Amid a spray of powdery dirt, Tyler Worley, 17, rockets out of the box on his horse, Bubba, and snaps his rope beneath the hind legs of a sprinting steer after partner Dustin Hodge, 18, lassos the animal’s horns.
In 8.184 seconds, the young cowboys from Berryville, Ark. (pop. 5,356), have a national championship for team roping under their shiny belt buckles.
In the winner’s circle of last year’s National High School Finals Rodeo in Gillette, Wyo. (pop. 29,087), Tyler’s mom, Wendy, 52, wipes away tears while his dad, Dewayne, 58, throws open his arms in celebration, and sister Jodi McKinney, 30, beams.
As for Dustin’s family, mother Donna, 39, declares that she’s more excited than when she gave birth to him, while father Larry, 44, reaches for his cell phone to relay the happy news to his parents in Arkansas.
Similar scenes take place over and over for one week each summer during the world’s biggest rodeo, featuring 1,500 high school students from 41 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia competing for scholarship money, prizes and bragging rights.
There’s nothing like it, says Tyler, who made his debut at the event last year. “It’s electric. You get excited,” he says. “It’s a bunch of people watching, a bigger place, a bigger atmosphere.”
Beyond the competition, the rodeo celebrates a way of life for rural families across America and beyond. The teenagers demonstrate exhilarating Old West skills and traditions ranging from feats of roping finesse and horsemanship to close encounters with bulls, barrels and bucking broncos.
Many of the riders are following in the boot steps of their fathers, mothers and grandparents—and begin at an early age. Some compete in more traditional sports such as baseball, basketball, football and even gymnastics as well, but most say they love rodeo competitions the best.
TiAda Gray, 18, of Lovington, N.M., who took first place in breakaway roping as a freshman and finished ninth last year as a senior, is the great-great-great-niece of 1930 world calf roping champion Jake McClure, a member of the ProRodeo Hall of Fame whose name graces the rodeo arena in Lovington (pop. 11,009). With that pedigree, she proved a natural with a lasso in her hands.
“My dad roped calves, roped steers and steer-wrestled. My mom horse-showed and rodeoed a little bit. My grandpa rodeoed when he was a kid,” TiAda says.
Rhyder Nelson, 18, of Doniphan, Neb. (pop. 829), last year’s student president of the National High School Rodeo Association, has been a team roper since age 6. “My mom said as soon as I could pick up a rope, I had one in my hand. And from then on, it never left,” he says with a smile.
Barrel racer Alyshia Moe, 15, of Bemidji, Minn. (pop. 11,917), embodies both of her parents when she bursts through the rodeo gate. Mom Diane, 45, grew up around horses, while dad Everett, 42, likes his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and Camaro sports car. Competing as a freshman last year from Bemidji High School, Alyshia tied for second as all-around rookie cowgirl and amassed an impressive array of honors that attest to her riding skills and love of speed. No surprise, then, that she named her horse after the world’s fastest land animal.
“Mom was going to name her Rabbit and I said, ‘No, if you’re going to name her after any fast animal, you’ve got to name her Cheetah.’”
Mentoring young cowboys
The high school rodeo began in Hallettsville, Texas (pop. 2,550), the idea of Claude Mullins, a rodeo fan and school superintendent who noticed how local boys congregated after school each day to practice their roping skills. To encourage them, Mullins and several area businessmen organized a state competition in 1947 that drew 121 roping entrants. New Mexico, Louisiana, Montana and South Dakota followed with their own rodeos, leading to the first national high school rodeo in 1949 in Hallettsville.
Mullins, who served as the association’s first president, set high standards for conduct, academic performance and sportsmanship among participants, and scheduled all events during the summer months to avoid interfering with traditional school sports.
Today, the nonprofit association has about 10,000 members, including girls, whose participation has grown steadily since the rodeo’s founding. The Denver, Colo.-based organization distributes about $1 million annually in prizes and scholarships, and strives to develop “sportsmanship, horsemanship and character” among its student athletes.
“They may never rodeo again or be on a horse again, but the responsibility, hard work and commitment they’ve learned will go with them wherever life takes them,” says Kent Sturman, 49, the association’s longtime executive director who ended his tenure last year.
This month, the rodeo completes a two-year run in Gillette, which already has hosted the high school finals nine times—more than any other city in America. The event brings hundreds of horse trailers outfitted with sleeping quarters to the sprawling grounds of Gillette’s Cam-Plex center.
The theme is all Western, all the time. Competitors wear cowboy hats, Western shirts, jeans and boots, and sprinkle every conversation with “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir.” Between the competitions in 13 events, attendees pass the time barbecuing, browsing at the trade show and roping most anything that moves.
“It’s clean fun,” says Gillette native Christina Geis, 36, a ticket seller who was among 800 volunteers working the 2010 rodeo. “I haven’t met a rude kid coming through the gate.”
With education as a cornerstone of the association, one of the most significant lessons gained through rodeo is to get up when you fall down and to try again. And again. And again.
“I’ve learned that even if you’re not doing good, you just got to keep going because it’s not going to get any better if you quit,” says Tyler, the team roping champ.
Alex Soukup, 17, who competes in pole bending and also was Iowa’s queen contestant from Allerton (pop. 291), got bucked off her horse, Katie, last year during a ceremonial entrance, drawing a concerned “Oooo” from the crowd. She dusted herself off and limped out of the arena.
Later at the horse stalls, Alex was sore and chagrined, but her sense of humor was intact as she recalled how, during the queen competition earlier, she cited “Cowgirls Don’t Cry” as the song that best describes her.
“The song didn’t really work [today],” Alex says with a rueful grin, “but it usually does.”