Pat Litton was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her dad was an ex-farmer that worked for the state and had a garbage route. “He later went […]
Written by: Lily Landreth< Back to Articles
Irene Wilson is one of only a handful of women to be inducted into the Idaho Rodeo Hall of Fame. She rodeoed with the Idaho Cowboys Association in 1959, the first year that the ICA would present a saddle to the barrel racing champion. Irene was determined to be that champion. “I had never won a saddle, and I wanted a saddle,” Irene said. Married with two children, Irene rodeoed on the weekends, sometimes bringing her two sons with her. “I had an old Ford pickup. My youngest son was one and a half and my oldest son was three. We only had room for the horse in the bed of the pickup, with a suitcase on one side of him and the diapers on the other.” At that time, many people transported their horses in their pickup beds as it was more affordable than hauling a horse trailer. Irene’s dedication paid off. She was the first woman to win a saddle in the ICA and was the 1959 barrel racing champion.
While Irene grew up with horses, she did not begin barrel racing until her twenties. Born in 1935 in the mining town of Pearl, Idaho, Irene grew up living in both Pearl and Star, Idaho. Her parents, Fred and Irene Turner, owned a ranch and grew hay in Star, and Irene’s father also worked in the mines of Pearl. When Irene was six years old, her father decided that she and her older sister, Mary, should begin trick roping. “My dad brought home two ropes and said ‘you girls are going to learn to rope’. And we did, an hour every day whether we wanted to or not,” Irene remembers. The sisters performed their trick roping act in Idaho with the Roser, Moody, and Kershner Rodeo Producers, and in Oregon with the Roland Hyde Rodeo Producer. Irene recalls that she didn’t find trick roping on the horses enjoyable at all. “It was scary,” she says, “There were always nerves right before you went on.”
When Irene was about 15, her sister married and went on to train horses with her husband. The rodeo act split up, Irene’s father wanted her to start competing in cow cutting. “I didn’t like it, but my dad did,” says Irene. After several years of cutting, Irene was anxious to move on. By this time she was married and in her early twenties. She began competing in barrel racing and pole bending in the IGRA (Idaho Girl’s Rodeo Association). Irene was self-taught. At that time they took movies instead of photographs of Irene barrel racing so that she could watch what she was doing. In the 1950’s, Quarter Horses were being introduced in Idaho, and Irene bought a gelding named Candy Bill. They were a talented team, and won the IGRA barrels and poles from 1957 through 1959.
Irene also tried out for Snake River Stampede Rodeo Queen for five years. While out of nearly 50 contestants Irene never won the title, she was runner up several years. “It was more fun to not be queen,” says Irene. “After the contest, they took all of the girls, three to a convertible, and went to every town from Ontario, (Ore.) to Mountain Home (Idaho). We went to every town at a certain time and they were ready for us. They’d give us ice cream or Coke, whatever we wanted. Then the new queen would stand up and say something about the rodeo. It was a big advertisement for the rodeo.”
It was after winning the ICA saddle in 1959 that Irene decided to quit rodeoing. She was married to her second husband, Bert Wilson, and her two sons, Dan and John, were old enough to start their own activities. However, Irene admits that she didn’t want them to rodeo. “I knew they weren’t going to rope, and I didn’t want them to ride roughstock.” Instead, they began showing Quarter Horses, which they continued to do for over ten years. When Dan graduated from high school in 1974, he went to Alaska to get a job in the fishing industry and John went with him.
After their sons had left home, Irene and Bert were no longer showing horses. Although Bert worked as a state policeman and Irene was a secretary and dispatcher for a trucking company, they needed a hobby to occupy their weekends. “We fished for a year, but we were at loose ends,” says Irene. Instead, they became involved with horse racing in Emmett, Idaho. Soon they branched out to races in Portland, Spokane, and even Phoenix. The husband and wife raised and trained their race horses, standing two studs and occasionally buying other prospective horses. Bert passed away in 1997, but Irene continued to race horses with the help of her two granddaughters, Tanya and Samantha Tackitt. In 1999, Irene’s mare Irish Staff won the prestigious Idaho Cup race, a race that only ten of the best racehorses in Idaho qualify for. Following her win, Irene retired from horse racing.
Irene’s son, Dan, was now running petting zoos and he asked Irene to start a pony ring with him. She travelled with sixteen ponies, but that became such a hassle that she decided to open a farm on her ten acres in Star. The pony ring and petting zoo became specifically a place for kindergarteners, as well as children with disabilities, to visit. The children were given hay rides around the zoo, where they saw a zebra, a camel, emus, reindeer, sheep, and over ten breeds of horses.
In 2010, Irene sold the petting zoo and pony ring, which is still in operation. She continues to live in Star. Irene is a director for the Idaho Horse Council and is on the Idaho Horse Expo committee. While she doesn’t ride anymore, two of Irene’s great granddaughters ride with the EhCapa Bareback Riders, and Irene travels with the group throughout the summer. EhCapa performed in honor of her induction into the Idaho Rodeo Hall of Fame at the Gooding Pro Rodeo. “Looking back, it seems like I’ve done something new about every ten years,” Irene said with a laugh. “I wonder what I will do in the next few years.”