Lara Dewees had ridden horses so long and so well that the drive to her competitions was the scary part, said her mother, Lisa Dewees-Belcher.
"She probably drove 50,000 miles per year," said Dewees-Belcher, 57, of Dade City. "When she would call me and say she was at the rodeo, I knew she was safe. She's never been hurt on the back of a horse."
That made the death of Ms. Dewees — an online social studies teacher for the Hernando County School District and a professional barrel racer — all the more shocking, family members and friends said.
As Ms. Dewees made the final turn in a race Feb. 20 in Hattiesburg, Miss., her quarter horse tripped, leaving the reins draped over the front of its head. As it regained its footing and sprinted to the finish, Ms. Dewees "was trying with all her might to get the horse stopped, and she was calling out, 'I need help,'" said her mother, who has watched video of the accident.
The horse galloped out of the arena through an open gate and into the parking lot, where Ms. Dewees was thrown headfirst onto the pavement.
She died of her injuries Sunday at age 27.
"This is a real tragedy," said Lee Pedone of Ridge Manor, whose son and daughter grew up riding with Ms. Dewees. "This is a bad, bad deal."
Ms. Dewees's uncle, Spunk Sasser, was a champion rodeo cowboy. Her grandfather, Harold Sasser, runs an arena in Lacoochee that has produced a long line of successful youth competitors.
"Her grandfather really stepped up for the kids," Pedone said.
One of the most successful was Ms. Dewees, who had the drive and ability to excel in a variety of pursuits.
"Everything that she dabbled in, from a spelling bee to reading books in elementary school, she had to win at," said Dewees-Belcher, a social worker at Pasco High School.
She captured beauty pageant crowns, according to her mother. And, Pedone said, "She could sing like a bird. The kid just had a lot of talent."
But her "passion was rodeo," Dewees-Belcher said. "All through her years, in whatever organization she was in and in whatever class she was in, she won. She could ride any horse she strapped her legs on."
She was the top barrel racer on her rodeo team at McNeese State University in Louisiana, her mother said. At the time of her death, she was ranked 44th for this year in earnings among barrel racers listed on the Women's Professional Rodeo Association website.
The uncertainty of winnings and the expense of competing requires most racers to hold other jobs, said Mike Wrage, a rodeo competitor and family friend who started a Gofundme.com page to help cover Ms. Dewees's medical expenses.
Ms. Dewees taught at the Hernando eSchool for more than a year, according to a news release from the district.
"Staff and students loved Lara, and we looked forward to seeing her every day," her principal, Debra Harris, said in the release.
Ms. Dewees's death was all the more tragic because she left behind a 20-month-old son, Layton, and had recently been engaged to fellow competitor Cory Moesching.
Her death has raised several questions for family members and friends, including why the gate had been left open at the arena while she competed and the possible need for more precautions as breeders develop stronger and more skillful rodeo animals.
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"This can happen because you have 1,200-pound athletes that can accelerate to 35 mph in a very short period of time. And that is the American quarter horse," Wrage said.
Contact Dan DeWitt at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow @ddewitttimes.