Rowan team to attend international rodeo competition
By Seth Leonard
This month, dozens of teams of youngsters from around the world will converge on Farmington, N.M., for the International Professional Rodeo Association’s High School Finals.
These groups of dedicated ropers and riders come from all over the U.S., Canada and Australia.
Only one team from North Carolina is set to appear, though.
A hodgepodge of local rodeo athletes has formed out in the western fringes of Rowan County. They combine equipment, animals and real estate in order to get the best training atmosphere possible.
Craig and Gina Compton host many practice sessions at their compound near Cleveland.
“They’re really great to the kids,” said Darin Martin of Casco Signs. “They’ve all worked hard to improve their skills here.”
Those skills were put on display Monday during what would be the final practice for most of the kids before beginning the long journey to Oklahoma and then New Mexico.
Kristi Johnson, 18, Ethan Martin, 16, and Jacob Dagenhart, 16, comprise the core of a team that looks to steal the show at the world’s largest rodeo event. Although they are young, these kids have been part of the rodeo culture for years.
Johnson and Martin have both been riding horses and roping steer for the better part of a decade. Last year, Johnson placed sixth out of about 1,500 contestants and won the All-Around Cowgirl award. Their horses, Hollywood and Magic, respectively, are so fast they need protective leg wraps so they don’t cut themselves with their own hooves.
Dagenhart is the reigning high school champion, boasted the highest average score in the finals and was selected as the Rookie of the Year. He even picked up a sponsorship from Twisted X Boots out of Decatur, Texas.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good chance,” Johnson said. “We just need to keep our heads on our shoulders and make some smooth runs. You don’t always have to be lightning fast to go out there and win.”
But these kids don’t need to worry much about speed. Johnson and Martin made liberal use of the Compton’s practice chute as the sun edged toward the tree line and the heat of the day subsided.
Team roping is all about timing and efficiency, with a good run lasting no longer than seven seconds. The pair took down most of their animals well within the target time.
The idea is to let a steer exit a narrow trough, or chute, and then chase after it on horseback. One team member has to lasso the head of the beast and turn it so that the second rider can rope the back legs for a complete score.
Both segments are important. Snaring the head causes the steer to buck its back legs, which allows a bigger opportunity to lasso them. Both legs must be roped, or a five-second time penalty is given.
“If the head isn’t roped, then it makes a lot smaller hole to poke the rope through,” said Martin, who handles the leg roping.
Typically, the overall score is the average of three attempts. Because every steer is a little different, each run has an element of randomness to it.
But becoming a skilled cowboy isn’t the only challenge facing potential competitors. Last year, it cost Johnson’s family nearly $4,000 just for fuel. Towing two horses several thousand miles might end up being cheaper with this summer’s favorable gas prices, but buying horse feed, paying for lodging, feeding themselves and buying a souvenir or two can run thousands more.
It’s a 16-hour drive to get to Shawnee for the youth finals, and at least another 16 to get to Farmington. Johnson plans to compete in both rodeos, which means a mad dash drive after the end of the first competition to make check-in for the second, larger event.
Traditionally, winners of rodeos are rewarded with coveted custom belt buckles. These can be adorned with gold, silver and engravings and are quite elaborate. But besides the buckles and bragging rights, there is the call of money. Scholarships are awarded by both the NHSRA and individual universities.
Johnson has already accrued seven separate awards, and she explained that some people receive full scholarships to schools as collegiate rodeo athletes.
The North Carolina High School Rodeo Association is among the groups that provide financial incentives to cowboys and girls. The organization’s Web site, www.NCHSRA.com, is a portal for those looking to find a local community like the one in Rowan County.
Darin Martin explained that all are welcome to come and experience the thrill of rodeo for themselves.
“We’ll be hosting a free clinic right here,” he said. “Jason Taylor and some other great rodeo athletes will be here to show people about everything.”
The date for the clinic hasn’t been set, but it will be at the Comptons’ property.
The rules mandate that youth rodeo contestants can only participate four times, so all good things must come to an end.
Johnson, who will head off to college this fall, is looking to become a veterinarian. She will attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, but she isn’t sure the Queen City will be conducive to continuing her roping career.
“I hope to keep roping in college, but I’ll probably just chill out,” she said. “I’m gonna be living in a dorm, and I don’t think a horse will fit in my closet.”