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Shawn Perkins competes in the bareback event

Shawn Perkins of Roberts competes in the bareback riding event during the first night of the 2016 NILE Rodeo at Billings's Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.

HANNAH POTES, 406mtsports.com

BILLINGS — Shawn Perkins was surrounded by his future.

All around him were young men like himself, most a couple of years older, preparing themselves to ride bucking horses at the Home of Champions Rodeo in Red Lodge.

Like Perkins, they wrapped arms tight with tape and laced up their gloves to fit into the rigging while chattering away underneath the grandstands near the bucking chutes.

But they were also a little different from Perkins. Most of these young men were professional cowboys, in the top 50 of the world standings chasing a dream.

For Perkins, less than two months from just turning 18, this was another step in his rodeo journey.

“It’s a way to get to the next step,” he said of entering the rodeo. “It’s a way to get to the next level.”

Perkins’ 71 points that night against Brookman Rodeo’s horse No. 903 would not earn him a check. But it showed he could handle the horsepower of some of the best bucking stock in North America.

“It’s pretty surreal, pretty weird,” said the teenage cowboy from Roberts of finding himself behind the same chutes as world and circuit champions. “These are people you watched the last few years and now they’re sitting right next to you.

“Makes you want to keep working hard.”

It was Perkins first time competing at Red Lodge.

“It was a little nerve-wracking,” he admitted. “It’s one of the biggest rodeos in the state. It pulls all the best people. When I was walking around town during the day, everybody I’ve know my whole life were talking about me riding there.”

Now he’s like to give local rodeo fans something else to talk about.

Perkins will compete against his age-group peers at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Gillette, Wyoming.

Billed as the world’s largest rodeo with more than 1,500 contestants, the event begins on Sunday, July 16 and concludes on Saturday, July 22.

A year ago, Perkins finished fifth in the final bareback standings at the NHSFR.

He will be trying to become Montana’s second national bareback champion since Skip Joseph in 1963.

“I feel pretty good right now,” said Perkins, who loads hay during the week for the Valley M Ranch in Red Lodge. “At the finals, you have to draw right. A lot of the high school finals is what you draw. Even if you don’t get the horse you need, you still have to put it all out there to get the opportunity to place high in the rounds.

“They have good horses at the high school finals. In the short go, you might have an NFR (National Finals Rodeo) horse. That can be kind of overwhelming. It will be a little less daunting this year.

I’m going there and give everything my best shot.”

Perkins cruised through the high school rodeo season this past year, almost maxing out on points allowed during the fall season. He also won the Northern Rodeo Association 2016 bareback title in October at the NRA Finals in Butte.

After playing basketball for the Rockets, he just competed at three high school rodeos in the spring: Butte, Three Forks and Helena. He was 80 points at Butte.

“I went there to get tuned up,” Perkins said of the high school events.

Perkins was top of the class at the Montana State High School Finals in Baker, placing second in the opening round and winning the second. He also won the championship round for his third consecutive state championship.

This summer, he is splitting his time between the NRA and Montana Pro Rodeo Circuit. Perkins rode at PRCA events in Wolf Point and Drummond this past weekend.

“I’ve been doing a lot of work for my bareback riding,” said Perkins, who does cardio exercises and rides his spur board when time allows. “You have to out-work people. If they’re working out an hour a day, you have to work two.

“I’ve improved with my technique. I can handle the horse power now. Where I was last year and where I’m at now is a totally different place.”

This fall, Perkins will attend Montana State and compete for one of the Big Sky Regions pre-eminent rodeo programs.

For now, he’s enjoying the ride.

“There’s nothing like getting in a vehicle with your best buddies and driving to rodeos for a few days,” said Perkins. “Those are the experiences you’ll remember the rest of your life.”

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