On The Trail with Karissa Rayhill

by Siri Stevens

“Glory be to God – it’s a big thank you to Him – everything in my life is thanks to Him. I’m stronger in my faith and my relationship than I’ve ever been and I want to continue that.”


Karissa Rayhill was raised in Martin, South Dakota, on a farm and ranch. Besides the normal things found in a small town; banks, a post office, churches, and schools, Martin sports a sale barn, a bowling alley and a casino just east of town. Karissa spent most of her spare time on a horse or a tractor, helping her dad and grandpa with cattle or crops. “We worked hard doing what had to be done,” she said. “Our dad (Kory) taught us how to do it all, from pulling calves to grinding hay. My grandparents lived down the road, so we spent a lot of time there and being part of their lives. We played sports in school, and we had friends, but we lived in the boonies, and we always had a good time out there.” Her most heartfelt memories were at home in the practice pen with her parents (Kory and Angela) and grandparents (Rodney and Lawonda).

Dinnertime was almost always spent together around the table talking about the day. Kaitlyn, 29; Kyler, 27; Karissa, 23, and Keisha, 21, grew up like most farm kids. “They worked on the farm and spent the evenings practicing,” said Kory, who calf roped, team roped, and steer wrestled when he was younger. “That taught them a good work ethic.”

Karissa played volleyball, but eventually turned all her attention to rodeo, thanks to her older sister, Kaitlyn, who got her interested. The journey began with the Sandhills Barrel Racing Association and 4-H rodeos. “From there we went into high school and SDRA, and that all led to college rodeo.” During the summer, they were gone every weekend to rodeos. Sometimes it was the whole family, but Kyler only rodeoed a year, so he’d stay home and help with the chores. Once Karissa got older, Kaitlyn didn’t rodeo, but Keesha continued. “Mom and dad were almost always there as well as my grandparents.”

Karissa earned a spot at the National High School Finals twice (2015, 2017), winning the goat tying in the South Dakota High School Association as well as the 4-H Finals, setting an arena record for two years. “I got multiple state titles in goats and barrels mostly. I also did well in breakaway and almost made it to the National Finals in poles and breakaway but was one hole out.” Her accomplishments have resulted in several saddles as well as a trailer and hundreds of buckles. She owes much of her success to her sister. “My sister was in high school, and I drove myself to be as good as she was,” she recalls. “I would actually make a great run during practice and shed a few tears that I wasn’t going fast enough. I was so driven to be as good as those older girls. I grew to love it and it’s always been rewarding to me.”

Karissa chose Eastern Wyoming College to continue her education. “It was close to home and both my parents came to Torrington. I love it here – it’s small and ag-related; I know most of the people in school. It was God’s plan to bring me here to meet Brock.”

Brock Gotschall, who just turned 28, proposed to Karissa at the final Central Rocky Mountain regional rodeo in Laramie, Wyo. He owns a welding company in Torrington and the proposal made a great ending to Karissa’s third year of college rodeo; she left with three titles and a diamond ring. The couple has a 14-month-old daughter, Silva. Karissa took a year off of college to concentrate on becoming a mother. “I don’t regret one bit of that. It was the best thing I could have done.” She still had the goal of winning, and knew that rodeo would still be there after her baby was born. She worked for Brock, helping him build his business, and she was able to see the other side of things – the not entering side. Her younger sister was still college rodeoing and Karissa went to support her from the stands. “I got to watch how people handled themselves and pushed themselves. I also was able to help other girls with goat tying.” It lit a fire under her to get back in shape. “It put a passion in me to win; it wasn’t easy to say the least. Throughout the summer she went with her sister to some rodeos in the amateur circuit. “I struggled with confidence, and I wasn’t in great shape,” she admitted. “I knew I wanted to come back to school, and I actually had a hard time for a bit, I’m not going to lie. Once I went back to school, I hit the gym and put my mind in a place to build confidence. I had to be religious about my workouts – that’s all there is to it.”She also had to focus on her horses to make sure they were in the best shape and be the best they could be. She has six horses in her string. Her goat tying horse is also her breakaway horse. “Teepee is nine this year and I broke and trained her,” said Karissa. “My grandpa picked her out; she came from Tom O’Grady in northern South Dakota. She was supposed to be my grandpa’s horse, but after I won my first goat tying in college, he let me have her.” Karissa’s good goat horse, Doris, died from cancer. “In 2019, the year when I was going to CNFR, she had a big lump on the side of her face. We were trying to figure out what it was, and she had gotten some pretty bad rope burns so I wasn’t going to use her except for the short go. I used my barrel horse up to the short go.”

Her barrel horse, Vegas, came from the Fall Extravaganza sale in Phillip. “I was about 10 and I told my dad he was the one. I still have the number tag from when we bought him. We got him for a great price and from the first day we got him, he was gentle. My dad sent him to some guys to ride, and it took nothing to get him going. We picked him up and stopped at a pasture to get some cows in. I jumped on him bareback with a halter and got the cows in. He’s 13 this year.”

Kory has ridden Vegas on several occasions on the ranch. “One blizzard, I had to pull a calf out of a crazy heifer,” he said. “We couldn’t get her in, and Vegas was the only horse in the barn, so I saddled him up and roped that cow and pulled the calf in the middle of the blizzard. Karissa can do about anything she wants to on him.” Kory recognizes the gift Karissa has with horses. “She knows them,” he said. “She can read them and figure out what they are thinking.”
Silva goes with Karissa from the practice pen to the rodeos to the gym. “She’s been many miles in her 14 months. My mom has been great help, and Brock comes when he can,” she said. “The rodeo family makes it easy to have little kids running around – I struggled with some sick days, but my mom would come through. And of course, Brock – he’s a great dad. I trusted and had faith that it was going to be fine and it was.”
“I’m going to bust my butt to do the best I can,” said Karissa of preparing for the CNFR. She took a few days off after regional finals to let her horses rest, but she’s back working harder than ever to prepare. “I want to make the goal I’ve had for a long time – winning the goat tying at the CNFR.” Karissa has goals beyond rodeo. “On a bigger scale, I want to be a better person, to have a better relationship with God. As a role model, I need to spread that and encourage others. I want to use that relationship with God to help others. Winning the CNFR would be amazing, but there are bigger things, and I have learned that with age.”

Karissa has a passion to teach others what she has learned about goat tying and horsemanship. She is putting on a clinic right before the CNFR, expecting 10 girls to come. “We work on building and/or correcting the fundamentals.”

As far as the future. “I’ll continue to pursue training horses and helping others. As of right now, I’d like to go back to college, but I have a responsibility to take care of. Life is crazy and things happen all the time. It’s God’s plan and I am trying to listen to what He is telling me to do.”

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