BAKER — The Montana High School Finals Rodeo is the culmination of the high school rodeo season for most student-athletes, but it is also a family reunion of sorts.
“It gives me an adrenaline rush, but it’s all like a family. Everybody is competing against each other, but they’re cheering for each other at the same time,” said Choteau senior Shelby Rasmussen. “Everybody is each other’s cheerleaders and it’s just one big family really.”
During competition, horses and high schoolers wearing cowboy hats, jeans, boots and multi-colored collared shirts lounging on saddles line the south end of the arena fence.
After a long season with often thousands of miles put on in between, the high school finals is a chance to celebrate along with a chance for the top-four placers to advance to the National Finals in July.
Kaden Lappe, of Dell, estimates he and his family have put on about 20,000 miles in the last season.
“It’s about 8 hours over here, but it’s not bad. We get used to it where we live,” Lappe said. “It’s a lot of travelling anywhere we go.”
Like many in high school rodeo, Lappe’s parents both rodeoed when he was young and he feels he grew up in the sport.
Shelby Rasmussen and her sister Paige are both carrying on the family legacy as well.
“I grew up around it. My family is very rodeo oriented. My dad (PBR live entertainer Flint Rasmussen) is a rodeo clown and I grew up going to rodeos and my mom trains horses and so I’ve been rodeoing since I could walk,” said Rasmussen.
But while family members may be why they first got into the sport, most have also come to love it for themselves.
“It’s really fun. There’s a lot of good competition and you meet some really cool people,” Lappe said. “All of us kids, we push each other to get better. It makes it a lot of fun competition-wise.”
“It’s nice to have a sport that you don’t have to ask for help; someone will always help.” Choteau’s Tori Yeager said.
And as much as it is a sport, it's also a reminder of another lifestyle juxtaposed with today. During the rodeo, kids wander in and out of campers and horse trailers behind the arena between events and evening entertainment includes a Cowboy Prom and DJs.
The reigning National High School Rodeo Queen, Opal Harkins from Billings, says she's learned a lot from the sport.
“I think rodeoing, unlike other sports, teaches you you so much about being humble and being competitive in a different way than other sports,” said Harkins. “You know you compete with yourself, but you also compete with your family. You want to send the best people to nationals so you want the best people to go, but you also want yourself to go so it’s kind of like a group effort.”
So as the announcers introduce contestants to the crowd seated in the grandstands, they give a brief description that usually includes other sports they participate in and their favorite sport, many of which list rodeo.
“Rodeo is my No. 1 and whatever I do in my spare time is to make money to afford rodeo,” said Reed Point’s Sierra Belvin.
Participation usually takes a family commitment. Tori Yeager is the youngest of four and grew up sleeping in campers and the tack section of horse trailers at rodeo grounds. Her parents built two platforms and had three mattresses that pulled out to different levels to accommodate the six of them. They spent long hours both traveling and competing to pursue a sport they all loved. And their experience is not unique.
“My mom has taught me everything I know about horses and she’s hauled me around. They both have hauled me around. It’s just been huge,” Rasmussen, the defending Montana all-around champion, said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
Rasmussen will attend Montana State next year on a rodeo scholarship to major in equine science. Like many, she hopes to get into the rodeo industry and continue a career in the sport.
But first, she’s focused on getting through this weekend’s state finals in Baker.
“I have a goal to be the national all-around champion, so I want to make nationals in all of my events, that’s the main goal, and to win the state all-around as well,” Rasmussen, the defending state all-around champion, said.