Boots, lassos, chaps, and a saddle are standard equipment for at least 125 South Carolina students. While the concept of a rodeo emerged first in Arizona in the late 1920s to give cowboys an outlet for showcasing skills, rodeos are no longer just part of Western culture, nor are they only for adults. These multi-event activities, which became kid accessible in Texas in 1946, are currently alive and well throughout South Carolina, with many elementary, middle, and especially high school students participating.
Students either grow up in the rodeo culture, with parents and grandparents passing on the passion, or they gravitate toward it through equestrian interests or friendly peer pressure. Most have their own horses for timed events. However, some events such as bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, and bull riding do not require an owned horse.
“It is also not unusual for a student to borrow a horse in events like steer wrestling and goat tying,” says Lori Peyton, director of the South Carolina High School Rodeo Association for the past seven years and a member of the board of directors for 24 years. Lori graduated in 1993 from high school in Union City, North Carolina, which is close to the South Carolina line. Because she grew up so close to South Carolina, she participated in rodeos in both states. Her main event in high school was breakaway roping, which involves getting a lasso around a calf’s neck while riding a horse. After high school, she competed in team roping as a heeler, someone who must use a lasso from horseback to rope a calf’s back legs.
She says she has held practically every position at SCHSRA, volunteering wherever needed. While working in different capacities within the Union County school system, Lori also oversees instructional coaching of rodeo athletes and facilitates state level and national rodeos.
Rodeo qualifying age groups are divided by grade with participants as young as kindergartners. Most school-age rodeo athletes, however, are high schoolers. A total of 22 qualifying rodeos are located throughout South Carolina. Because the association is a 501(c)(3) entity, other nonprofits can hitch their efforts to SCHSRA to host an event. “A sheriff’s department or a fire department, for example, will put on a rodeo to fundraise. We help them, and the money made helps both our organizations,” says Lori.
Besides providing an outlet in which to build skills, compete, have fun, and fellowship, SCHSRA rodeos have an ultimate goal of providing college scholarships to top athletes.
One of those scholarship recipients is Sarah Coleman of Gaffney, South Carolina. Sarah, a high school senior, says it was her dream since elementary school to be the “sweetheart of the rodeo.” Her dream was then realized when she was crowned Miss South Carolina High School Rodeo Queen this past spring. With the title comes significant scholarships, which she will use in the fall of 2020 to pay for an undergraduate pre-veterinary track at the University of Tennessee at Martin. She plans to eventually specialize in equine ophthalmology and is already interning for two vets in Gaffney. Sarah chose that university because it offers a rodeo team.
Sarah has four horses on which she competes in barrel racing, pole bending, and goat tying. To become a rodeo queen, she had to compete along with other contestants in several areas, including demonstrating horsemanship (how well the horse is controlled while holding a flag on a pole), completing a rule book test, participating in personal interviews with judges, answering an impromptu question, giving a two-minute speech, and modeling a formal leather rodeo dress — coordinated with a hat and boots, of course.
Sarah will hand over her title to a new rodeo queen in June, but in the meantime Sarah has enjoyed representing SCHSRA throughout the state and at the national rodeo competition. As part of the fanfare at each rodeo’s opening, she enters the arena on horseback holding the American flag while she is announced as reigning queen.
Sarah says no one influenced her to become a rodeo athlete, but she does have a second cousin, Skeeter Davis, who is a professional clown for the national rodeo. Her parents, Tina and Jay Coleman, who have homeschooled her since third grade, are both very encouraging. They transport her horses by trailer to all rodeos. “Many people just don’t know there is such a thing as the rodeo — and especially a rodeo queen,” Sarah says. She adds that her favorite aspect of being the sweetheart of the rodeo is having young competitors approach her “with sparkles in their eyes” to tell her of their hopes and dreams as rodeo athletes.
As 16-year-old Dylan Cook can attest, rodeo as a high school sport is serious business. The Camden-area homeschooled student has been competing since the fourth grade. This past year, Dylan placed eighth in the world in calf roping at the National High School Rodeo Finals in Rock Springs, Wyoming. He competed against rodeo athletes not only from the United States, but from Mexico, Australia, and Canada as well.
Upon learning of his standing at nationals, Dylan says, “I‘ve never been happier in my life. I felt accomplished. Roping, in general, is supposed to be the most challenging event in rodeo. But the most important and challenging part for me is getting myself and my horse in shape.”
Dylan has two horses, D.K. for team roping and Nala for calf roping. His 14-year-old sister, Dallas, who attends North Central High School in Cassatt, South Carolina, has also been a rodeo athlete since the fourth grade. She rides Nosey in barrel racing and Dunney in pole bending. Her highest achievement thus far has been to place third in the state in pole bending.
Athletes who compete in at least 40 percent of the scheduled rodeos and earn one or more points qualify for the state championship finals, which take place in May at T. Ed Garrison Arena at the College of Agriculture in Clemson. Athletes accumulate points in three rounds of finals at the state level. The top four high school point earners at the end of the finals advance to the summer-scheduled nationals, held in different locations annually. Because the 40-year-old SCHSRA is a member of the National High School Rodeo Association, rules are the same for all states. The rule book is 172 pages long and includes diagrams, photographs, and details on scoring and penalty points; rodeo athletes must understand the specifics pertaining to their main events. A few main rules for bull riding, for example, include: bell must be under belly of bull; riding is to be done with one hand and loose rope, with or without handhold; and no split finger wrap, no knots, or hitches to prevent rope from falling off bull when rider leaves him.
Hooey, Piggin’ String, and Draw
“I sometimes have to remind myself that rodeo actually has its own language that people are not accustomed to,” says Lori.
Rodeo athletes are well versed in jargon, equipment, and more that constitute this unique culture. For instance, two different types of draws happen at a rodeo, says Lori. “In the stock draw, the judge pulls an animal’s identification number out of a hat to determine on which calf, steer, bucking horse, or bull the contestant will compete at that particular rodeo.”
Another draw is referred to as the position draw, meaning the order in which the contestant will compete. “Our rodeos are action packed and cater to spectators. We try to keep our show at about two hours so that people will get to see some of every event and not get bored. The extra people who draw later in position go into a slack portion of the rodeo that is not the main event. All pro rodeos do this to manage the length of the actual performance.”
Some of the other rodeo terminology may read or sound like gobbledygook to the non-rodeo layman:
λ Hooey — the finished tie that calf ropers make when they are tying up a calf.
λ Piggin’ String — the actual string used to tie calves.
λ Barrier — the rope that is pulled in front of the roping horse to give the calves or steers a head start in the roping events.
λ Chute Dogging — When the chute opens, the athlete must bring the steer to a line 10 feet from the chute and wrestle (or “dog”) the steer to the ground.
Lori says she can attest to the all-around thrill, challenge, and wholesomeness that inundate the rodeo culture. Dallas and Dylan’s mother, Valen, agrees. Both she and her husband, Jamie, became involved in rodeo at a young age. She was a South Carolina state champion in 1998, 1999, and 2000 for barrel racing and pole bending; plus, she also won all-around cowgirl for the state in 1999 and 2000. Jamie was what is known as a bullfighter, not to be confused with the bull fighting sport in Spain. His job was to keep angry bulls from injuring bull riders after the riders were thrown to the ground. Now he is involved as a pickup man, who rides alongside a saddle bronc or bareback rider and picks him or her up to assist with the safety of the competitor from the bucking horse.
“I don’t compete anymore, but I ride for pleasure and keep the horses in shape,” says Valen. “And I’m the kids’ cheerleader.”
She likes the rodeo scene for her children because of the like-minded, goal-oriented friendship groups and because rodeo competitors must maintain good grades to compete. Plus, scholarship opportunities are a draw. Dylan is interested in Missouri Valley College in Marshall, Missouri, or Fort Scott Community College in Southeast Kansas. Both institutions and others mostly west of the Mississippi offer full-ride scholarships as well as a chance for college students to participate on a rodeo team.
While riding horses and bulls for sport may not be the traditional high school athletic route, it is for many South Carolina teens one that comes with its own thrills, challenges, and culture. “Most of my friends think rodeo is pretty cool,” Sarah says. “They love to hear about all my rodeo adventures and think it’s a fascinating lifestyle.”