Payton Levine roping beyond her years
By JOE KUSEK
July 12, 2023
As a young cowgirl, Payton Levine would stand along the arena fence and watch the breakaway ropers.
With intent focus, Levine would watch the Salmond sisters, Celie and Molly, along with Tracey Bolich and many others as they broke loudly from the box, throw their loops and make catching calves look easy.
“I looked up to those girls,” remembered Levine. “They’re nice to be around. All tough competitors but they will help you if you want it.
“I would think, ‘One day, I want to be like them.’ And now, I get to compete against them.”
Still a young cowgirl, she is just 17, Levine is more than roping against early rodeo inspirations.
The soon-to-be Augusta High School senior is beating them.
A shift in gears to her breakaway roping approach and a team roping horse now turning barrels has Levine firmly in the top 10 of the standings for both events in the Mountain Health Co-op Tour.
Starting last weekend on the outside looking in – Levine was 11th in the standings for both – she had success at East Helena and Malta to move up the standings.
Levine earned $1,206 at East Helena, placing second in barrel racing and sharing 10th place in breakaway roping. She also shared first place in the breakaway roping at Malta.
The top 10 in each event at the end of the regular season qualify for the Northern Rodeo Association Finals presented by nuWest Builders. The showcase event is scheduled for Oct. 26-28 at Majestic Valley Arena in Kalispell.
Missing last year’s NRA Finals forced her to downshift in breakaway roping.
“It got to the end of the season and I was anticipating quick shots instead of taking the right ones,” Levine explained of her 2022. “You’re always going for 2.1 (seconds) but 2.8 will still pay you a lot of money even if is third or fourth place.”
She missed the Finals by one place.
“I want to make the Finals again so I had to change,” continued Levine. “Get to my place instead of throwing. More solid runs instead of fast runs. Instead of a 50 percent chance, wait for the higher percentage throw.”
She won the breakaway roping at the season opener in Conrad and added a sixth place at Gardiner and a seventh place at Choteau. Levine also picked up barrel racing checks at Big Timber and Ennis.
Levine has been in the spotlight before. She had her break-out year in 2021. Then 15, Levine finished fourth in breakaway roping competing against the adults along with winning the junior all-around and junior breakaway roping titles and placing fourth in junior barrel racing.
She lives on the family ranch 20 miles southwest of Augusta – the mailing address is Wolf Creek -- with her parents Christi and Jason, along with younger brother Royce, who also ropes. “We’re pretty competitive,” Levine said with a laugh of the sibling rivalry.
Her uncle, Sam Levine, is a former NRA all-around cowboy champion, along with winning titles in tie-down roping and team roping.
“He helps with the team roping. My dad helps with the breakaway roping,” she said.
Levine will put her pursuit of a spot in the NRA Finals on pause to compete at the National High School Finals Rodeo, July 16-23 in Gillette, Wyoming.
She won both the Montana high school state year-end titles in breakaway roping and barrel racing.
Last year at the NHSFR, Levine missed her first calf but rebounded to win the second round with a time of 1.86 seconds and finish 40thoverall in breakaway roping.
“I push myself, especially in high school rodeo, because I know I can compete at a high level,” said Levine, who also plays basketball for Augusta.
She is keeping her options open for college after graduation next spring.
“I want to study psychology in college. Going into behavior studies sparks my interest. I would like being a therapist. To figure out what helps people.”
She is riding Gus, a 13-year-old sorrel gelding, in breakaway roping and is aboard Shot in barrel racing. Shot is an eight-year-old buckskin gelding.
“I’ve had Gus since I started,” Levine said. “He starts really, really hard. He might not be the fastest but his start is a game-changer.
“Shot, he is super quick. He is real reactive with his feet and hands. He’s quick-footed. Gus is also my heading horse. A lot of people thought I went out and bought a barrel horse … he just figured it out the past year.”
As has the rider the last few years.
“I’m pretty competitive. I take it pretty seriously and sometimes that gets in my way,” she said with another good laugh. “If you’re going to be in rodeo, you have to have a short-term memory.
“You’ve got to figure it out and change it.”
The Mountain Health Co-Op Tour said goodbye to the East Helena Rodeo Arena with a roar. The final performance was a sell-out.
The rodeo, which spans six decades, will begin building a new facility.
With big checks within reach – six were for a $1,000 or more – East Helena is a major factor in the event races.
Celie Salmond of Choteau left with more than $1,500, sharing second place in breakaway roping and third in team roping with her father Mark. Hometown cowboys finished 1-2 in both steer wrestling and bull riding.
Timmy Sparing, who competed at the National Finals Rodeo last December, won the bulldogging in 4.7 seconds, while Logan Beattie was a tick behind at 4.8. Nicolas Dimocenzo had the home crowd up with a 78-point bull rider while Caleb Olson second with 76 points.
Justin Whiteman of Busby continued his hot streak, sweeping the saddle bronc titles at East Helena and Malta. He won four rodeos in a week. Pray’s Gayleen Malone continued her standings climb at Malta with a barrel racing win.
East Helena winners: Dalton May, Coram, bareback; Justin Whiteman, Busby, saddle bronc; Nicolas Dimocenzo, Helena, bull riding; Timmy Sparing, Helena, steer wrestling; Nolan Conway, Cut Bank, tie-down roping; Jade Nystrom-Dennis Barta, Havre and Dallas VonHeeder-John Vermedahl, Polson, team roping; Tannis Kramer, Shepherd, barrel racing; Hollie Wichman, Lewistown, breakaway roping; Chaney Akin, Cody, Wyo., junior barrel racing; Tike Erickson, Hobson, junior breakaway roping.
Malta winners: No qualified rides, bareback; Justin Whiteman, Busby, saddle bronc; No qualified rides, bull riding; Ryder Gaasch, Dillon, steer wrestling; George Marcenko, Havre, tie-down roping; Tanner Anderson-Jesse Benson, Malta, team roping; Gayleen Malone, Pray, barrel racing; Payton Levine, Wolf Creek and Bella Fossum, Billings, breakaway roping; Bailey Billingsley, Glasgow, junior barrel racing; JP Conwell, Glasgow, junior breakaway roping.
Three Forks is the lone rodeo on the schedule with 7 p.m. performances on July 14 and July 15.
Three rodeos – Scobey (July 20), Havre (July 20-21) and Eureka (July 21-22) – will follow.