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The freshman season Three Forks native Tayla Moeykens has put together should not be viewed as having come from nowhere.

Rather, her year of barrel racing success for Montana State should be considered the next logical step of her progression.

Her resume already includes three Northern Rodeo Association junior barrel racing and all-around championships and four trips to the Junior World Finals, where in 2020 she was the senior barrel racing champion and the overall average champion.

In her first year of college rodeo, Moeykens won the Big Sky Region barrel racing title with 1,107 points. That total puts her third in the country heading into the College National Finals Rodeo, which begins on Sunday in Casper, Wyoming.

Moeykens hasn’t yet competed at CNFR obviously, but she’s well aware of the enormity of the stage.

“I’ve been told it’s a really amazing experience being in the barn and stuff during the performances,” she said. “A lot of the other competitors have said it’s a very unique experience and something to remember.”

Sophomore teammate Shai McDonald will also join Moeykens in the barrel racing at CNFR. McDonald placed third in the Big Sky Region with 580 points. MSU athletes occupied nine of the top 10 in the region’s barrel racing standings this year.

“Shai and I have been friends and competitors for a long time,” Moeykens said. “Her horses have always been super nice horses, and I like it when I have people around me who can do very well and push me because it makes me ride to the best that I can.”

Moeykens enters the college finals trailing the national barrel racing leader — Karson Bradley of the University of Wyoming — by only 33 points. And Moeykens missed second place by only three points, so the race at the top was tight in the regular season. She and her horse Blue should have a strong chance to contend in Casper, MSU head coach Andy Bolich said.

“She has been so solid and performed like a veteran,” Bolich said. “It’s been neat to see a freshman like her have such a great year and not get any of the freshman jitters or any of that stuff. She just performed like a veteran and had a really dominating year.”

During the fall season, Moeykens placed seventh at the first Northwest College rodeo but won the second one and also at Montana-Western. She added a fifth-place finish at Dawson Community College but really turned it on in the spring.

She won the barrel racing at both of MSU’s rodeos in early April and followed with wins at the University of Providence and the University of Montana.

“Coming into it, I didn’t exactly know what to expect, but I just went out there and made the best run I could every time,” Moeykens said. “I credit my horse with all of that because she’s half the team, and I really need her. It’s just kind of a surreal feeling.”

In any recap of her season, Moeykens peppers the conversation with compliments of Blue, who prior to this year didn’t have a lot of experience at events with large crowds.

“She’s been to a few normal performances now with the noise in the crowd, and she’s handled it like a champ,” Moeykens said. “She’s grown so much in the last couple years, and I can’t thank her enough for all that she does. … She definitely has the heart of a champion.”

In preparation for the CNFR, Moeykens doesn’t take Blue on many traditional practice runs around the barrels. She relies instead on regular trots and conditioning exercises.

“Usually that’s just to work on the basics and fine-tune stuff because we’re working with tenths and hundredths here,” she said.

Since school let out, she has also made a few trips to professional rodeos to keep sharp. In the last three weeks of May, Moeykens and Blue picked up wins at rodeos in Vernon, Texas, and Cave Creek, Arizona. In between, they placed eighth in Payson, Arizona.

“Hopefully that momentum keeps rolling right into the college finals, which I think it will,” Bolich said. “Her horse is running good.”

That’s been the trend all year, and Moeykens is similarly hopeful it continues. She of course wants to win, or at least qualify for the short go, but she won’t let her national standing convince her that winning is a certainty.

“I’m just thankful for every run that she gives me,” Moeykens said of Blue. “We just go out there and try to do the best we can that day, and if it falls it falls, and we’re very happy for it. You stay humble and go on to the next one and see what happens. Nothing is ever given. Rodeo is something that will teach you that.”

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Parker Cotton can be reached at pcotton@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @ByParkerCotton.

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