They're back in the saddle again.
After a winter break, the young ropers and riders of Montezuma County are ready to dust off their boots for another spring rodeo season. They get to debut in front of a friendly home crowd; Cortez is hosting the kick-off rodeo, as has become tradition. Youth from ages 12 to 18 will compete in ten events this Saturday and Sunday at the county fairgrounds. Joining them in the arena will be 150-200 other teenagers from across Colorado.
According to Destri Lockhart, an adult team sponsor - and mother of two members - the Ute Mountain High School Rodeo Club has grown significantly in the last three years, nearly doubling its membership to 29 students. The club originated in 1972, Lockhart said, and some on the team are second generation members. Just a few years ago, however, interest seemed to be waning.
To what does she attribute its resurgent popularity?
For one, an inviting, mutually supportive atmosphere.
"The members, (their) parents and adult team sponsors have really worked hard at making it a positive environment for all the kids, which in turn (helps) the club continue to grow," she said by email.
Several of those kids backed this up, saying camaraderie on the team is strong.
"It's a good learning experience and a great way to make friends," said Emma Reim, a 16-year-old junior who does three events: barrel racing, pole bending and cutting. "Overall state numbers might be down - I've (noticed) not as many barrel racers competing. But ours is increasing and getting more involvement."
Indeed, Lockhart said Ute Mountain is now the single-largest club in the Colorado State High School Rodeo Association.
"When I started (two years ago), there were few kids. But we're picking up numbers all the time," said senior Wiley Kirks, 18, a team roper and bull rider. "I guess we're riding to compete, but we're there rooting for each other, always hoping your (teammates) put in a good ride."
Jake Cruzan, a 16-year-old junior, says his teammates are a decent, responsible bunch who set the bar high, mostly eschewing the party-hard mentality that can entrap other sports teams. It's too big a time and money commitment to waste by making stupid decisions, he said.
"They're good kids. They all work hard. No drugs. No alcohol. We try to avoid that stuff as best we can and worry about ourselves and our performance. You've got to stay away from it," he said. "The main reason is because your parents spend so much effort and money getting you to these rodeos. The majority are a long, long ways from here. If your family is willing to take you that far, you do your best. And to win, you've got to be on your game."
Unlike basketball or soccer, rodeo is not a school-sanctioned sport in Colorado. As such the local club is not affiliated with any one middle or high school - it draws from the whole region: Cortez, Dolores, two from Durango, even a homeschooled contingent, including Cruzan and Reim.
Without sanction - although it does get some financial assistance from Montezuma-Cortez School District Re-1 - the team must raise much of its own money. They need a lot of it, too, given the amount of time spent on the road and the logistics of transporting horses and other equipment. No school bus provided here.
They cobble together funding from a few sources. They hold food-related fundraisers - pancake breakfasts, concessions, pie auctions and the like. They seek out sponsorships from local businesses. They recently approached the Cortez City Council about a community grant. The biggest jackpot, though, is the two annual youth rodeos hosted here. While each one costs about $12,000 to put on, the money they bring in far exceeds that. The city benefits from visitor patronage, but the rodeo club takes a share of the proceeds too.
"(The contestants and their families) will eat, stay in hotels, shop and fill up their vehicles with fuel several times throughout their stay," Lockhart said.
The rodeo season is divided into two parts. The shorter one takes place in the fall, in September. Come springtime, however, and the schedule gets packed. Lockhart said most team members will travel for seven straight weekends - to Kiowa, Golden, Pueblo, Henderson, Fort Collins, Lamar and Monte Vista.
For the top performers, it doesn't stop there.
The ones who tally enough points in each event qualify for the state finals in May and June. From there the four best finishers advance to the national finals, this year in Gallup, N.M. for junior high and Rock Springs, Wyo. for high school. Last year Cruzan, with his horse Wild Thing, made it to Rock Springs for cutting - where a rider separates a single cow from a herd.
The breakneck pace can be taxing for the body and the mind, but the team members nonetheless embrace it.
"Road trips are part of the rodeo lifestyle, almost like a carnival carnie going from place to place," Kirks said.
All three teenagers interviewed had hopes of continuing rodeo after high school, first in college and then, if they past muster, on the professional circuit. Cruzan aspires to a career as a horse trainer; he said high school rodeo is in part about "getting his name out there" and making connections.
Kirks was chomping at the bit Thursday night, excited to get back into the arena. Training in the off-season helps keep skills sharp, but it doesn't compare to real competitions where the scores count.
"(Rodeo) is always on my mind. I think about it all day. I'm ready to rumble...pumped and ready for the reason," he said.