BY KEN OLSEN
(Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved)
Emily Faber steps off her galloping horse, flies to the goat, flanks it, ties its feet and steps back. Time: 8.31 seconds – one of the fastest on this 98-degree summer evening at the 2012 Wyoming High School Rodeo finals.
“It’s amazing – like no other feeling,” says Faber, who loves the complex acrobatics of racing down the arena, dismounting, pinning and tying a goat more than any other rodeo event. “You have to be pretty strong. You have to be pretty athletic.”
And pretty determined.
“You can’t luck into goat tying,” says K.L. Spratt, a fellow high school rodeo contestant. “You can’t buy your way into it with an expensive horse. You can’t throw a lucky loop. You have to put some time into it.”
For nearly 60 years, Wyoming high school students such as Faber and Spratt have competed to become the nation’s best goat tyers, barrel racers, calf ropers and bull riders, with help from The American Legion. The outgrowth of a competition started by World War II veterans in southwestern Wyoming in the late 1940s, this is the only state rodeo program backed by the Legion. The Wyoming contest produces some of the best rodeo talent in the country and thousands of dollars in college scholarships, as well as camaraderie, independence and confidence that will define these young men and women throughout their lives.
“There’s a lot stacked against you,” says Eric Oliver, a two-time Wyoming high school bull- riding champion who went on to compete in college and on the professional rodeo circuit. “A guy learns how to deal with adversity. It’s a really good foundation. You won’t find many kids around rodeo who aren’t pretty solid.”
The contestants warming up their horses and roping arms at the Wyoming State Fairgrounds in Douglas on this June day hail from places like Lingle and Lance Creek, Cora and Kinnear, Rozet and Jay Em – spots on the map lucky to still have a post office. Their parents started them in rodeo as soon as they could walk.
“They sat me on horses pretty much from the time I could sit up,” says Spratt, who grew up on a ranch near Lysite. She was competing in junior rodeo at 7 and has qualified for the National High School Finals Rodeo three times. Spratt will take her four best rodeo horses to college in New Mexico this fall.
Relentless practice is a necessity. “I’m goat tying, roping, and riding my barrel (racing) horse every day I’m not at a rodeo,” says Faber, who has qualified for the national finals three times. “My dad makes every run feel like a national finals run. It’s not always fun. But if you can overcome the adversity, then it becomes fun.”
Shai Schaefer understands that theory while practicing goat tying in the 102-degree heat a few hours before the final evening performance. Why push that hard? “Anxiety and nerves,” says Schaefer, who won a national goat-tying championship in Colorado in 2009.
The physical challenges of rodeo are all but insourmountable, no matter the weather. Take steer wrestling. Austin Eller, who weighs 155 pounds, leaps from his horse onto a galloping 700-pound animal that he has to take down with nothing more than his arms and whatever brawn his lean frame can leverage. Half the battle is successfully executing the diving catch onto the running steer. Many contestants land face-down in the dirt. And connecting with the steer is a mixed blessing.
“Steer wrestling has been described like jumping out of a pickup going 40 mph and landing on a mailbox,” Eller says. “Only a steer is a lot bigger than a mailbox. It’s like tackling someone on the football field. You go all out and think about the pain later.”
Rodeo takes considerable mental discipline as well. Eller envisions every step of steer wrestling and calf roping over and over — until it becomes automatic. The goal, Faber adds, is to practice so much that muscle memory takes over when chatter from the announcer, music and the roar of the crowd threaten distraction.
Every move makes a difference. Winning and losing often is a matter of tenths or hundredths of a second. And it’s all on the individual. “These kids know there isn’t anybody who can cover for them,” says Casper College rodeo coach Tom Parker, who won the state saddle bronc riding competition in this same arena in the late 1960s. “You get one shot at it. You don’t have the opportunity to go behind the chute and regroup and go out and do it again.”
Rodeo is not a school-sanctioned sport. There’s no equipment provided, no team bus, no getting out of school early on a Friday to travel to competitions on the other side of the state. The program depends entirely on participants, their families and volunteers. It’s a substantial commitment. For example, Schaefer’s family drives 50,000 miles a year to rodeo events, often with four goats, three horses and two dogs in tow.
The payoff? “It’s a big accomplishment,” says Eller, who won the state steer-wrestling championship this year. “It’s the satisfaction of, ‘I came from a little old town, and I’m doing something big in the world.”
There’s also the knowledge that individual effort makes all the difference. “It’s all on you and your horse,” Faber says. “How hard you work determines how well you are going to do.”
Rodeo attracts exceptional students. The Wyoming State finals announcer introduces contestant after contestant by noting their academic honors. Participants submit school transcripts every semester to show they meet the minimum 2.5 grade point average. Many have straight A’s and excel in other sports as well as rodeo. Staying out of trouble is mandatory.
“There’s no alcohol, no tobacco and no drugs,” says Jim Whipps, a Vietnam War veteran who has served as The American Legion Department of Wyoming’s representative on the rodeo board since 2005. “If you get thrown in jail, don’t come back. Out of hundreds of kids in the past seven years I don’t think we’ve ever had a problem with more than one or two. Rodeo kids have to be smarter than the average bear.”
Ninety percent of Wyoming High School Rodeo participants go to college, estimates Parker, who also is a Vietnam veteran. He emphasizes education when he signs up students for his team. “The first thing I tell students is, don’t come to Casper College just to rodeo,” Parker says. “You’ve got to get an education.”
Rodeo helps pay the way. Parker attended community college and the University of Wyoming on rodeo scholarships. Many Wyoming High School rodeo participants receive similar help from Legion. “We give $20,000 to $30,000 a year in scholarships,” says Whipps, who chairs the high school rodeo scholarship committee and is credited with significantly increasing the Legion’s contributions. “Half of the 2012 scholarships were funded by The American Legion Department of Wyoming. That’s not good enough. I want the day to come that every kid who applies receives some money from the Legion so they can go home and tell their brother, who just came back from Iraq, to go join the Legion.”
Whipps is working to make that a reality. He solicits scholarship donations from Legion posts and donates a registered quarter horse to the Wyoming High School Rodeo contestant who sells the most fundraising calendars each year.
Faber, whose grandfather was a Korean War veteran and member of Post 70 in Judith Gap, Mont., is grateful for the help. “It was my goal to have college paid for with rodeo,” says Faber, who plans to study sports medicine and become a physician for rodeo athletes. “The Legion does so much for this rodeo association and for this state. And it does a lot for the youth of America.”
Jo Ann Merrit, who competed in Wyoming High School Rodeo from 1981-85 and now chairs the state high school rodeo board, agrees. “I believe our high school rodeo is stronger than other states, and I believe The American Legion plays a huge role in that.”
Rodeo is a natural fit for Wyoming veterans. “This is the strongest youth organization the Legion can be involved with,” Parker says. “They step up and do whatever they’re asked. Every member of The American Legion in Wyoming has the same goal in mind – to help kids, support them and encourage them to become leaders.”
The Wyoming Legion does far more than fund scholarships. Legion members serve on the state rodeo board and turn out at state finals to help sort livestock, maintain animal pens and, in Parker’s case, judge bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding. Whipps and Past Department Commander Stephan Rennells are in front of the stands, selling raffle tickets to raise money for state and national high school rodeo on the final sweltering night of competition – after an exhausting week of helping other volunteers perform the hundreds of tasks that make rodeo competition possible.
Then there’s the small kindness that makes a significant impression. Post 5 in Torrington surprised Schaefer and 14 other contestants from southeastern Wyoming with funds to help them attend this year’s state finals. It wasn’t big money – enough for ice cream and dinner, Schaefer explains – but she and her fellow contestants were touched.
“We don’t have a club, and nobody in the community supports us,” she says. “It was really nice someone took the time to think of us.”
A version of this story first appeared in the September 2012 issue of The American Legion Magazine.