Ride of a Lifetime

High school rodeo competitors share lifestyle, camaraderie of Minnesota’s most obscure youth sport

St. Paul Pioneer Press; July 2, 2000©

Chris Berends crouched on the top beam of a rusted steel fence, his gaze lost somewhere between the matted dirt and the bull shaking the chute in front of him. In moments, he would climb into the chute and plant himself on that bull’s back.

He tried to imagine the rest — the gate opening, the bull springing to its right, Chris hanging tight for the eight-second buzzer. From atop a bull’s back, those eight seconds run like the hand of a broken watch. Today, it seems like a suicide ride.

Bulls spent Friday and Saturday bucking and tossing teen-age cowboys all over the parched arena. Now, on Sunday’s final go-round of the Minnesota High School Championship Rodeo, it was happening again, to one boy after another. Chris hardly noticed. From his seat on the fence, he filled his head with the calm and focus of his own voice.

Just stay on, he told himself. Just stay on and ride.

The day before, Chris did just that, something a dozen other cowboys couldn’t. If he held on for another eight seconds today, Chris knew he could go to the national finals rodeo, July 24-30 in Springfield, Ill., as Minnesota’s bull-riding champion.

Not that anybody around paid much attention. There were 106 other Minnesota cowboys and cowgirls here, all with their own championship dreams.

They’re compatriots and competitors, sharing a communal lifestyle saddled to youth rodeo and the state’s most obscure high school sport. They and their parents hoof hundreds of miles to lonely arenas, staking out neighboring patches of grass in makeshift encampments, often sleeping in the same trailers that tow their horses. After a day or two of rides and falls, they scatter home to Effie, Almelund, Glendyn, Dawson, Miltona, Nimrod, Swift Falls, Blue Earth — pinches of salt sprinkled across Minnesota — before meeting up somewhere for the next go-round.

There are no home teams, cheerleaders or pep bands. The kids wear no jerseys, jackets or colors pledging allegiance to their schools, only the brass belt buckles from past triumphs and the boot-dragging fatigue of a long season, whittled down to this Father’s Day weekend and a fateful, championship rodeo at Hugo’s Dead Broke Saddle Club arena.

Hard-luck cowgirl

Lacy Skoog pokes her face through the upper bars of the fence and cups her hands to her mouth. Her friend, Allie, is bearing down with her horse at a full gallop toward a triangle of barrels set at three points on the back half of the arena. This event is called barrel racing, where girls on horseback take turns darting around the triangle, shooting for the fastest time.

“Stay off his face!” Lacy shouts, telling Allie to ease off the reins.

“Sit!’” Lacy yells as Allie dips into a turn. “GOoooo!”

At 16, Lacy is only a year older than Allie, but she is her mentor in the arena. The girls live about 15 minutes apart in towns on the western edge of the Twin Cities. Every day before heading to work together at the Jukebox Restaurant, they practice speed-tying the legs of goats — another rodeo event — in one or the other’s family arena.

A standout track sprinter and basketball player at her school, Lacy has thin blond hair and a strong, athletic body. Her white stripes of eye shadow look like war paint, and she rides horses with a ferocity not seen among the other girls here. Lacy’s two older sisters had talent, their mom says, but they never matched Lacy’s drive and competitive spirit. In four events, she either leads the Minnesota standings or is breathing on the necks of the people above her.

Normally, in Minnesota high school rodeos, first place earns 10 points, second place gets nine, and so on. In this championship rodeo, the point values tripled for Friday’s and Saturday’s competitions and quadrupled for Sunday’s final go-round. All the points are added together to come up with the final standings for the season, and cowboys and cowgirls can make up for a mediocre season with strong showings here. The top four in each event go to the national finals.

Lacy calls herself “the most competitive person I’ve ever met” and has few true rivals along Minnesota’s high school rodeo circuit. But she has a peculiar history of setbacks at the state championship rodeo.

Her freshman year, she led all barrel racers going into the final weekend, but she rode so poorly she dropped out of the top four and didn’t qualify in that event for the national finals. Last year, she salvaged an otherwise dismal showing at the state championships by dominating the goat-tying competition and going on to finish 18th nationally.

This championship weekend hasn’t started any better. Lacy had four no-time rides the first day, including a run at the barrels with a broken bridal on a borrowed horse. She marched back to her trailer and threw around whatever she could get her hands on.

“Sometimes it’s really nice to have those days, to smack you in the face,” Lacy said the next morning. “My mom works two jobs so I can rodeo, and I want to show her that what she’s doing is worthwhile.”

Home away from home

Trucks, trailers and motorhomes are set up like a shantytown behind the arena. Some horses stand in portable, stainless steel pens; others in corrals jury-rigged with posts, rope and open trailer doors. It’s a familiar caravan-cum-community for families who make the seasonal swings to Appleton, Spring Grove, Maynard, Hawley.

One man has converted the front of a 7-by-24-foot stock trailer into a camper. There’s a heater, refrigerator, stove and cabinets he built himself, some of it fastened in place with electrical tape. Yellowed foam insulation creeps out from the edges of Western-themed wallpaper.

All over the grounds, kids are roping dummy calves — plastic calf heads jutting from the long sides of hay bales or, as a next-best option, strips of tire tread nailed into the ends of sawhorses. When teens grow bored during the long stretches of down time, they rope each other.

A 17-year-old, Mary Quist, is dressing up her mare for the next go-round, squeezing purple glitter paint for a nose and smile to go with the plastic eyes she glued to the horse’s rump.

“Sometimes she’ll whap her tail and mess it all up,” she says, “and I’m, like, `Grrr.’ ”

There isn’t enough room in the family pickup for everyone to sleep, so Mary sometimes volunteers to spread out her sleeping bag in the horse trailer.

“We just scoop the poop away,” she says.

Some young people who graduated two or three years ago continue coming out to see younger friends still in high school. So do some parents, who don’t want to lose connections with families built through high school and the Little Britches circuit, which baptizes kids in rodeo as young as 8.

“Everyone’s like a family,” says Julie Skoog, Lacy’s mom, who has raised three daughters through 17 years of rodeo. “This becomes your social life, because there’s absolutely zero time to have one otherwise.”

Rodeo is so sequestered from mainstream high school culture — the state finals take place a week after most schools let out for the summer break — participants rely on each other as much for support as for competition. Also, rodeo has never really caught on with Minnesota youth. This year, only 107 teens are registered with the Minnesota High School Rodeo Association. By contrast, Texas boasts 1,185. More than 700 kids compete in Utah and Idaho.

“This isn’t like other sports. In track, you want everybody else to fail. In rodeo, you’re borrowing each other’s horses,” Lacy says. “You want to do well against them, but you root for them, too.”

The Minnesota contingent is just a speck of the national high school rodeo population — 12,000 competitors from 38 states and four Canadian provinces. Of those, 1,500 compete in the national finals, making it the world’s largest rodeo field. Next year, a team of Australian high schoolers rides into the mix.

“Your elite few cowboys here are your average cowboys at nationals,” says Wade Grinager, who finished seventh among bull-riders at last year’s national finals. “It’s kind of a shocker. The whole atmosphere goes to another level when you cross the border. If you go out there with any hot head, they set you right back in your place.”

Where men are made

In rodeo culture, tough men make their way in the rough stock events. In American popular culture, the toughest of the tough ride bulls. Chance Kvistad is the last person you’d expect to find in the bull-riding chute.

He’s a freckled 15-year-old who could pass for 12. A shade over 5 feet and 100 pounds, he’s not only the most diminutive bull-rider at this rodeo but smaller than many girls here.

Chance is as nonchalant about riding bulls as someone else would be about learning to drive a car. He notes that shorter, lighter cowboys are some of the world’s top pro bull-riders. “I just use my knees more,” he says.

At home, Chance and his brother, Tait, practice bull-riding on a barrel suspended by ropes in the family barn. People rock the barrel by yanking on the ropes. It’s a far cry from the action out of a chute, where the bulls in high school rodeos are just as big as those in the pros, their snouts meaty as Porterhouse steaks.

In the moments before he eases into the chute and onto a bull’s back, Chance encases himself in what looks like Little League attire — a padded vest and hard-plastic helmet with a grilled facemask. He stretches his legs from side to side, hops toe-to-toe like a boxer, then simulates the start of the ride, pivoting his body on one foot while throwing his left arm wide. Chance slips in a mouthguard, slaps his hands to his chaps-covered thighs, then climbs into the chute.

There, he’s surrounded by a team of fellow teen cowboys and adult stock handlers, working like an auto-racing pit crew, reaching through and over the bars to tame and quiet the bull long enough to get both it and Chance out of the chute.

“Let’s go, Chance!” one boy says. “Ride ‘im.”

A stock handler has his hand on the gate. “You ready?” he asks.

Chance gives a quick nod, tucking his chin to his chest and fixing his eyes on the bull’s head. The gate opens to the bull’s right side, and Chance holds tight as the bull jumps out and makes two full clockwise spins. The bull lifts his rear for its first real buck, and Chance sails off as if he were on springs. He scrambles on hands and feet to the safety of the fence. The whole thing takes about five seconds.

Working for a living

Today’s young cowboy isn’t looking toward life on the ranch. College scouts — many from private and small public colleges — recruit students from the national finals, and several Minnesotans each year win scholarships by excelling in the arena and classroom.

Almost everyone here dreams of careers in professional rodeo. Devin McGrath, who rides a saddle branding him as 1999’s state champion steer wrestler, is headed this fall on a half-scholarship to National American University in Rapid City, S.D. He plans to major in business administration.

“But I’m not too much into workin,’ ” he says with a wide, toothy grin. “This is what I want to do.”

Some high schoolers are already winning cash through Minnesota Rodeo Association events, the state’s semi-pro circuit. The few hundred dollars some have earned go toward gas, feed and rodeo entry fees. Unlike athletes in other high school sports, kids in the rodeo — and their parents — supply their own equipment and pay all the wide-ranging costs of raising, training and towing horses.

Hillary Swanson’s mom took out a five-figure loan to buy Hillary a top gelding, then supported her daughter’s move last year from their home in Mendota Heights to Buffalo, to live with her horse trainer. This weekend, while everyone else has set up camp near the arena, mother and daughter are sharing a motel room.

“This is her whole life, her whole being,” says Hillary’s mom, whose sales job gives her the flexibility to chauffeur Hillary to her rodeos. “These are the finals — she needs a shower and a good night’s sleep — and I want to give her every chance to succeed.”

The Kvistad brothers just returned from a bull-riding camp that cost $325 each. Leroy Pitzen is using his winnings to repay his dad most of the $850 it cost for his new saddle, specifically made for the saddle bronc event. “And that was a good deal,” Leroy says.

Few sports force athletes to work as hard for a dollar. The best of the best in the Professional Cowboy Rodeo Association struggle to win more than $100,000 a year; those just below the top 20 in the world standings of any given event net around $30,000. Cowboys travel hundreds of miles from rodeo to rodeo, put up their entry fees and lose out on the prize money with one missed rope, a brutal buck or an early jump out of the gate.

It can get worse. Here’s the June 19 injury report from the official PRCA Web site:

· Bull-rider Justin Daugherty dislocated his left (free arm) shoulder at a rodeo in Flagstaff, Ariz. He required transportation to the emergency room to have it reduced. His status is uncertain.

· Bull-rider Burke Moore broke his left forearm at the rodeo in Big Spring, Texas. He underwent emergency surgery and is expected to be out at least eight weeks.

· Saddle bronc rider B.J. Arnold sprained his left knee at the Mesquite (Texas) Championship Rodeo. He is expected to be out six weeks.

· Bull-rider Mike Petty was stepped on at the rodeo in Gladewater, Texas, breaking his right ankle. He is expected to miss 8-12 weeks.

· Calf-roper Jeff Chapman twisted his right knee at a rodeo in Las Vegas. He had previously torn the anterior cruciate ligament while competing at Laughlin, Nev. He is expected to be out 4 1/2-6 months.

At the rodeo just before the Minnesota high school championships, a bareback horse dragged Tom McCone for about 10 “hot laps” — out-of-control trips around the arena — before sidemen could yank Tom’s hand free of the grip.

“There were arms flying, chaps flapping,” Tom recalls to the laughter of a half-dozen nearby boys. “All you can do is try to stay on your feet and not get stepped on, which is pretty hopeless.”

Rules require high school bull and bronc riders to wear torso protectors. One boy here goes further, guarding against whiplash with a football-styled neck roll fashioned out of a towel and white medical tape. Even horses are prone to injury. Lacy Skoog has sent a mare, Rosie, for several visits to an equine chiropractor, at $150 a pop.

“She probably kicked at him 10 times,” Lacy says. “But the second she’s better, she starts licking her lips, which is a sign of comfort.”

The final go-round

Many teens reserved their finest duds for Sunday’s final go-round. Leroy Pitzen looked like a flag, blue along one side of his long-sleeved shirt, the other side striped red and white. Hillary Swanson wore jeans the color of Hot Tamales candies. Lacy Skoog emerged in all-business black jeans, black hat and a crisp black-and-white checkered shirt.

Lacy’s string of bad luck at the state championships grew a bit the day before, when she missed her calf in the breakaway roping and, in the goat tying, took too long to secure the legs. Lacy’s too confident to beat herself up for long – her mood spins a half-circle upon learning she’s only 80 points behind the all-around leader.

“I can make that up,” she says. “I’m gettin’ it. I’m gonna.”

At least Lacy, competing in four events, has the law of averages on her side. Leroy Pitzen’s rodeos always come down to one ride. He was only 6 when he sat on his first bull but started riding broncs at 12 and soon saw that as his niche. Now, he’s one of the few here who specialize in one event.

The rodeo was born with the saddle bronc, where riders sit in small saddles with shortened stirrups, hoping to stay on a bucking bronco with a one-handed grip at the end of a long stretch of rope. Judges grade the quality of the ride.

Leroy speaks in a soft, velvety tenor. His face has the texture and color of rawhide, his eyes are dark and crescent, and his wispy, pencil-thin black sideburns run along the jawline to a dash of beard. He could pass for the villain in any John Wayne movie if not for his smile and good nature.

“I thought there was more future for me in the broncs,” he says. “It’s the hardest event to learn, but once you do, it’s the easiest on your body.”

By Leroy’s count, he’s made 19 rides this year and held on for the eight-second buzzer in 14 of them. He took a quick fall in Saturday’s go-round, though, and now sat in danger of losing his spot atop the standings.

“You didn’t get bumped off? You fell off?” one cowboy asked Leroy.

“I got tipped off,” Leroy said.

“How many bucks did he give you?”

“Oh, he just gave me a bunch o’ dirt.”

In Sunday’s go-round, all Leroy could do was hold on. The judges gave him 53 points, a low score by anyone’s standards, but it was enough to withstand a strong run by the second-place cowboy.

“Excellent ride,” Leroy tells the runner-up. “You shoulda won. You had a nicer ride — lookin’ pretty.”

Now, through the goat-tying competition, it’s Lacy’s chance to push all her bad luck behind her.

Goat tying is like calf roping, without the challenge of the chase. A goat stands at the end of an 8-foot rope staked into the ground. A girl and her horse barrel down on him, the girl jumps off and chases the goat to the end of its rope, flops it on its side and tries tying both back legs to one of its front legs. Judges record the time from the start of the ride to the end of the knot, and if the knot stays in place for 10 seconds, the time goes in the books.

There are two goats in rotation in a field that can number 10 or more girls, and a goat can’t help but seem a bit shell-shocked after going through this a few times, only to watch yet another horse charging its way.

Lacy finished 18th at the national finals as a sophomore and thinks she has a strong shot at winning this year. A goat broke loose of her knot on Saturday, but Lacy was so far ahead in the season standings that all she needed in today’s round was a successful tie, and she’d emerge again as Minnesota’s goat-tying champion.

She edges her horse into the arena, narrows her eyes some 50 yards down the arena toward the goat, then kicks her horse into a full sprint. Lacy closes in on the goat and bounds off the horse without a stumble. She dumps the goat and wraps three quick loops around its hoofs. Her time of 8.91 seconds is tops for the weekend.

Moments later, with the all-around crown out of her reach, Lacy on horseback makes her congratulatory lap around the arena as the year’s goat-tying champion.

Chris makes his ride

Every rodeo closes with the crescendo of bull-riding, and Chris Berends has waited all day in quiet anticipation for his one, final ride. There’s a hoof-sized rip in the back of his tan torso protector, but Chris’ thoughts are on the bull penned in front of him. He lowers himself into the chute and tethers his hand to the bull’s back. Seven boys have gone before him this afternoon and none managed to stay on for eight seconds.

“Take a ride now! Get it done now,” one boy says to Chris. “Be a cowboy.”

Chris gives a slight nod to the gate man, and just like that, he’s out of the chute. The bull doesn’t spin, but instead goes into a bucking sprint toward the grandstands. The crowd, antsy for a successful ride, starts cheering as the seconds tick away like the excruciating drip of a lazy faucet.

The bull stops dead in its tracks and spins hard to the left, but Chris hangs tight. The cheers grow louder as Chris allows his body to move with the bull’s dips. The bull changes direction and Chris begins to tilt, and just as the buzzer sounds at eight seconds, the bull whips Chris off its back.

A nervous silence coats the arena, but judges give their thumbs up — Chris stayed on through the buzzer — and score the ride a 67. Chris flings his hat into the air at the news and jogs back to the bull-riding chutes to a semi-standing ovation.

Eyes wide and short of breath, Chris plants himself back on the familiar stretch of fence behind the bull-riding chutes. He looks over to the far chute, where Jordan Wagner is set to make the final ride of the rodeo.

Jordan is the only cowboy here competing in five events and, headed into today’s go-round, he either led or sat in second place in four of them. Earlier in the day, he threw a fit — stomping off red-faced and kicking at the insides of his horse trailer — after judges penalized him for jumping out early in the steer wrestling competition.

Jordan has led the bull-riding standings all season long. Now, all he has to do is stay on and the season title is his. If Jordan can’t hold on for eight seconds, Chris goes to the national finals as Minnesota’s bull-riding champion.

The chute opens and the bull swings hard to its left. Jordan sways with the momentum of the sudden spin and can’t square himself against the bull’s relentless rotation. Chris watches Jordan fall. Without expression, Chris climbs off the fence and scoops up his gear. He’s just won the state bull-riding crown.

A rodeo official trots up to tell Chris to find a horse for his victory lap. Chris obliges, and as the grandstands empty, he takes his hat off to a smattering of applause. Chris’ family catches up behind the arena to congratulate him.

“I was just thinking I had to ride it to win it,” he says. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me in rodeo. The best thing ever.”

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