GREAT FALLS — It’s Saturday night at the Big Sky Pro Rodeo Roundup and Havre native Kayla LaSalle is in for the night of her life - she just doesn’t know it yet.
Kayla and her family are sitting front and center, watching the action. After tie-down roping, they make their way down to the arena, where she meets Lorell Heckman. Kayla went to college with Heckman’s daughter Hannah and knows her background, and her generosity. That’s when it hit her that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary night.
“We're sitting there and my sister-in-law goes, ‘We gotta go meet these people’,” LaSalle said. “And when my entire family came with me, I knew something was coming now.”
Let’s go back a bit.
Kayla has cerebral palsy. Muscle function is limited in her legs and trunk and she’s spent the majority of her 27 years in a wheelchair. The condition is the result of a premature birth.
“She was in the neonatal ICU here in Great Falls for three and a half months,” Kayla’s mother Susie LaSalle said. “She was born at 24 weeks and weight one pound, 13 ounces. She went through five or six major surgeries before she even left the hospital.”
But from a young age Kayla showed a spark for life, a willingness to tackle challenges, and a desire to never set limits.
“Her nurses said when she was like five weeks old, they she’s a fighter,” said her father Bobby LaSalle. “And when we got her home we found out she really was a fighter. She was a challenge to raise, because she was so determined. When she gets something in her mind, she's determined to do it.”
“Nothing is going to stop her,” added Susie.
Combine that drive with a love of rodeo, and Kayla has set a new goal for herself.
“About a month ago I started working with Champion Living and Logan Corbett, a personal trainer, and he called me up one day and asked me my goals,” Kayla said. “I sent him a message and I asked him if the opportunity for me get my pro card would be out of the question. And he said absolutely not. So now that's kind of what I've been working towards.”
It’s not as far fetched as it sounds. She’s seen wheelchair bound individuals rope and ride before, and she’s seen people pick up rodeo later in life and find success. So as she’s done from the day she was born, Kayla is throwing everything she has into the challenge.
It started with finding the right horse. Last fall, the LaSalle family found Rudy. He’s docile, and they trained him to lay down so that Kayla can climb on from her wheelchair.
There’s nothing Kayla enjoys more than riding around the LaSalle ranch on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation.
“It just kinda gives me a freedom, like to go where I want and do what I want,” she said. “And I guess he's more like my legs than anything. So it's pretty cool to be able to get on and go and be just like everybody else.”
These days she has a single-minded approach. Master riding a horse, master her roping and then put it all together. She aims to be a team roping heeler someday, or to try breakaway roping.
“I’ve kind of had a hiatus of not riding for a while, so just kind of getting back into riding and finally getting back to where I’m comfortable and now I'm roping more on the dummy,” she said. “Then I’ll move to roping on my horse and then we’ll try the dummy you can drag behind the four wheeler. So it looks like it'll be in the next couple of years, I should hopefully be roping live cattle.”
Champion Living sends her workouts to strengthen her arms and her core, and she has virtual sessions to work on her roping technique. On Rudy, she’s moved from a slow walk to a trot and has been able to take her hand off the saddle horn.
“The cool thing with me is they’ve never really worked with someone with cerebral palsy, and they weren't really sure what I could do,” she said. “And I think they're all kind of amazed that I can do as much as I can.”
Sure there are setbacks, and the way ahead will be full of hurdles and plateaus. But that’s never stopped her before. And Kayla is in this for the long run.
“There were some times where I’ve said to myself I don't know if I'm going to make it through this, but I've managed to power through it,” she said. “And I've managed to show myself that no matter what I put my mind to, I can do it.”
And that brings us back to the rodeo in Great Falls. Kayla and the LaSalle family enter the arena on a wagon, to thousands of cheering people.
A video begins to play on the arena display, with photos from her childhood and a narrative from her family detailing her challenges and triumphs.
LaSalle is the 2021 recipient of the Rocky’s Road Perseverance, Character and Hope award and belt buckle. Named for the late central Montana cowboy Rocky Heckman, who courageously fought brain cancer for years while always advocating for rodeo.
To Rocky’s family, Kayla was an obvious choice.
“I believe God kind of intervened and all of a sudden, at every turn I kept having Kayla kind of be put in my life. Somehow I kept seeing things about her,” said Rocky’s wife Lorell Heckman. “And it just kind of grew from there and I just love to see her light shine and see her using her adversity as a positive thing for life, to give to others.”
Finding a dry eye was a difficult task on this night, as the impact of Kayla’s story flowed through the arena.
“So emotional,” Susie said through tears. “Kayla just works so hard and for them to pick her out and give her that, is just beyond.”
But for Kayla, this belt buckle isn’t a culmination of her hard work. It marks the beginning of new chapter. One that ends with another gold buckle at the National Finals Rodeo.
“Yeah, I could see myself going to the NFR. It is doable, it takes a lot of work,” Kayla said. “But it is doable, and something that I could see myself doing. It might take 20 or 30 years, but I will get there.”
Who’s betting against her?