Rodeo athlete juniors Ryan Jennings and Riley Gajdos shine a light on opportunities in their sport
It’s game time: there’s thirty seconds left on the clock, the home team doesn’t have an official coach, around fifteen teams are competing against one another, and the only teammate for the star player doesn’t even speak their language.
Sounds like a nightmare, huh?
For rodeo participants, this is the reality of competing in their sport.
“When you enter the arena, it first seems unreal. You have been practicing for months for this quick moment in the arena. There is an enormous amount of pressure. There are no time outs and no half-times. You have only a matter of seconds to prove yourself and climb to the top or fall back to the bottom,” said junior Ryan Jennings, who competes in team roping, which is where a steer is roped on horseback with another partner. “When you start riding in the arena, everything stops. All of the noises of the announcer and the fans go silent, and all you can hear is your horse and the sound of your rope swinging through the air. When you’re in your run, time slows drastically. Five or ten seconds can feel like minutes.”
Rodeo athletes don a saddle and their trusty hooved companion, contrary to the mainstream publicized sports with teams, jerseys, balls and sometimes helmets. In this sport the ball literally has a mind of its own, yet remains a sport poorly understood with few viewers outside the western horse enthusiast minority.
Jennings has qualified for State Finals all three years of junior high and National Finals when he was in eighth grade. Jennings is sponsored by Best Ever Pads and Pioneer AG Resources, who are businesses that provide financial support for professional advancement.
“One of my happiest moments in rodeo was recently qualifying for Challenge of Champions which is a special rodeo only open for the top three athletes in each event from each district,” said Jennings.
His goal is to qualify for State Finals for high school, which is considerably more difficult than the junior high classes. He trains regularly under the guidance of Mark Scobie for four years.
Scobie began competing in rodeo his freshman year of high school, first winning his district’s Team Roping event in 1995. He went on to place second at State Finals and snagging third at the National High School Finals in Wyoming. After a highly successful rodeo career, Scobie slowed down after 2005 to spend more time training kids in his area, including his daughter Aubree, Jennings’ partner for team roping.
“Ryan is a very hard working guy. He has always wanted to understand how it all works. This sport is built on a solid foundation of horsemanship skills, athletic ability and the drive to be the best you can be. Ryan has all three. This sport is not for the faint of heart,” said Scobie. “Rodeo teaches them commitment. Not only to the sport they compete in, but to their partner… The camaraderie in this sport is really one of its best qualities. They are all competitors but, at the end of the day they are friends, too.”
As far as support, Jennings attests that, along with trainers, parents make sacrifices for their children to compete in rodeo. Between owning a horse, staying committed to the sport, motivation for training, travel, and event registration, having a strong mentoring figure is essential.
“[Rodeo] is so different from any other sport. The practice, the actual competing, the time…You can go out in the afternoon and teach somebody how to throw a football. You can’t go out in the afternoon and teach somebody how to rope and ride. It’s something that takes a lot of time and a lot of practice,” said Jennings.
Junior Riley Gajdos competes in three separate rodeo events: team roping, barrel racing, and girls cutting. Her hooved team of three includes Bonita, Gatsby, and Skeets, all of which she rotates training with for each at least four times a week.
Her top past achievements include winning the West Coast Junior Rodeo Association’s All Around Cowgirl in 2014 and qualifying for junior high State competition for barrel racing, team roping, and goat tying. Gajdos competed in the State Finals for cutting back in her freshman year of high school, finishing in the top 15 riders for her first two years in the high school division. Currently, she is qualifying for the 2017 State Finals, where the top four riders have the opportunity to travel to Gillette, Wyoming to take part in the National High School Rodeo Finals.
Due to her grandfather’s support, Gajdos has been riding as long as she has been walking, having competed in her first rodeo at just eight years old. “My grandpa has had horses ever since I was a little kid. He always had a horse in the backyard. He had this old paint horse and he threw me on him one day and it just kind of happened …It’s really because of him that I have the opportunity to get to do rodeo.”
The opportunities from competing in rodeo sports include a chance of participating with a college rodeo team after high school graduation, or transitioning straight into professional rodeo.
“It takes a lot of practice and effort to actually be successful in professional rodeo, much like other professional sports,” said Jennings, who has been riding since the age of two. “[Rodeo] has put a lot of self discipline on myself. It really shows that nothing comes easy– you need to practice for everything. You can’t just go out there and expect to win.”