"Live for the pain": Saddle up for the high school rodeo season
On a typical Thursday night, Bridgeport High School freshman Braden Jackson will suit up for a Texas high school football game.
He’ll put on a uniform with helmet, padded pants and cleats to play quarterback on a sub-varsity team.
But Jackson has recently become involved in another sport on the same weekends as football.
It’s high school rodeo.
In rodeo, Jackson will be wearing another type of uniform for a far different reason. He’ll wear a protective helmet and vest along with a pair of chaps and spurs with locked rowels for his ride on a 1,100-pound bull.
“I have no fear when I play football, but when I get on a bull, it’s half fear and half adrenaline, but then adrenaline takes over that fear,” Jackson said.
Jackson competes in the North Texas High School Rodeo Association, one of two major high school rodeo organizations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The NTHSRA, which began in the early 1970s, offers 26 rodeos plus a championship throughout the school year. Most of the normally three-day weekend shows are held at the association’s covered arena on Loop 820, near north Fort Worth and Saginaw.
The Texas High School Rodeo Association offers 10 annual regular-season regional rodeos plus a championship event. The THSRA’s Region III is under the National High School Rodeo Association umbrella, which means top riders can advance to state finals and national finals. Most of the local competitors ride in Region III, which is the North Texas area.
Both organizations opened their seasons last weekend. The NTHSRA opened at the association’s arena in north Fort Worth Sept. 8-9. The THSRA hosted the first and second of its 10 regional rodeos at the Young County Arena in Graham Sept. 9-10.
‘Expensive to rodeo’
Programs such as football and basketball in Texas are sanctioned through the University Interscholastic League, the state’s governing body for high school sports.
Rodeo is not.
When Azle basketball player Tanner Baker hits the court, his expenses and travel are paid by the local school district.
Not so in rodeo.
When Baker enters a NTHSRA event, his family has to pay $145 for him to compete in four events. Some competitors have ridden in seven events, which means they shell out $250 each weekend. Multiply that times 26 regular-season rodeos, and the sport gets expensive real fast.
If that’s not enough, there’s hats, spurs, boots and saddles, riggings for roughstock riding, and horse equipment that must be paid for. Plus, there are the horses that the kids ride along with the trucks and trailers to haul the animals.
Many riders benefit from being in a high school rodeo club, which in turn holds fundraisers to help offset the overhead costs. Rodeo clubs have sponsors who organize fundraisers such as working a concession stand at a high school volleyball game or they’ll man a booth at a local festival.
The Alvord rodeo team set up a bank account for an overall club. Each team member has a designated bank account for help defray rodeo expenses.
“We have our own bank accounts, and if we have money in them, then our sponsor will go get the money for our entry fees,” Baker said.
Competitors pay $35 per event each weekend in the NTHSRA. Kylee Scribner, an Azle junior, pays $215 each week to compete in six events including barrel racing and goat tying ($210 in entry fees, plus a $5 fee for each rodeo). In five of those events, she has come with a competitive horse.
In the THSRA Region III, the entry fees are $50 to $60 per event. But the THSRA features less events, the more traditional disciplines such as tie-down roping and goat tying, which means multi-event competitors typically do not pay as many entry fees.
But no matter which association a rider is competing in, there’s a high price tag.
“It’s definitely expensive to rodeo,” Scribner said. “You have to factor in expenses such as travel fees and vet fees.”
‘Looking for a full ride’
Similar to NASCAR drivers, high school rodeo competitors solicit sponsorships. Their western shirts are emblazoned with logos around the neck and shoulder. Scribner, for example, has a patch on her western blouse that brings attention to a massive western and trailer business on the outskirts of Decatur.
One competitor who thrives on sponsorships is Southlake Carroll High School senior Bailey King, who competes in barrel racing and pole bending. Knowing she has to come up with $75 ($70 in entry fees, plus a $5 fee for each rodeo) on most weekends, she made a promotional poster of herself and her horse.
King sold spots to local businesses that had their names printed on the poster. The poster hangs at each of the businesses. It also hangs and in the counselor’s offices at Carroll High School alongside posters that promote other activities such as the school’s storied football program. She also has sold spots on her horse trailer.
“I’m very glad and fortunate,” she said. “If I didn’t have sponsors, I wouldn’t be able to compete in all of the rodeos that I want to.”
Competitors also help cover their costs by winning prize money at the weekly rodeos. Rodeo competitors are not ruled as ineligible to compete in UIL sports when they finish in the money at a rodeo.
Gifted high school rodeo competitors regularly see a return on their investments in terms of receiving a college scholarship. Both the NTHSRA and the annual Windy Ryon Memorial Roping award scholarships to standout high school competitors. Area colleges such as Tarleton State, Hill College and Weatherford College have rodeo teams and award scholarships.
“A lot of us are looking for a full ride scholarship,” Scribner said.
‘It will never die’
In NTHSRA, a team can consist of one member, said Gay Sanford, the association’s secretary. Last year,96 teams competed in NTHSRA shows. The NTHSRA’s roster of teams ranged from Stephenville to Weatherford to Fort Worth Paschal to Euless Trinity to Fort Worth All Saints Episcopal School to Alvarado, which clinched the NTHSRA’s team title the past two years.
Overall, the association consisted of 485 members last year, Sanford said. The association has had members mainly throughout the Fort Worth area, but as far away as Vernon and College Station, said Shane Hodges, the NTHSRA’s board president.
“This sport hasn’t died off,” Hodges said. “Though some parts of it such as the roughstock events have slowed down, it will never die. If it does, I’m moving to Montana.”
The THSRA Region III has between 380 and 420 members year after year, said Ken Bray, the association’s president. He said competitors do not have to live within Region III to be a member and the rodeos sometimes draws kids from as far away as Snyder and Hobbs, N.M.
The top 10 in each event from Region III advance to the June TSHSRA Finals in Abilene. From there, the top four in each event qualify for the July National High School Finals in Rock Springs, Wyo.
“The region [III] is a steppingstone to the state finals, which is a steppingstone to the national finals,” Bray said.
Bray estimated that less than 50 percent of the area’s high school rodeo youth compete in both the NTHSRA and THSRA Region III. The NTHSRA thrives on providing a rodeo for families for most weekends during a nine month school year. The THSRA packs its 11 rodeos in only six weeks of the year.
But all that provides a way for rodeo kids and families to constantly compete. One reason high school rodeo thrives in North Texas is because the area is filled with families who have both competed in and have helped organize rodeos for years.
“My girls have been doing it since they were babies,” said Stephanie Dunn, a NTHSRA board member who leads several rodeo teams in the Grandview area. “It’s something to do every weekend. They run barrels, they rope. It’s kind of like boys who like to play football. This is something that’s bred into them.”
It’s a real adrenaline rush. You back in that box and you come out every bit of 30 miles per hour and you get down on that steer that’s a lot bigger than you.
Scott Steiner, steer wrestler at Decatur High School
Like the UIL, both the NTHSRA and the THSRA Region III require its competitors to make passing grades overall.
“If they don’t make their grades, they don’t participate,” said NTHSRA board member Janie Finney who checks report cards. “I’m a stickler to that. I cut no slack.”
‘A real adrenaline rush’
Unlike UIL sports, rodeo teams do not have practice sessions that are school funded. Instead, NTHSRA offers clinics for every event.
Scott Steiner, a Decatur senior who has grown up in a non-rodeo family, was persuaded by some friends to take up chute dogging when he was a sophomore.
Chute dogging represents the latter part of a traditional steer wrestling run. A competitor grabs the steer by the horns inside a chute, asks for the gate to be opened and downs the steer inside the arena as quickly as he can.
“I just wanted to be a part of something,” he said. “I didn’t really like to play (UIL) sports. It was just not my thing.”
After learning to be a chute dogger, Steiner also became competitive in steer wrestling with some help from tutor Rick Wilson of Decatur.
The result: Steiner qualified for last year’s NTHSRA Finals in both events.
“It’s a real adrenaline rush,” said Steiner, who wants to become a pro steer wrestler. “You back in that box and you come out every bit of 30 miles per hour and you get down on that steer that’s a lot bigger than you. You have to have technique at that point, and that’s what the Wilsons have taught me. It all happens so quick and it’s such a great feeling.”
No ‘mean, hooking bulls’
High school rodeo organizers hire various stock contractors to supply the animals. One of them is CK Reid. Reid also supplies the livestock for the Cowtown Coliseum weekly rodeo in the Fort Worth Stockyards.
“One thing that we do not keep around is mean, hooking bulls,” Reid said. “We like a bull that will stand in the chute and not breathe.”
Reid said he places riders on bulls that are around 1,100 pounds who have a predictable bucking pattern.
“Once these kids get to watching these bulls and learn their pattern, they’re going to do the same thing over and over, they will ride (more) of them. No. 1, they’re not intimidated by them because they know them,” he said.
Hadley Miller, the NTHSRA’s defending boys all-around, tie-down roping and bull riding champion, said the association does a commendable job of supplying age-appropriate bulls.
“You have kids who are freshmen in high school and kids who are seniors,” Miller said. “So, you have a happy medium and CK (Reid) and everybody who brings bulls up here does a good job of that. You still get challenged. But they’re not PBR (Professional Bull Riders) caliber, which means they’re going to dump everybody right there at the chute.”
Bucking stock riders are required to wear protective gear, which includes a mouthpiece. Bareback riders have a “quick release girth,” a way of causing the rigging to break free if the rider gets his hand hung in the rigging handle.
Hodges, the association’s board president who also is a paramedic, said roughstock riders are closely monitored.
“When they buck off,” Hodges said, “I’m watching them like a hawk.”