Roll Out the Barrel! When This Coltish Teen Cuts Corners, Rodeo Records Fall

updated 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/12/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

What happened to 14-year-old Charmayne James at the 1985 National Rodeo finals would have been a challenge even for a seasoned cow-poke. As she burst into the ring with her blond curls bobbing, her horse's bridle fell off, leaving the horse on his own and her on the horse. Seconds later, when James finished her barrel race in record time, the Las Vegas crowd had two reasons to stand and cheer. "It was like watching someone on the freeway without a steering wheel," says rodeo producer Cotton Rosser, 59. Agrees James, casually: "That was an experience."

Put her in a saddle, and Charmayne James, now all of 17, causes some kind of commotion. For three consecutive years she has been the world champion in barrel racing, the only women's sport on the pro rodeo circuit. With a special bent for circling three barrels in a winning time of about 16 seconds, she is very likely to wrangle her fourth title in Vegas in December. She has earned $600,000, including the use of a pickup that she was too young to drive. "She's a hell of a good cowgirl and a very classy lady," says rodeo champion Jim Shoulders. "Despite all her success, it's still 'Yes Ma'am' and 'No Sir.' " Charlie and Gloria James, owners of one of the biggest feedlots near Clayton, N.Mex., put the youngest of their four daughters on a 1,500-lb. cow horse for her first barrel ride—bareback—when she was 4. "Charmayne didn't know what bucking was, and she thought it was a lot of fun," says her dad. By mowing lawns and mucking out stalls she was earning her first entry fees at 9, and in 1982 she paid $1,100 for Scamper, a bad-tempered bay who had bucked one owner right into the hospital. James worked Scamper into a champ. "He was kind of rank at first," she admits. "But now he makes barrel racing look easy."

So does she. "There's woman sense and horse sense, and little Charmayne has got them both," says Rosser. "She's a Cool Hand Luke." A senior in high school, she logs 90,000 miles a year trucking to rodeos and has completed classes by mail since freshman year. "Wherever I am, my mother will find me," she says. "There will be a message at my hotel that says, 'Study!' " Last month James just missed disaster when her horse trailer flipped on a curve in Wyoming, but that's not likely to scare her out of the saddle. "You can put up with anything when you're winning," she says. "When you lose it's a long ride home."

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