Jessica Routier has been riding horses from a very young age — before she can even remember. She entered her first competition when she was 6 years old and has earned numerous accolades throughout her rodeo career.

But it still doesn’t seem real to her to see her name listed as No. 2 in the world after an exceptional performance at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas Dec. 6-15.

“It was an amazing experience and we enjoyed every second of it,” she said.

Routier grew up on a farm in Montfort, a small community in southwest Wisconsin. Both of her parents participated in rodeo; her mother made a living training horses, which originally sparked her interest in barrel racing.

As a youth, she participated in Wisconsin Little Britches rodeos, then high school rodeos. She qualified for the National High School Finals Rodeo four times, earning a scholarship to attend National American University in South Dakota. And after qualifying for the College National Finals Rodeo four times, in 2003, she was named the College National Champion Barrel Racer.

“I don’t know that there was ever a point in my life when I decided I was going to make a career out of rodeo. It was just always what I wanted to do and what I did,” she said. “I rodeoed throughout all the phases of my life, so it was never something I decided I was going to do — I just did it.”

In 2010, Routier began a working relationship with Gary Westergren, a horse breeder from Nebraska. She recalled the first time she met him in person in 2011 as she was riding his mare, Special French Bear (Anna Belle), in Arizona.

“I remember him saying, ‘I want to see one of my horses run at National Finals Rodeo,’ ” Routier said. “My thought was that this guy doesn’t know how hard a task that is to accomplish!”

However, she wasn’t ready to rule out qualifying for the national competition as impossible.

Since then, Westergren and Routier have been working to get his horses out into the barrel racing world. His horses come to Routier’s ranch when they turn 2 years old, and they learn to work on the ranch and are introduced to barrel racing, she said.

Her NFR winning horse, Missy, came to the ranch when she was 2 years old, just as all of Westergren’s horses do. Routier started Missy with a little bit of barrel racing here and there, in between putting on a lot of outside miles, she said. Her friend ran Missy at her first futurity while Routier was pregnant, and after giving birth to a daughter, Charlie, ran Missy at seven other events as a 5-year-old.

“She won money at every single one,” she said. “From there, Missy’s rodeo career began, and she has never missed a beat.”

Routier described her as gritty, a horse that tries her heart out with every run she makes. Missy has always been mature for her age and always stays very focused, Routier added. All of these qualities make her an exceptional rodeo horse — fully capable of earning the title of 2018 Reserve World Champion.

In 2017, Routier started taking Missy to professional rodeos. The duo ended up winning the Badlands Circuit, which led them to participate in the Ram National Circuit Finals, where they placed second. Then they qualified for the Calgary Stampede, finishing third at that competition.

“With all of the money from those three rodeos counting toward the NFR, I knew we needed to take advantage of the situation and keep rodeoing to see where we could end up,” Routier said.

Routier took extra care of Missy, bringing a 5-year-old horse along to provide company to Missy while they were on the road. The two ate and drank well all summer, Routier said, with Missy fresh and ready to go every time and ready to jump back in to go to the next competition as well.

After Calgary, which took place in July, the pair was sitting seventh in the world standings. Routier said things were looking good, but she doesn’t like to count on anything until it actually happens. However, after the deadline for qualifying came at the end of September, she knew for sure they had made it into the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo.

The Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is the season-ending competition event for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and has been held annually since 1959. The prestigious rodeo showcases the very best cowboys, barrel racers and livestock in the world — with Routier and Missy fulfilling Westergren’s dream to see one of his horses at the respected competition.

To prepare Missy physically and mentally for the big event, which includes 10 rounds over 10 days, Routier sent her to stay with friends at Steele Equi-fit, where she swam in an AquaTred equine underwater treadmill to build muscle strength and stamina. In Las Vegas, Routier continued to focus on Missy, making sure she could rest comfortably in between rounds.

Along with earning the title of 2018 Reserve World Champion at NFR, Routier also received the Jerry Ann Taylor Best Dressed Award, an honor voted on by fans in recognition of Jerry Ann Taylor, a well-known trick rider that brought style, glamour and spirit to the arena. This award was also something special for Routier, adding to an unforgettable experience.

“It still doesn’t feel real,” Routier said.

Because of their stellar finish in 2018, she and Missy now have opportunities to compete in other big events this winter. Routier plans to participate and see where those competitions lead them.

Back home at her and her husband’s ranch in Buffalo, S.D., Routier is raising the next generation of rodeo enthusiasts. All five of her children have a love for horses and competing, as well as working on the ranch with family.

And while there isn’t much, or any, downtime on the ranch in between competitions and caring for the animals and land, the family wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It would be awesome to get to compete at the NFR again, and if the conditions are right, we will try,” she said.