By Neal Reid
Smeenk Busy Juggling Barrel Racing, Entrepreneurship,
To say Jenna Smeenk has a lot of irons in the fire would be a major understatement.
A United States Air National Guard veteran and Miss Rodeo Florida 2013, Smeenk never has been a person to sit still for very long, and that certainly is the case for her these days. Not only is she working for civilian contracting company Mag Aerospace in Afghanistan, she also is juggling a budding entrepreneurship and barrel racing career as well.
For 60 days at a time, Smeenk deploys to Afghanistan as one of numerous civilian contractors working for the Fairfax, Virginia, aerospace and defense company, performing classified duties as an airborne sensor operator. It’s a high-level position in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance community and one Smeenk takes seriously.
“I can’t really get into the particulars of the job, but I can just tell you that we fly,” Smeenk said from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. “The Army flies our planes, and we’re operating systems in the back [of the plane]. Over here, there’s as many people in civilian clothes as there are in uniform.”
Smeenk enlisted in the Air Force out of high school in 2007, following her older sister, Trisha, into the military branch. Their younger brother, Jed, joined the ranks next.
Trisha—named Miss Rodeo USA in 2012—is still enlisted and works as a recruiter in Oklahoma, while Jed also is active duty and is a crew chief for an F-16 unit. Jenna won the 2013 Miss Rodeo Florida pageant while stationed at the state’s Hurlburt Field Air Force Base, and she spent that year serving as one of the sport’s top ambassadors and representing her country.
Even though her dream of becoming Miss Rodeo America ended in Las Vegas, the queen experience was transformative for Jenna.
“My year as Miss Rodeo Florida was pivotal in my career as a barrel racer, because previously I really hadn’t ridden anything for almost seven years,” said Jenna, who had deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan while enlisted. “That whole experience just made me fall back in love with the sport. I had been away from it for so long, and when you’re not around that atmosphere and the industry, you just forget how much you love it. So, it really lit a spark.
“I realized you don’t have to have a crown to be an ambassador for this way of life. Honestly, losing that year taught me more than winning ever would have, and that led me to [my horse] Taz and led me to the life I’m leading now.”
Jenna rose to the rank of Tech Sergeant before leaving active duty in 2016 to chase her barrel racing dreams, and she began ramping up her various business ventures as well. The need for consistency and a foundation that allowed her to continue to develop as an entrepreneur led her back to the intelligence community, albeit as a civilian.
“I rodeoed for about two years before I decided I should find something more sustainable long-term,” said Jenna, who was part of the Wrangler Patriot Tour during her enlisted days. “I started rodeoing full-time and decided I wanted to get a job and work again in the field I have experience in, which is intelligence in the military, and there are a lot of opportunities to do that as a civilian. It’s similar work, but we work with and for the military rather than being military.”
One of the things the overseas job provides her is ample free time, hours that allow Jenna to manage her various business ventures—which include American Cowgirl Clothing Company, Knotty Halters equipment and the recently launched “The HorsePower Podcast,” which she co-hosts with Steve Steeds.
“It definitely keeps my schedule full and gives me something to work toward while I’m out here,” said Jenna, who lives in south Oklahoma when she’s not deployed. “You have down time with WiFi and no other real activities, so all of the stuff I’m involved with when I go home gives me motivation to stay focused out here and keep working on that stuff.”
Another thing she loves doing is running barrels. Five years ago, Jenna bought the massive Taz, a 16.3-hand gelding she took off the quarter horse racetrack, and the two have spent years bonding and evolving together.
“At the time, I’d never really trained anything on my own or ridden anything other than finished horses,” she said. “But I was also coming off a military career where I didn’t really ride much at all, and I didn’t have the money to go out and buy a finished horse and didn’t think I was ready as a rider. I knew I needed to grow and learn—and I don’t recommend this to most people—but I bought a young horse so we could do that together.
“That’s a huge undertaking, and I really didn’t understand what I was doing at the time. With the combination of great coaching and different strategies, we definitely made the most of it.”
Jenna was methodical and deliberate with her training of Taz, partly because she was cutting her teeth as a horse trainer, and the budding duo quickly improved.
“We were able to turn pro relatively fast because he had such a handle and start on him, and we focused so much on the foundation and the fundamentals in the beginning,” said Jenna, who also conducts clinics and coaching sessions that stress fundamentals. “Most people want to skip those steps because it’s fun to go fast and we all want to get under the lights entering rodeos, but with him, the mentors I had really emphasized getting a good handle on being able to move every single part of his body so that, once we did get to the pattern, there were very few issues we couldn’t work out almost immediately.”
Jenna and Taz hit the ground running, literally, and she thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“It really just happened beautifully, and I couldn’t have hoped for it to have gone any better,” she said. “We won money at the very first ProRodeo we entered and filled our card within a month. We chose the right rodeos, and I had a great array of coaches to help me along the way. So, it was really, really fun.”
Last year, they hit roughly 20 rodeos in June and July when Jenna was stateside, and strong results from that small sampling were encouraging for her dream of running barrels full time.
“We’re still very much on our journey, and my ultimate goal is to make it to the NFR,” she said. “We won more money than we ever had [last year], but as far as getting in the Top 15, we’re still a decent amount away from that. We were at least able to go out, shake it up with the big girls and enter the big rodeos, and we did pretty well. I was pretty proud of us.
“My ultimate plan is to get in the top 50 and, when the timing is right, quit this job and come home full time. I think Taz is running better than he ever has, and I’d just love it for rodeos to open back up. I’m ready to get back home and go to it. I just love it.”
Jenna’s development as a horse trainer and coach and her ascension to the pro barrel racing ranks seems a natural evolution for the South Dakota native. She and her siblings grew up on the family ranch in northwest South Dakota under the watchful eyes of parents Greg and Sherry.
Jenna participated in barrel racing, pole bending, goat tying and queen contests, twice qualifying for the National High School Finals Rodeo. The cowgirl’s journey to present day has been a winding, action-packed affair, and she has long been in the works on a book about her life called “Enough.”
“I want to share my message with people who might not know anything about rodeo or aren’t in the Western industry at all and want to tell some of the things that I’ve been through with a larger audience, and the book is a great avenue to do that,” said Jenna, who has a political science degree from South Dakota State University. “I’ve always really enjoyed writing ever since I was little girl. As I’ve grown as a person, the book has also changed, so that’s why I find it so difficult to finish it.”
Jenna’s story certainly is far from being finished, especially as the determined cowgirl gains momentum with all of her ventures. One of the aspects of her life she is most proud is her military service, and the perspective Jenna gained from that time of her life—as well as through her current deployments—fills her with gratitude as an American.
“Being [deployed] over here so much is a constant reminder that nothing is truly free and some of the things we take for granted people are truly fighting for and giving their lives for,” she said. “Veteran’s Day for me is just really taking a step back and appreciating everybody who served and everybody who's currently serving who will fight for all the things that we take for granted every day.
“It’s easy, especially during an election year, to just complain and be upset about all the things that are going wrong in the country—and with COVID there’s plenty more that you can be upset about—but at the same time, you’ve got to realize that we really do have it pretty good and just be proud of where we come from and our country as a whole.”