By Joseph Robertia
The ranching lifestyle isn’t as common as it once was, but you’d never know it watching the rodeo last weekend in Soldotna, where the riders looked like they spend more time on a horse than off one.
The peninsula rodeo series kicked off Friday with the Peninsula Cowboy Round-Up, the first of five rodeos planned on the Kenai this summer.
“Rodeo was originally where cowhands would get together in their downtime to see who was better,” said Joe Dilley, president of the Soldotna Equestrian Association, which organizes the rodeos. “It’s evolved a lot since then. People are still competing, but it’s a lot more about enjoyment.”
Charlie Willis, of Wasilla, has been living the life for over 30 years, and he knows the peninsula series well.
“I’ve been coming down to this rodeo since 1974. It used to be one of the only rodeos in the state back in ’74,” he said.
It’s always been worth the drive down, Willis said, and the series has only changed for the better over the years.
“The stock is way better since then, and the competition is way tougher,” he said.
Willis’ main event is team roping, where a pair of riders on horseback attempt to lasso a steer. One rider — the header — goes for the steer’s head or horns, while the other — the heeler — attempts to rope the steer’s legs.
“You’ll do this skill all day long on a feed lot, using it for branding or doctoring,” he said. “The difference here is you’re trying to do it as fast as you can, and that depends on how good your horse is and how good you are.”
Willis still has pinpoint aim with a lariat, rarely taking longer than 10 seconds to rope a steer, but while he’s getting older, the competition gets younger every year.
“There are people in this rodeo who weren’t even alive when I started competing down here,” he said.
Bull riding is one of the big draw events, and Dilley said that, despite some of the competitors being tough as pine knots, they have their hands full with the 2,000-pound bulls in this series.
“We got some really good bulls, just brought up from the Lower 48, so there should be some hard-bucking action,” he said.
Scooter and Chelsey Hackett own H5 Bucking Bulls and brought the bulls up from Idaho. He agreed that this year’s crop of muscle-bound bovines aren’t for the faint of heart.
“They’re gonna be hot, much meaner than last year, possibly chasing riders. A few will be tough for the guys here, but if you want to get good, you’ve gotta ride the tough bulls,” Scooter Hackett said.
Hackett would know, as he rode bulls from the age of 14 to 27, and at 35 still rides some of the bucking bulls, but not nearly as frequently as he once did. Bull riding is more for those not low in the saddle or long in the tooth.
“I have metal in every single limb of my body, so I can vouch it’s a young man’s sport. They can brush off getting banged up easier,” he said.
The young also seem to be drawn more to the extreme nature of bull riding, Hackett added.
“It’s an adrenaline rush, so we see a lot of riders in their early 20s and even a couple under 18. It’s fun for them, but also there’s the hope they could win a couple thousand bucks for eight seconds of work,” he said, referring to how long a rider needs to hang on for the ride.
Many of the bull riders Friday night seemed barely old enough to shave but didn’t lack for confidence when it came time to ride. Austin Boren, 17, of Wasilla, had a near perfect ride.
“Being out there, on the back of a bull, it’s awesome, pure awesome. I’ve played sports, used to race motocross, boxed, but nothing compares to the feel of this,” he said.
His bravado is not blasé, though.
“I’m scared, all these guys are scared every time we go out there, no matter what anyone says. That fear makes us human. It’s how we use that fear, once we’re outta the chute,” he said.
Boren said that he focuses his fear by concentrating on staying in the safest place possible.
“And there’s no safer place to be than on the bull’s back,” he said.
Jesse Rogde, 15, of Soldotna, was the youngest of the bull riders, and had only been on the back of a bull as big as the one he rode Friday once before, and that was in practice just days earlier.
When he slid onto the bull in the holding chute, it began bucking and trying to gore him before the ride even began.
“The waiting is the worst part,” Rogde said.
But once the chute door opened, adrenaline took over. He stayed on for several seconds and had a fair dismount for a first-timer, and the thunderous applause of the crowd let him know how much they respected his performance.
While spectators watched the riders Friday, Hackett said that he evaluated the bulls.
“Physical characteristics have nothing to do with it. I’m looking at five things — buck, or how high their front end goes; kick — how high their rear end goes; spin; intensity; and the degree of difficulty —or how hard it is for riders to stay on,” he said.
The bulls are young animals, and despite being spitfires, Hackett wants them to learn at the rodeo and grow at doing what they do best — bucking riders. To do this he said genetics and pedigrees are scrutinized and only the best bulls are bred, but even then there are no guarantees.
“That racehorse Secretariat won the Triple Crown, but none of its offspring won anything, so you just never know,” he said.
The bull riders in this year’s summer series can also look forward to more than just bragging rights at the end. The high-points winner will be awarded a belt buckle and a paid entry fee and hotel expense to the World Finals in Las Vegas.
“We want to give these guys the opportunity to get out of Alaska, and see if they can hold their own,” Hackett said.