The National High School Rodeo is more than just a collection of kids in chaps and cowboy hats. It is, in fact, the world's largest rodeo—1,131 competitors from 29 states and two Canadian provinces this year—and it was kicking up dust every day last week in the magnificent Helena Valley, where a sign says WELCOME TO MONTANA. LAST OF THE BIG TIME SPLENDORS. By the time everybody got assembled and saddled up, a small cow town of 837 motor homes and assorted camping contraptions filled the Lewis & Clark County Fairgrounds.
As with all rodeos, no matter how big, a considerable amount of pageantry precedes the rib cracking, and it seemed that every teen-ager who could ride was galloping his or her horse around the arena, American flag snapping in the breeze. It was perfectly fitting, allowed Claude Mullins, the man who started the event in Texas back in 1949. "After all," he said, "this country was settled and won from the back of a horse."
And next, as if to prove that cowboys never come up short where sentiment is involved, the rodeo prayer was invoked: "Help us. Lord, to live our life in such a manner that when we make the last inevitable ride to the country up there where the grass grows lush green and stirrup high and the water runs cool, clear and deep, that You as our last judge will tell us that our entry fees are paid." Not that the kids were praying for a draw that would spare them a chute-fighting horse, as one of them put it, but should that happen, well, glory be.
When the country's best young cowboys and cowgirls take over a place for their championship, chaos erupts. By comparison, Cheyenne Frontier Days, the big one for grownups, is a family picnic. High school rodeo is emerging as big stuff these days, even though in many states it gets only grudging acknowledgment from school athletic departments, which generally means little or no money. But make no mistake, this is a real event—a fact that could not be obscured, even with the boys spending some of their spare time roping the girl competitors in hotel and motel lobbies and out around those 837 campers.
Come time for competition and seriousness settled in, especially for the Sunday finals. When the last chute had burst open, three of the 13 events had been won by Texans—Monk Dishman in the bareback broncs, Jerry Daniels in saddle broncs and Kirk Dillard in the calf-roping—and Texas had won its second straight high school title. The all-round cowboy title went to 18-year-old Sterling Wines of Ruby Valley, Nev., who really wasn't entirely all-round—he excelled only in the saddle broncs—but intricate supporting rules and a whirring computer said that he was the one. All-round cowgirl was Lori Primrose, 17, of Tucumcari, N.M., who modestly admitted, "I didn't think I could do it at all." And the rodeo queen was Janice Nelson of Jerome, Idaho, who concluded that she was just thrilled.
All through the week there were plenty of guys hanging around playing macho by spitting juice from their Copenhagen chaws into the dust. And there were plenty more talking of how they will go down the road soon with the professional rodeo cowboys and win a bunch of money. But that was a typical stance among the young men. Just as representative among the girls was Barrie Beach, 17, of Gilbert, Ariz., who had won the goat-tying competition for the last three years and was in Helena going for an unprecedented fourth straight.
Drugstore cowboys who become convulsed over an exploit called goat tying should know that when Barrie is performing at her peak, which is often, she is described as "a blur who really whips it on them." The event was established in 1972 as an alternative to the boys' steer wrestling. Contestants must ride a horse about 50 yards, jump off, race to a goat staked in the middle of the arena, seize and throw it and tie three of its legs together. Times vary with arena conditions, but 10 seconds is considered very quick, and Barrie has been known to accomplish this task in eight seconds.
Small wonder. Back home, she gets up at 4 a.m. each day before school and goes to a practice arena set up on the family spread. There she throws goats to the ground and ties them until she gets 20 clockings in a time that meets her exacting standards. Then she'll practice tying, at least 100 times. Then she'll practice for the breakaway roping event, at which she also excels. After four hours, she quits for breakfast. In the evening she returns to practice team roping, at which she also excels. "She's too hard-driving," says her mother, Pat. "I tell her she doesn't enjoy things."
Before coming to Helena, Barrie had won 21 saddles and 150 belt buckles as amateur trophies. Many of them were in goat tying, an endeavor that has the added benefit of handsomely qualifying her as a Christmas fill-in at J. C. Penney's gift-wrap counter. Her trophy saddles runneth over so much that Barrie has sold five of them for between $200 and $500 each, but she laments, "I hate to do that because I always think I might not win another."
A candid athlete with a face as open as the West, Barrie is asked what the fun is in goat tying.
"I don't think there is any."
But it's exciting?
You just like goats?
"I can't stand them. They aren't too smart and they smell awful."
Is there any such thing as a good goat?
"Sure. One that stands there and never kicks."
Why do you do it?
"I'm a competitor."
That serves to describe high school rodeo athletes. Barrie Beach has always been an overachiever. She was third in her graduating high school class of almost 200 this year and worked inexhaustibly to get there. Professional cowboy Shawn Davis, three times world saddle bronc champ, who helped out at Helena, said that the kind of youngster who takes to rodeo is "the adventurous type with a lot of spirit."
Calvin Amy, 18, from Howe, Idaho, hardly could be accused of lacking spirit. So far this year he has won his state's bareback and saddle bronc competition—and the 138-pound state wrestling championship as well. "A national title would be nice," said his father, Jake, "but don't get the idea he's perfect. Calvin knows what the ground feels like."
Amy is viewed by many experts as the kind of rider who should make it big in the pros, partly because he has the requisite philosophy. "It hurts when you get throwed," he says, "but it's so much fun getting back on for more." Although he already has won about $4,000 from rodeoing, including $658 for the first prize in saddle bronc riding in Rupert, Idaho earlier this summer in his first Professional Rodeo Cowboys of America event, he's under no illusions. "It's tough money," he says. (In some states, students are allowed to compete in professional rodeo events without endangering their eligibility for other amateur sports.)
But at Helena, disaster reared its ugly hoof for both Calvin Amy and Barrie Beach, among others. Amy rode his horse brilliantly, by far the best ride by anyone all week, but judges ruled that he had failed to spur the critter properly coming out of the chute. Even winner Daniels, who had seen the ride, had shaken his head and concluded that Amy had him beat. Barrie's performance was something short of her normal standards. She slipped running to her goat and finished third. The winner of the event, Lori Primrose, was her usual confident self: "I didn't think I could beat her at all." Beach also was slow in the breakaway roping and missing in team roping to complete a terrible day; there had gone the all-round title, not to mention immortality as a goat-tier.
Disappointments do come bitter. Tony Burress, 18, of Warner, Okla., was awarded an extraordinary 83 points (75 is very good) on a bull that he rode early in the week and was seemingly in tall cotton. "What I like about bulls," he says, "is that usually you don't get hurt just a little. You're either dead or near dead. So that makes you try harder." But the next day he went out and was unseated by a bull with not much buck in his bounce. "Bull wasn't big enough," groused Burress. "There wasn't nothin' to hang on to." Yet Burress and all the other high school students understand as well as their elders that rodeo is fickle.
Over at The Diggins, a disco, team roper J. D. Yates of Pueblo, Colo., who already is winning money as a pro, is holding court. "Everybody wants to hear rock music like this," he says. "Nobody wants to listen to cowboy music anymore except maybe kids from Wyoming."
But if cowboy musical tastes are changing, cowboys are staying more the same in other ways. They still have a certain flair for sitting on fences and using the word "if a lot, as in "If that ole bull had done what he was supposed to...." They still wear their hats when they eat. The queens still say, "I love meeting people and I enjoy saying 'hi' to everyone." And why is it that traditional events like the saddle and bareback broncs and the bulls are flourishing? Because, says Roy Pace, chairman of the championships, "There's a little bit of cowboy in every kid that's ever been born."