The South Dakota State High School Rodeo Finals brought 300 or so cowgirls and cowboys to Fort Pierre this week, along with a crowd of 1,000 or more spectators, not to mention 400 horses plus bulls, goats, steers and heifers, organizers said.
It’s meant the campgrounds, hotels and restaurants have been busy, city leaders said.
But the big prize the 300 cowboys and cowgirls are aiming for is not only a state championship, but the bigger stage.
The prize for the top four finishers in the 13 events, from goat-tying to bull-riding, is qualification to the National High School Finals Rodeo slated for late July in Guthrie, Oklahoma.
“It’s really the World Finals,” Buffy Groves of Faith told the Capital Journal Tuesday evening, speaking of the National Finals July 17-23. “Canadians and Australians come to it, and Mexicans. And some come from Brazil, I think.”
The South Dakota qualifiers this year include her son, Hugh Groves, who made the top four in the boys cutting event.
Officials with the National High School Rodeo Association said they have 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.
Nearly everyone who qualifies from the South Dakota state Finals goes to the National Finals, said Ann Sundermann, executive director of the South Dakota High School Rodeo Association.
“It can get a little spendy,” she said, though noting sponsors and others help with the costs as much as possible. Mostly it's up to the riders and their families.
Sundermann, working from an office this week underneath the grandstand at the Stanley County Fairgrounds in Fort Pierre, said she expects total attendance during the rodeo events Tuesday through Saturday this week to range 5,000 to 7,000, as it usually does. The Finals ends with the awards breakfast Sunday morning in the Casey Tibbs Convention Center. This is the first time the state Finals have been held in Fort Pierre, after several years in Belle Fourche, she said.
It requires families to make it work, hauling large trailers filled with horses, saddles, and cowboys and cowgirls, as well as a camper where everyone stays.
Buffy Groves lends cutting horses to other parents’ kids to help them win.
It takes a lot of faith and hope, it seems, for parents to watch their children in events such as riding broncs and bulls.
Jack Rodenbaugh from Box Elder will be a junior this fall in high school and already is a veteran of the National High School Finals Rodeo where last summer a bull put him in the hospital in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
“I got jerked down. I got knocked out, sent to the hospital,” he told the Capital Journal on Friday. "I haven't been injured recently."
He’s camping in Fort Pierre with his brother, Cauy, 11, and his parents, Darla and Troy Rodenbaugh.
They live just east of the Black Hills, near Box Elder.
“We have 10 acres, enough for a couple of horses and a Longhorn steer,” Darla said. “We bought him for my youngest, kind of as a pet.”
Jack’s dad, Troy Rodenbaugh, rode bareback broncs in college and for a time in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), Darla said.
Many parents wonder how a mother lets her babies grow up to be bull riders, Darla Rodenbaugh acknowledges.
“It is scary. But I am a strong believer in God and I believe this is a God-given talent that He’s given Jack. So I just have a lot of faith in Jack’s talent and his abilities and in God. Right now, I believe that’s Jack’s purpose.”
He started just after sixth grade, riding steers at first. He’s a national champion in the Little Britches rodeo association that parallels the high school rodeo association.
”He’s good at it,” Darla says. “He’s good at anything athletic. So I try to support it.”
There are girls events and boys events in high school rodeo — boys ride broncs and bulls, girls barrel-race and goat-tie.
However, some events are the same for each gender. Team ropers sometimes are a cowgirl and a cowboy.
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, 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.
South Dakotan enjoy rodeo about as much as any state, perhaps more per-capita than any. The legendary South Dakota rodeo names of Tibbs, Elshere and Lockhart show up in the high school cowboys and cowgirls riding this week in Fort Pierre.
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.