At 8 years old, Carli Jae Miller begged her parents for a horse. The corn and soybean farmers who also raised beef cattle at their farm outside Lewistown responded to their daughter’s persistent requests with a firm, “no.”

So, what does a kid do when mom and dad won’t budge? Ask grandma and grandpa.

Hancil and Wilma Miller indeed caved, and bought their granddaughter her first of many horses. She adoringly named the horse Patchy.

“I started in 4-H horse shows and got into barrel racing when I was 15,” said Miller, a Fulton County Farm Bureau member. “Then I turned 16 and took off with a truck and trailer to all the rodeos.”

Now, at 26, Miller credits those excursions to finding future career opportunities.

“I’ve gotten to know so many different people in so many operations and so many people that were into horses and farming, and I guess I can go back to when I turned 16 and I was traveling by myself a lot,” she said. “I was kind of forced to make new friends and figure out people from different areas.”

The 2017 University of Illinois graduate stays busy these days as project coordinator for the Data-Intensive Farm Project (DIFM) at the university, plus an equine photography business Miller started about a year ago. She and fiancé, Wyatt Jones, also sell and train horses — everything from trail horses to working ranch horses to rodeo and show horses — under WRJ Equine. She also obtained her real estate broker’s license last year and Miller continues to train and compete on her barrel horses at the local, state and national level.

“We are very busy and I think that is part of the reason a lot of these opportunities have come my way,” Miller said. “I ended up taking a lot of these opportunities because I’ve worked with so many different people.”

Her photography venture, CJM Equine Photography and Marketing, started as a result of the couple’s business selling horses. Jones was taking photos of the horses with his phone, but Miller didn’t believe the pictures captured their true spirit. So she grabbed her sister’s camera and purchased a lense. With one semester of photography in college, Miller remembered some of the basics but threw herself into learning to take quality photos of horses specifically.

“I started going to shows or sales or wherever we were at and I would have people ask me, ‘Hey, can you stop by the house?’ And I would and it just got more popular and I got more of a client base.”

Miller specializes in black background portrait pictures, which she believes show more of the horse’s personality.

Professional photos have become an essential part of the horse business, which grew in popularity during the pandemic.

“People wanted to get outside and more people wanted to do stuff at home,” Miller said. “People had to find different hobbies and different ways to keep interested. And that was part of the reason I think the horses got so popular.”

Miller, who majored in ag communications at the University of Illinois, has worked full time at the university for four years with the DIFM project. The project entails working with participating farmers, using precision technology to inexpensively design and run randomized agronomic field trials on whole commercial farm fields to provide data-based, site-specific farm input management guidance, thus providing economic and environmental benefits. She also assists in communications with farmdoc.

“I genuinely enjoy that I get to go out and work with farmers. It’s just more closely aligned with what I grew up with and (I enjoy) getting to go out and work with people and see what they’re doing and know that our research is helping them make more profitable decisions going forward,” Miller said.

Being the fourth generation on the family farm and growing up in that environment taught Miller to be a hard worker and dedicate herself to the task at hand.

“I think that always gave me the mentality of, ‘I’m gonna finish something even if it’s not something that I’m interested in.’ Once I started it, I was gonna keep going,” she said.

Her grandparents and parents, Jeff and Traci Miller, continue to be supportive of Miller’s equine endeavors, often traveling to her events.

“I think that my family never ever imagined that the horses would be this big a part of my life,” Miller said. “But everything that we do is pretty much centered around whether we’re going to sales, are going to a show or we’re training horses at home. We pretty much base most of our lives around what we’re doing with the horses.”

Although Hancil took some heat for purchasing his granddaughter’s first horse, he continues to be Miller’s right-hand-man.

“He’s always cleaning stalls, checking on the horses or hopping in the truck with me when I’ve got to go to the vet,” Miller said. “He’s very involved still.”