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Mary Walker likes Montana.

So does her husband Byron.

The Walkers like the scenery, the people and the rodeos. Especially the rodeos.

And the couple from Texas is considering buying a place in Montana someday in their futures.

“Just for the summer,” Mary Walker emphasized with a laugh.

The Walkers will see another side of Montana when they return this weekend for the Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit Finals in Great Falls.

The year-end and Finals winners qualify to compete in the Ram National Circuit Finals Rodeo this spring in Kissimmee, Fla. New this year is the money won at the MPRF counts in the 2017 world standings.

Mary Walker, the 2012 world barrel racing champion, opted to compete in the MPRC in 2016. She returns to her new circuit second in the standings with $14,351 won. Walker trails leader Lisa Lockhart by $3,569. Lockhart, of Oelrichs, S.D., also joined the MPRC for 2016.

Walker and her husband were set to leave their Ennis, Texas home on Monday with planned stops in Denver and Bozeman, completing the 1,591-mile trip to Great Falls on Thursday. "Weather permitting," she said.

Byron Walker is a 16-time NFR qualifier for steer wrestling and won the world title in 1981. He was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 2014.

“If the weather is good, it will be a good decision. If it’s minus-20, it will be a horrible decision that I might regret,” Walker said of switching circuits. She previously competed in the Texas Circuit, where she won the average at the 2015 Finals in Waco, Texas.

This past summer, the Walkers called the Copper Spring Ranch in Bozeman home for two months. “We leave Texas before it gets too hot,” Mary Walker said. That allowed her to barrel race around the Northwest.

The decision to change circuits was financial. “We love those Montana rodeos,” Walker continued. “Plus those rodeos pay so well, better than the smaller Texas rodeos. It hasn’t changed my schedule at all.”

Starting her MPRC season the last weekend in May, Walker opened with a win at Grassy Butte, N.D. She also won at Belt, Kalispell and Dillon. Walker, a five-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier, made a late surge late in the summer, going almost border-to-border one weekend in August to earn $4,570 at Kalispell and Baker. She closed the summer by pocketing $3,116 at Dillon and Plains during Labor Day weekend.

“Kalispell to Baker wasn’t too bad,” said Walker. “We stopped in Bozeman to stay overnight and Baker was an afternoon performance the next day. The good thing about Bozeman is that it is about halfway to anything.”

To qualify for the MPRF, Walker had to enter a minimum of 15 rodeos within the circuit. She entered 17.

The money won during the regular season helped her finish 11th in the final world standings and become the seventh barrel racer in WPRA history to surpass $1 million in career earnings.

Walker will be aboard the same horse, Perculatin or better known as “Latte,” a 15-year-old gelding she rode in Las Vegas.

“Latte is rested and ready to go. He’s got his blankets packed,” Walker said.

Nobody will question Walker’s toughness. A month after she and Byron lost their only son, Reagon in a car wreck in April of 2011, Latte stumbled at a rodeo in Crosby, Texas. Walker shattered her pelvis, broke her hip in three places, had two fractured vertebrae and broke two toes. She had surgery in Houston where doctors put in eight plates and 11 pins to stabilize her hip.

Walker was in a wheelchair in four months and completed her rehab in December.

She won the world title the following year at her first NFR at age 53.

Walker has been doing her homework for Great Falls, getting advice about the setup from Carmel Wright of Roy, who stays at the Walker place during professional rodeo’s winter run. Wright is sixth in the MPRC standings and a former national circuit and Montana champion.

“It will be different,” said Walker of competing in Montana. “With the Finals counting in the standings for the world and the circuit, you want to go there and win. You’re always looking to go in and win as much as possible so you’re not behind for the standings.

“I’m looking forward to going to Great Falls and meeting new people.”

And Walker will be back. She’s already committed to compete in the Montana circuit for 2017.

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High School Sports, Rodeo Reporter

Sports writer for The Billings Gazette.