HOOPER -- There's one thing Kelli Tolbert knows for sure.
She loves riding a fast-running horse.
And this love has put the 35-year-old Hooper resident at the top of the pack in the Women's Professional Rodeo Association.
Tolbert has qualified for her second appearance at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, Dec. 6 - 15, in Las Vegas. She's the only woman from Utah set to compete in the event.
"I just have a need to be on a horse going fast," said the professional rodeo cowgirl. "I knew from the time I was 3, I had to be around horses every day of my life. It was an innate desire."
While Tolbert is relatively new to the Women's Professional Rodeo Association -- she joined in 2008 -- she's not new to rodeo and equestrian winner's circles. She has a long list of accomplishments in 4-H, junior posse, high school rodeo and reining contests.
A highlight was winning the goat-tying at the Collegiate National Finals Rodeo when she competed on the Weber State University team.
And she started off winning right away in the WPRA. She was able to fill her WPRA card her first year.
In her second year, she ended in 25th place in the country, taking the WPRA's Rookie of the Year Award.
That finish also qualified Tolbert to compete in the nation's top invitation-only rodeos in 2010.
"The top 48 or 50 qualify for the top invitation-only rodeos," she said, naming San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth, Texas, as examples.
"I was able to enter some really big rodeos. That helped me in qualifying for my first WNFR," she said.
And Tolbert left the WNFR with a coveted award in 2010.
That year, her horse, Cleo, was voted by the other qualifying barrel racers to receive the Scoti Flit Bar Rising Star Award, reserved for horses in their first year at the WNFR.
But her first WNFR didn't start out on the note Tolbert had hoped for.
In her first round of competition, she and Cleo hit two barrels, putting them out of the competition for that round.
Tolbert said that when she didn't know what to expect as she entered the WNFR's Thomas and Mack Center arena the first time in competition, she just kind of sat on her horse and let the horse do the work.'
"I should have trusted her and sent her in like I always do," Tolbert said. "That's what happens when you overthink."
Her luck quickly changed when she relied on her instincts in the second round.
"The Thomas and Mack is so tight," she said. "It's more about reacting. You rely on your prior experience, feel and natural timing. If it works, it works. If not, you get to try again for 10 runs."
This change in attitude landed the duo a first-place finish in the second go-round of competition.
They also finished in the money in several other go-rounds at the world's top rodeo in 2010.
Rodeo is a part of Tolbert's life in and out of the competition arena.
If you watch Tolbert and Cleo behind the scenes, you'll think you arrived at the rodeo early.
That's because the 9-year-old horse always bucks when Tolbert first climbs aboard the mare.
"It's nothing that would get you off on the ground," Tolbert said. "It's all in fun."
Tolbert said the bucking experience actually makes her a better rider for the rest of the day each time she rides her money-winning animal.
"You just have to have a good attitude when you start out," she said. "It's a good idea for every horse."
Cleo's registered name is RF Firefly. The "RF" is after Tolbert's father, Robert Fowers, and the firefly is for the bucking.
"She's named for (rodeo contractor) Mascaro's bucking horse, Firefly," Tolbert said.
The rodeo star knew what she was doing when she purchased Cleo, with or without her bucking habit.
Tolbert said she found the horse by her pedigree listed online. It was similar to the pedigree of Tolbert's winning animal, Jess, who put her at the top in goat-tying and reining back in her days of concentrating on those disciplines.
"I got to have a part of Jess but a younger version," she said. "He would live on forever through her."
One thing Tolbert is pretty sure of is that Cleo is the least-expensive horse at the WNFR this year. Tolbert paid only $1,800 for the animal. And she laughs about that amount.
"They wanted $2,000 for her, but I dickered with them a little," she said. "My dad always taught me that you always got to do that. But I would have given them anything they wanted."
Tolbert also recognizes that she wouldn't be where she is today without a lot of help and support.
She said her sponsors, Equine Pride Horse Feed, Roper Apparel and Tony Lama Boots, pave the way for her to be able to afford to travel great distances and to feed her horses in a manner that keeps them competitive.
"They were a big part of my success this year," she said.
And she said she also owes a lot to her parents, Robert and Vicki Fowers, as well as her brother, Scott Fowers.
She said her dad and brother are always fixing up her horse trailer and truck. They even added air-ride suspension to keep Cleo more comfortable on the long hauls.
But even without a smooth ride, Tolbert said her horse always gives all she has.
"She's ready to go 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Tolbert said of her horse. "Every time she runs through the arena gate, she tries to win."
And, Tolbert said, that's what makes the difference.