On only the second day of the six-day State High School Rodeo Finals in Fort Pierre, a dozen South Dakota riders already have made it to the National High School Finals Rodeo next month in Oklahoma.
“It’s really the World Finals,” Buffy Groves told the Capital Journal Tuesday evening , speaking of the National Finals July 17-23. “It’s in Guthrie, Oklahoma and Australians come to it, and Mexicans. And some come from Brazil, I think.”
As will the top four finishers in three events, the cutting and reined cow horse competitions, held Tuesday and Wednesday. The dozen include her son, Hugh Groves, after Wednesday's final go-rounds in the boys cutting event.
The 12 - and later winners this week in other events - will compete next month at the finals of the National High School Rodeo Association that has members in 43 states, five Canadian provinces and some other countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a factor in high school rodeo, too. The National Finals were moved from a Nebraska arena because of pandemic concerns there, to a site in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
The Groves ranch near Faith in northwest South Dakota and they illustrate how helping others is a big part of high school rodeo.
In the cutting events, for example, veteran volunteers ride herd on a bunch of yearlings, keeping away interfering bovines so cutters and their cutting horses have a clean shot at singling out, and keeping out, one of them. The horseback helpers also counsel the young riders before and after the events, giving them tips and praise and consolation, as needed.
Rodeo parents such as the Groves lend horses to other people's kids.
For instance, one of the Groves’ cutting horses was ridden by Trey Fuller, who scored high enough on it to make it to the National Finals next month.
“Trey is from Faith,” Groves said. He needed a good horse and she’s got several good ones and it worked out well for everyone, she said.
Hugh and Trey are on the same formidable 20-member rodeo team - eight girls, 12 boys - from Faith High School.
In at least one case this week in Fort Pierre, a cowgirl and a cowboy rode the same cutting horse in their separate events.
There are girls events and boys events in high school rodeo — boys ride broncs and bulls, girls barrel-race and goat-tie.
But some events are the same for each gender.
In cutting, girls compete in their go-rounds and boys have their go-rounds. But they use the same bunch of 600-pound yearling calves, the same kind of horses - sometimes the very same horses - and have the same judges. So when a girl scores an 85 in cutting, it’s consonant with a boy scoring an 85 in cutting at the same rodeo, the same day, Buffy Groves said.
In the reined cow horse event, girls and boys compete in the same go-rounds, scored by the same judges on how the horse handles cattle and turns, spins, stops and races at the rider's urging.
One of the top four finishers Wednesday in reined cow horse was a cowgirl, Josi Stevens of Pierre.
Really, of course, these rodeo riders are more accurately called young women and young men. But the nomenclature is traditional like so much of rodeo and as the Red-Haired Stranger said, you have to grow up to be a cowboy, or a cowgirl. It’s grown-up work and like anything to do with horses and competition, there’s danger.
The family ties are long and strong. The fairgrounds here are full of big horse trailers hauled by families and filled with horses and tack and feed as well as rodeo riders and parents.
Linda Fuller was in the stands and ready when her grandson Trey Fuller -- now headed to the National Finals -- rode up for some needed water on Tuesday in the 90-degree heat as he was warming up his horse for the reined cow horse event.
"I've been doing this for three generation," Linda Fuller laughed.
On Wednesday, these 12 riders made the cut for the National Finals Rodeo by finishing in the top four in one of three events the State High School Rodeo Finals in Fort Pierre:
In the Reined Cow Horse event, the top four finishers were: Dawson Phillips, a senior cowboy at Winner High with 88 points; Josi Stevens, a senior cowgirl at Miller High, with 76 points; Sage Bach, a junior cowboy from Florence High, third with 75.50 points and Dawson Kautzman, a freshman cowboy from Capitol, Montana, in fourth with 66.50 points. (Capitol is just across the Little Missouri River a mile from the South Dakota border, only a 90-minute trot to Camp Crook, South Dakota.)
In Girls Cutting, the top four finishers were: Landry Haugen, a freshman from Sturgis and the 2019 Little Britches national champion goat-roper, at first with 83 points; Jenna Fulton, a junior from St. Lawrence and the Miller High team, was second with 77 points; Sawyer Gilbert, a senior from Buffalo, took third with 66.50 points and Chloe Crago, a freshman at Belle Fourche High, scored 61 points for fourth place.
In Boys Cutting, Bodie Mattson, a senior at Sturgis, took first with 85.50 points; Caden Stoddard, a freshman at Kadoka, was second with 78.50 points; Trey Fuller, a freshman at Faith High, was third with 73.50 points and Hugh Groves, a senior at Faith, was fourth with 73.50 points.