Rodeos are hard to describe, said Luke Sullivan, a bull rider on the Garden City Community College rodeo team. But he knows exactly what mounting a bull feels like.
“It’s like driving down the freeway going about like 80, and then just throwing your steering wheel out the window,” he said. “It’s really scary, honestly. People will lie to you and say it’s not scary, but it’s pretty scary. It’s just an adrenaline rush. And man, if you do good in front of a lot of people, you feel like a million bucks.”
GCCC’s 52nd annual rodeo was a mixture of cool blue nights and overpacked stands at the indoor arena at the Finney County Fairgrounds, and contestants and onlookers alike cheering or cursing in the parking lot, where boot and hoof prints became muddled together in the dirt.
About 430 contestants from 14 schools filled the grounds with trailers to compete in anything from bareback or bull riding to steer wrestling and goat to team roping and barrel racing, said GCCC Head rodeo coach Jim Boy Hash. For some kids, this is the only reason they come to college, he said.
The atmosphere is an inherently friendly one, Sullivan and his teammates said. At high school rodeos, said Kaitlynn Hayes, a freshman barrel racer and goat tier, parents, money and resources had the habit of making the sport negatively competitive — almost political. But in college, everyone is on their own and they want to help their teammates and opponents.
In the college circuit, there’s more freedom, and the space feels like a family, Sullivan said. There’s people from across the United States and sometimes from Canada or Australia, and they’re all unique, Price said. The space gives all contestants the chance to work for something they deeply love and share it with others.
Hayes saw her roommate finish a great run this semester after weeks of helping her. Price said he gets more and more competitive with age, and more dedicated to training.
And everyone feels rejuvenated and alive when they win.
“I like roping … when the people from town are around, and you make a good run and the whole crowd cheers. It just makes me feel like the star in the moment, you know. The spotlight’s on me. Me and my brother actually won this last year, this rodeo. There wasn’t a better feeling than just winning that rodeo,” Price said.
A lot of rodeo competitors grow up in the sport. Hayes and Ian Price, a GCCC sophomore in the saddle bronc and roping events, are among their families’ third generation in rodeo. Hayes said she first sat on a horse at 3 months old with her mom. Now, she doesn’t remember a time off one.
Sullivan and Hayes competed in mutton busting or roping events when they were young.
All tried out other sports, but all found their way back on the horse or bull.
The life comes with commitment. Hash said keeping up with horse, supply and equipment costs upwards of $10,000 a year and injuries aren’t uncommon.
Getting bucked off a horse doesn’t feel good, Price said.
Sullivan has had his fair share of scrapes and broken bones. In 2016, a bull horn pierced his trachea and he breathed through a tube in his throat for three months.
There are days you want to quit, days when you’re not succeeding and emotions sink, Hayes, Sullivan and Price said, but you always come back. Because rodeo, made of fast-paced mental calculus, seconds that feel like an hour, using your body to communicate or set a tone for the animal carrying you and stone-cold hard work, is a drug, they said. And it’s addicting.
Within the coming years or months, many college rodeos have to consider where they’re headed with the sport, Hash said. About six out of 10 try to move forward on pro or semi-pro circuits in one way or another, he said, but for others it's their last hurrah.
Hayes has known from the moment she won her first rodeo as a child that she wanted to do this the rest of her life. Price would like to. Sullivan is weighing his options. But all, as they look forward to Sunday’s final rounds and the season's last few rodeos, want to make it to college finals.
Because for now, Price said, that’s why every kid is here.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.