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Suebeth Newton's blond ponytail nearly reaches the ground as she bends over to strap on her long chaps and spurs. This 16-year-old smiles at the people around her, but she casts a nervous glance at the empty ring over her shoulder.
Newton's boyfriend, Tyler Chesser, tapes the wrist of a leather glove on her right hand. Then she grabs her helmet and the black vest with "Cowgirl Up!" written on the back. She makes her way through ankle-deep mud to the holding pen containing a bull named Monsoon.
Newton is one of two novice riders competing in the Promise Ridge Rodeo at Leroy and Candi Scrogham's farm Saturday night. She's the only woman in either the novice or professional division. In fact, she's the only woman ever to compete at Promise Ridge in its 7-year history.
But Newton rides with a mission that has roots in sorrow, not ambition.
On July 25, 2004, three young men – Donnie Maddox Jr., 18, Matt
Edwards, 15, and Newton's brother, Jason, 15 – died in a car accident just down the road from Promise Ridge. They were driving to rodeo practice.
The next year Newton pushed aside her fears and rode for the first time.
"When my brother passed away, that's what he was going to do," Newton said. "So I decided to do it for him."
The Scroghams hang three flags around the ring to honor the fallen riders. They've placed three stars on the front of the announcer's booth.
Newton raised a couple hundred dollars in sponsorships, which she gives to the Promise Ridge Ministry in honor of Jason. The rodeo benefits the Harrisonville Pentecostal Church's youth and the youth camp at Promise Ridge, which Jason had attended that summer.
Country music gives way to Bluegrass as Newton watches the first rider get quickly thrown. It's her turn.
She briefly closes her eyes before climbing over the bars. Newton holds her 115-pound frame over 1,000 pounds of tense muscle. She wedges her gloved hand under the rope at the beast's shoulders.
Suddenly, the gate swings open, and Monsoon dances sideways into the ring, kicking madly.
Newton hangs on for 2 seconds...4 seconds...then she's flung from the bucking bull, landing belly-down on the dirt. But she pops up as Monsoon moves away from her, still angry, until he slips in mud at the far end of the ring.
Newton makes her way out of the ring, away from the lights and the 200-strong crowd.
She's frustrated. She knows she could have done better, maybe driven her left arm harder for balance or held on with her knees instead of sitting back.
But Newton's smiles return as people come up to congratulate her with teases: "If there'd been mud out there, you'd been wiping it out of your eyeballs."
"Next year for your sponsorship I'm going to buy you a brown shirt for when you hit the dirt."
Newton perches on the fence to watch the rodeo clowns and children's chicken and duck chases. When a man hands her a flier for another rodeo, she eagerly accepts.
All those times she had watched Jason ride, she had learned never to give up, and now she loves the rodeo so much she'd like to try and break into the professional ranks.
Promise Ridge and its riding community would be behind her all the way.
"It means a lot because this is where Jason and Matt liked to hang out," Newton said. "Everyone's real friendly. There's a lot of love going on."
Her parents, Sue and Tommy Newton of Waddy, are more reluctant.
"She scares me riding a lot of times," Tommy said. "Her mother really gets tore up.
“But it's what she wants to do."