Red numbers cut through the dust rising above an outstretched arena, scrolling swiftly by as the clock eats away the seconds and milliseconds that urge horse and rider on.
A Southern Utah University logo shows plainly across the rider’s back and the horse’s muscles strain as the duo sweeps past the final of three standing barrels.
The animal’s sharp hooves score deep lines into the dirt in his charge for the finish line and a shower of debris chiming softly against the metal gate sings praise to his exit.
When the gate is closed the barrel racer anxiously listens for the final time. She is hoping that she and her horse have stopped the clock fast enough to secure not only valuable points for herself but points for the SUU team as well.
Collegiate rodeo is a unique sport in that it is completely individual, yet team oriented. Much like gymnastics, the college rodeo athletes compete for both individual and team points in a number of different types of competition.
These rodeo athletes may ride alone into a contest but their success ultimately relates back in large part to their efforts as a team.
During his time as the SUU rodeo coach, Shane Flanigan has seen many exceptional athletes compete as well as witnessed the growth of competitors thanks to the insight and motivation of their teammates.
“They’re each other’s best critiquers,” Flanigan said.
The SUU rodeo athletes are a diverse group with a variety of backgrounds and rodeo experiences. Each Tuesday and Thursday night during the rodeo season, the athletes gather to practice and help each other with their rodeo events.
No whistles can be heard in the heat of these practice sessions. Flanigan does not need to list off instructions or order drills — he simply offers advice and allows the athletes to push themselves and each other.
“I’m not about high pressure,” he said. “These kids have been doing it long enough they pressure themselves; I don’t need to add to it.”
Just as with anything, the rodeo athletes recognize that their success is dependent upon the work that they put in and they are ready to capitalize on each opportunity to improve.
During the weekly practices the competitors are able to observe the skills of their teammates and offer advice on form or technique to make a run faster and more consistent.
Senior rodeo team member Erika Thigpen noted the impacts that the practices have on her and her teammates.
“[Practice] helps us come together as a team,” she said. “You’re working individually, but you’re still working with your team to get better.”
Flanigan has seen the transformation that can come from his athletes’ genuine critiques at these practices as he related watching a past member’s barrel racing times make a competitive jump thanks to the advice of her teammates.
“She came here to be on the ballroom dance team,” he said of the barrel racer. “She had grown up riding but it wasn’t until she came to SUU that she decided to begin competing in rodeo.”
Flanigan said that when the cowgirl started competing she was “stiff as a board” and it was the other members of the team who offered her the help and advice that would improve her times immensely.
“The kids started telling her ‘relax’ and ‘flow’ and she started running [fastest division] times,” said Flanigan.
Practicing rodeo events is not always easy. Simulating a performance requires resources such as horses, riding equipment or tack, arenas, chutes and stock (calves, steers, goats or roughstock animals).
While all of the SUU athletes bring and compete on their own horses and tack, few have the access they need to the other vital resources outside of the weekly practices.
On these practice nights the Diamond Z Arena on the west side of Cedar City and a pen of steers and calves are reserved for the athletes to provide them the necessary tools for practice.
“It helps them get their horses legged up and get their timing back,” Flanigan said.
As important as it is for SUU students to stay physically fit for competition, it is equally important for their horses to be too. This is what Flanigan is referring to when he talks about “legging up” the horses.
The practice times allow horse and rider to build up the necessary muscle memory and endurance by performing drills, working through segments of a run or practicing a complete run.
When it comes time for competition, the rodeo athletes will be competing with and against each other.
They compete in the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association sanctioned events: saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, tie down roping, steer wrestling, team roping, barrel racing, goat tying and breakaway roping.
During the designated collegiate competitions, placing within the top ten in any event provides the competitor with points toward their individual standing within the event as well as points toward the overall team score.
At the end of the college rodeo season, both the team and individual points are tallied and the top three individuals in each event as well as top two teams in a region qualify for the College National Finals Rodeo held every June in Casper, Wyoming.
Each of the SUU athletes compete with a CNFR qualification and championship in mind.
Like with anything else, this will require a good amount of work both in and out of the arena. In a sport based on seconds, perfecting technique and establishing consistency is the difference between a first place finish and an “I almost had it.”
Story and Photos by: Mikyla Bagley