By Neal Reid
Conrado-Saebens Wins NFR Average Title, Finishes Reserve World Champion
Ivy Conrado-Saebens has her three previous years of competing at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo to thank for her run through the 2019 championship.
“I really think they’ve made this year happen,” said Conrado-Saebens of Hudson, Colorado, now living in Nowata, Oklahoma, with her husband, NFR team roping heeler Billie Jack Saebens. “I played club volleyball with some great coaches, and they always said that it’s super important to lose, because that’s when you learn the most.
“I lost in 2016, then 2017 was great redemption. Nellie (Miller) and I both broke the average record. In 2018, I made huge mistakes, but those mistakes set me up for this year; I just wanted to be consistent and make the same run every night.”
That’s pretty much what she did through the 10 rounds of ProRodeo’s grand finale on KN Fabs Gift of Fame, a 10-year-old palomino mare she calls JLo. After opening with a 14.07-second run, the tandem posted solid runs of 13.90 or less through the remainder of the NFR. In fact, she placed in all but two go-rounds en route to her first average championship in Las Vegas.
“I’m super excited for JLo,” Conrado-Saebens said. “She’s always been capable of something like that. It shows something about her owners (Kenny Nichols and James Barron) and sets her up for her breeding program.
“It’s an experience I’ll hold near and dear in my life forever. You never know what the NFR is going to be like. It’s either going to be a heartbreaker or a dream come true.”
Her dreams in the City of Lights became reality. By placing in eight rounds, she and JLo proved they belonged among the very best in the game.
After missing out on a paycheck in Round 1, the tandem went on a tear of placing in seven straight rounds, including her best run of the week, a 13.69, to finish second on the sixth night of the championship. Conrado-Saebens finished seventh in the ninth round, just missing out on the bottom hole by a tenth of a second, then wrapped up a phenomenal week with a 13.86 to finish third on the final night of the season.
What’s big about that is that she and Emily Miller of Weatherford, Oklahoma, were in a tight race for the average title heading into the 10th round. Everything changed after Miller tipped a barrel on that Saturday night, which cost her five seconds and moved her to second in the average overall.
Still, Miller picked up $54,577 for finishing as the runner-up, but Conrado-Saebens earned the biggest aggregate bonus by having stopped the clock in a cumulative time of 138.44 seconds, worth $67,269.
“I didn’t know I just had to be clean to win the average until Emily ran, and fortunately she went first, so the pressure was on her,” she said, noting that her husband finished 16th in the heeling standings, just missing his third NFR. “When I heard the crowd, I knew she hit a barrel. Still, I was more nervous in Round 9 in the alleyway that I was in Round 10.
“JLo is not hard to keep off the barrels. She goes where I’m looking, and that’s what I’m working on every day out in the pasture. Placing in the last round was probably one of my favorite runs that I have ever made on her. She was really locked on.”
Conrado-Saebens has many great things to say about the yellow speedster. JLo finished second in the Purina Horse of the Year presented by the AQHA each of the past two seasons.
“She’s a different kind of horse,” Conrado-Saebens said. “She runs real straight up. She doesn’t lean. I run her with no hind shoes, because I believe they can feel the ground better. I’m not much for riding the outside rein. I was taught it takes your feet away from them. Each girl is different, and to each their own.
“Just watching Lisa (Lockhart) growing up, her horses never had any trouble that’s who I try to mirror when I ride.”
It’s working, and she’s proven that on multiple mounts. In her first year of qualifying for the NFR in 2016, Conrado-Saebens rode CFour Tibbie Stinson, which was named the Horse of the Year that season. That was a special time for her and her father, Kelly Conrado, who had raised and trained Tibbie.
Through each ride in the pasture and each run inside the Thomas & Mack Center, she has learned the importance of taking care of her animals, especially in Las Vegas. Ten runs in 10 days can be rough, not only on the jockey but also her precious mount.
“My vet, Dr. Marty Tanner, is out there the whole time,” she said. “He goes over her every day to make sure she’s feeling good. I have a real good hand, Cody O’Donnell, who has helped me; he was there the first two years and came back again this year. He does everything with JLo and does everything I ask.
“Mandy Hagler does the balance work, and I’ve never gotten her to come out until this year. She’s like a magician, and JLo loves it. I also have a PMES machine that we do every day, and a little bit of laser therapy.”
It takes a team of people to keep everything going in that high-pressure situation that is the NFR.
“It’s a huge group of people,” said Conrado-Saebens, who married her husband right after the 2019 regular season ended on a hill near Nowata where they are building a house. “That’s 10 straight runs. You might be out there for 14 seconds or less, but there’s a lot to getting them to feeling good for that long. I feel like I have the best crew around.”
There are also many distractions in Sin City, from autograph signings and meeting with fans to making sure everything is handled by the time the grand entry begins each night. She has learned over the last four years how to handle the interruptions.
“You just have to say no,” she said. “I had to learn that. The first year, I wore myself thin. I should not have done five signings a day and 10 interviews. You’re out there, and you feel like you have to say yes. I think I’m in a better spot. I have sponsors that understand that, and they try not to run you ragged.
“I think it’s a really important thing that realizing and communicating with people that you’re out there to do a job.”
In placing so many times and winning the average, Conrado-Saebens earned $171,404 in 10 nights in the Nevada desert. She finished the year with $264,673 and as the reserve world champion. Because she didn’t look at the earnings or standings while in Las Vegas, she didn’t know until she was told after the 10th round.
As she looks back at her magical 2019, she will have many things to reflect on as she moves forward. From her wedding to Billie Jack Saebens to her fantastic run at the NFR, she has many things for which to be grateful.
“The thing I can reflect on is not really rodeoing that hard,” Conrado-Saebens said. “We got married this year and are building a house, and all I had was JLo. I was tired. I just took it easy and really enjoyed the season.”