Get an Education
Rodeo schools provide would-be contestants a great opportunity to try an event for a weekend. Two veteran coaches offer tips on choosing the right school for you.
Now that you've made a decision to take up bronc riding, bull riding, team roping or any other rodeo event, how do you get started? Should you borrow some past-its-prime equipment from a buddy and enter the local amateur rodeo? Should you sit around in the stands at said rodeo, talking about how you're taking up the event but knowing full well you won't be putting down that cold beer anytime soon?
The correct answer for any such question is: look into a rodeo school.
The right school offers you the chance to try an event for a couple of days without investing thousands of dollars in equipment, only to learn that you'd rather sit in the stands and watch.
"If you had an airplane, would you take it up a few times to see if you liked it before you took flying lessons?" asks former National Finals Rodeo qualifier Lyle Sankey. "I look at rodeo the same way. But we hear from people all the time who want to buy cheap equipment and enter themselves or their kids in a local rodeo before they'll spend a couple hundred bucks to come to a school.
"Without the proper gear and training, nobody is going to enjoy this sport, and there's a good chance you'll get hurt in the process. Regardless of what event you're looking at competing in, go to a qualified coach and get some training."
There's no shortage of rodeo schools. Many are put on by competitors during slower times of the year, typically spring and fall. Some are run as a full-time business, such as the National Roper's Supply Training Center in Decatur, Texas, and the traveling schools produced by Sankey Rodeo Schools of Branson, Missouri.
Choosing the right school is a key element in starting your rodeo career. Here are some things to look for when selecting a school.
Seeing the term "National Finals Rodeo qualifier" or "world champion" in front of an instructor's name can get students excited in a hurry. But that doesn't always mean the cowboy can coach others. Some full-time contestants are incredible instructors with well-developed people skills. Others are simply looking to collect a check during a weekend when they're not at a rodeo.
Krece Harris has on his resumé nearly two decades of working with beginning ropers. World champion Walt Woodard and NFR qualifier Tyler Magnus routinely call on Harris to assist them during clinics at the NRS Training Center. Harris also leads a number of NRS-produced clinics for team ropers of all skill levels. His ability to take difficult concepts and break them down draws rave reviews from clinic participants.
"I like to rope as much as anyone, but teaching is what I do," Harris says. "The NRS Training Center is here to provide people of all different skill levels a place to improve as ropers. Because this is what we do, our success is directly tied to helping people improve."
Sankey's schools are considered among the best in the business. He began teaching during his competitive days, before eventually transitioning into a full-time coach. His schools offer coaching in bareback riding, bullfighting, bull riding and saddle-bronc riding.
"What I look for in my coaching staff is the same thing students should look for: the ability to coach," he says. "A coach has to have good communication skills, and has to care about his students."
Both Harris and Sankey say they have worked schools with full-time competitors who were remarkable teachers. And both have worked with those who weren't. So it's a good idea to ask around, check Internet message boards and ask for coaches' references.
One of the advantages of getting your start at a rodeo school should be the ability to try an event without buying equipment you may not use again. Full-time rodeo schools tend to offer an advantage over seasonal schools in this aspect.
"If we have 35 students at a rodeo school, 30 of them might not have any equipment," Sankey says. "Before I did this full-time, there's no way I could have provided bull ropes and bronc saddles and bareback riggings. But now we travel with all of that stuff. We can provide just about everything a student needs [boots being the one exception]."
Rough-stock students will want access to protective vests, helmets, mouthpieces, spurs and boots. Those costs can add up if a school can't supply such equipment.
The biggest expense for a timed-event contestant is his horse. Many steer wrestling schools provide suitable horses for beginners, but students usually have to provide their own horses in other events, such as barrel racing, team roping or tie-down roping.
The NRS Training Center can provide horses for students at their clinics. NRS students also have the advantage of an on-site tack store where they can purchase items they might not already own.
"The fact that we can lease students seasoned team-roping horses is a great benefit," Harris says. "Many beginners find that the weekend is much more enjoyable and informative if they aren't having to worry about the horse."
Are you looking to make a run at the NFR, the Professional Bull Riders World Finals or the U.S. Team Roping Championships National Finals? If so, you'll need to attend a school aimed at equally ambitious competitors.
"Some instructors have a 'go hard or go home,' mentality," Sankey says. "I was probably a lot like that in my competitive days. But I've come to realize there's a place for the guy who just wants to try something different for a weekend. Not everyone is cut out for hitting the road full time and trying to make the NFR. But that doesn't mean a guy can't come out here, learn a few things, then compete in his hometown rodeo just for kicks."
Harris has the advantage of offering regular clinics for ropers of varying experience levels. Beginning ropers can learn the fundamentals in a low-stress atmosphere and advance to more advanced clinics that offer extensive training in the technical aspects of the sport, as well as how to train your own horse.
"Unfortunately, you are going to have people of different skill levels in many schools," Harris says. "That can make it difficult on those teaching the class. Advanced students get bored, or beginning students get left behind. Matching your skill level to the school you'll attend is crucial to getting all you can out of the school."
Students should prepare themselves physically and mentally for a rodeo school. Whether you are a roper or a rough-stock rider, rodeo is a physically demanding sport. Exercises designed to develop muscle memory for specific events can leave out-of-shape cowboys and cowgirls rigid and sore the following day.
"We did a school with Mike Lee, and he took the whole class through a warm-up routine he does," Sankey recalls. "After 20 minutes, he wasn't even breathing hard but most of the bull riders in the class couldn't even talk. It helps if you get in shape a little."
Most rodeo schools include "classroom sessions," lectures designed to teach fundamental concepts before students start working with simulators or livestock. These sessions are incorporated into the school for a reason and should be taken seriously. Pay attention and take notes, and you'll be better prepared when it comes time to add live animals to your training.