When he needs to relax after a strenuous workout, he takes a dip at an exclusive swim club. His daily vitamin and mineral regimen is expensive but necessary, as is the occasional acupuncture treatment. Even minor ailments get prompt treatment—annual medical bills total $9,000—to ensure he stays healthy as a horse. That is because Rocky is a horse—but a special one. Kelly Kaminski, 38, rode Rocky to stardom on the rodeo circuit last year, with winnings that totaled $127,000. Bonuses and endorsements added $35,000, and that's just a fraction of what this pair is likely to garner this year as women's rodeo gains popularity.

Kaminski quit her day job as a seventh-grade reading teacher in her hometown of Bellville, Texas, two years ago when she starting winning rodeo events regularly, and today she's riding a rocket, with a solid business plan. Her competitive season kicks into high gear in June and ends in December with the National Rodeo Finals in Las Vegas. She rides in two or three rodeos—where both men and women compete, but separately—each weekend on a circuit that covers 14 states in the South and West. The big money for women is in an event called barrel racing: Horse and rider race around barrels in a cloverleaf pattern in the ring, striving to complete the course faster than other competitors. At each rodeo Kaminski will spend about 14 seconds in the ring with Rocky, and if she's fast and lucky, she'll earn $1,000. She'll log 250,000 miles this season in her new $42,000 Dodge Ram pickup, which pulls her $60,000 luxury RV. (She won the truck; a sponsor provides the RV.) Last year fuel costs ran about $5,000. This year, with gas prices up, she figures it will cost her $7,500. Total travel expenses—including feed and board for the horses—runs to $11,000. "I'll stay on the road as long as I'm making money," she says. "If not, I'll come home." Home is a 50-acre ranch in Bellville that has been in her husband's family for generations.

Rocky is her biggest asset—and expense. She has trained the 11-year-old white quarter horse for rodeo since he was a colt. "I'm a big believer in positive affirmations," Kaminski says. "Every day since he was born, I've stroked him and told him, 'You're going to be a rodeo star.' " In the ring he isn't spooked by the clowns, the noise, or the crowds. Over the years she has turned down dozens of offers for Rocky; the last one was $150,000. "A seasoned rodeo horse is worth his weight in gold," Kaminski says.

On the road he travels in a special compartment in the back of her 31-foot Featherlite RV. Kaminski brings along another horse as a companion, 12-year-old Bart. While she's on the road, a part-time assistant back home tracks her progress and makes sure rodeo entry applications are filed on time. (To discourage all but the most serious competitors, rodeos allow riders only a 24-hour period in which to file their applications.) Her entry fees for the season will add up to about $14,000. She usually takes her 6-year-old daughter and 13-year-old stepson with her. That adds to her expense, but, she says, "this nation, coast to coast, is my kids' classroom."

Kaminski's five sponsorships add about $25,000 to her bottom line, and she figures that more sponsors will eventually sign on. "I want Revlon," she says. "We cowgirls may rope and ride in the dirt, but we wear lipstick too."