Former rodeo star Lyle Sankey is holding class in an arena surrounded by pine trees in Gilmer, Texas (pop. 4,799). His group of battered and bruised students listens intently as he offers up advice: “There are three types of people in this sport,” he says, “the ones that make things happen, the ones that watch things happen and those that wonder what happened. Decide which one you want to be.”
For 30 years Sankey’s straight talk has been the foundation of Sankey Rodeo Schools, based in Branson, Mo. (pop. 6,050). He and his six-member staff of rodeo veterans teach students bull riding, bronc riding and bull fighting at clinics across the country.
Sankey, 51, competed professionally from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s and is one of only four men to ever qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding. Since that time, television coverage has made bull riding wildly popular, and today’s school participants include future rodeo stars and adrenalin junkies, like J.B. Creech, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.
“It’s a rush,” says Creech, who’s stationed at Homestead Air Force Reserve Base in Florida. “It’s like the first time I jumped out of a helicopter. I don’t have any fantasies about joining the Professional Bull Riders, but I might do more schools.”
Whatever their goals, Sankey cares about all of his students. “We want everyone to have a great experience,” he says.
Instructor and former bull rider Marty Roberts of Belton, Texas (pop. 14,623), says Sankey’s character and teaching techniques are quite unique. “Lyle doesn’t look down at anyone,” Roberts says. “He looks them in the eye, and he helps the students make it happen.”
Before their first bull or bronc ride, students are instructed on equipment set up, riding fundamentals, dismounts, physical preparation and emotion management. Each student gets plenty of individual instruction, and animals of all sizes and temperaments are provided to meet the needs of both novice and advanced riders.
To ensure the best start for his students, Sankey brings riding gear to each school that anyone can use for free, and he videotapes the students in action. After riding sessions, students huddle around a television with Sankey, who watches each ride, identifies any problems and gives instructions on how to improve.
“If you’ve got hold of the bull rope, you’re in the game,” Sankey says excitedly after watching a rider recover from a near fall.
Sheer determination is what drove Sankey to compete in the first rodeo he ever attended in 1969. He rode horribly but was hooked. “At 17, this was new for me, but I was determined to figure out how to be successful,” he says.
Sankey put on his first school with his brother, Ike, in 1975 in Roseville, Kan., for a group of local boys. As his competitive career ended, Lyle focused on the schools, and today Sankey Rodeo Schools puts on 35 classes annually with 20 to 40 students attending each one.
“I’m dedicated to the schools because of what they did for my career,” says Sankey, crediting some of the rodeo schools he attended with improving his riding skills. “I felt like every time I went to one it advanced my career two years.”
Due to recent shoulder surgeries, Sankey hasn’t been on a bull in more than a year and he admits that he misses it. Still, he’s never far from the action. He and his wife, Kathy, follow their goat-tying daughter Sasha, 19, to rodeo competitions at the collegiate-level.
And the rodeo instructor continues to approach life with the philosophy of a rodeo contestant: “If you go to the bucking chutes, you need to finish.”
Visit www.sankeyrodeo.com or call (417) 334-2513 to learn more on Sankey Rodeo Schools.