Four years ago, Bakersfield native Lindsay Handren’s mother passed away from colon cancer six weeks after being diagnosed.
Her death came just before an annual mother-daughter trip to the Las Vegas High Roller Reining Classic, a horse competition Lindsay competed in every year while her mother cheered her on, just as she had in every competition since Lindsay was a little girl.
"One of the hardest things I had to do was cancel that hotel reservation," Lindsay, 33, said. "I didn't compete for a while after that."
If only mom could see her daughter now.
On Aug. 17, Lindsay will return to the same arena in Las Vegas for the first time since her mother's death, but this time to compete in a much more elite competition, The Run for a Million. The event caps years of riding and showing horses that began when Lindsay first expressed interest in horses around age 5.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Handren said this week, as she recalled a crazy schedule in the past two years of completing a Ph. D at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, while teaching college courses in Cal Poly Pamona, training in Bakersfield for riding competitions and then catching red-eye flights to go compete, often stepping off the plane the morning of the event.
Last year, Handren ranked second in the world in her division for reining, a style of Western riding that showcases the athleticism of ranch horses. The competition involves patterns that include circles, spins and, perhaps the most well-known, sliding stops, where the horse makes a sudden stop from a lope, sliding and kicking up clouds of arena dust in the process.
Then Handren learned about The Run for a Million in Las Vegas, one of the biggest events ever organized for reining and that's being filmed as part of a reality TV series called “The Last Cowboy,” airing on the Paramount Network. Producer Tyler Sheridan, who co-produced the hit show “Yellowstone,” is a horseman and reining legend himself and has organized The Run for a Million to bring more publicity to the sport. Professional riders will compete for a $1 milion prize. Handren is competing in one of four other events that day, a non-pro competition (riders who don't train horses for a living) for a $50,000 purse.
“It’s huge,” said Sami Hernandez, a longtime Bakersfield horse trainer, of the opportunity Handren has in front of her. "And it's going to be great for our industry."
Hernandez has worked with Handren since she was a child and will attend the event with her husband, George, and their son to watch Handren compete. She said reining has become more popular in the past 10 to 15 years, after the hobby-industry of riding and showing horses took a major hit following the housing market collapse in California, and the subsequent fallout across the economy.
Reining came to be a more accessible form of riding, Hernandez said, because it could be done with a cheaper horse at a local venue.
"Everybody can do it at some level," she said.
Handren competed in English, Western Pleasure and Showmanship throughout her childhood but took a break when she went away to college. She focused more on reining when she picked up the sport again in 2009 after college and "fell in love with it all over again."
When life took her to Michigan a few years ago, she found another place to ride there, and a horse, Freckles, with whom she instantly clicked. Despite moving back to California more recently, she continued to fly to Michigan to compete, hitting career milestones on Freckles.
In Las Vegas later this month, it will be the first time her West Coast family meets Freckles and her Michigan riding family, which includes trainers Tim and Cindy Katona.
While her mother won't be there to watch, Handren said she always rides in her honor.
"I'll be going there a week after the anniversary of her death and it's her favorite place," she said. "That part of it also is pretty amazing and special, no matter how I do."