Teens carry on rodeo legacy

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - RACHEL HER­ZOG

Ken­lie Raby rode her horse in slow cir­cles in the mud Satur­day, calm and quiet de­spite the coun­try mu­sic blar­ing over the speak­ers and the man drawl­ing over the loud­speaker, an­nounc­ing the names of the rid­ers on deck and in the hole.

Sev­eral other girls on their horses clus­tered near the white fence mark­ing the dirt arena, wear­ing cow­boy hats, flared jeans and boots flecked with mud. One com­plained to the oth­ers about the way her horse swings when it turns.

Ken­lie says the 80-de­gree heat be­fore noon doesn’t bother her. Nei­ther do the long, late-night car rides to Texas and Wy­oming for week­end com­pe­ti­tions dur­ing the school year, nor do the early morn­ings — at least, they don’t bother her enough to give up the thrill of rodeo.

At 14, Ken­lie has spent more than a decade rodeo­ing, from rid­ing through bar­rels in pee­wee di­vi­sions to las­so­ing calves and goats. Along with her two sis­ters, she makes up the fourth gen­er­a­tion of a 58-year-old fam­ily tra­di­tion known as the Fly­ing L Rodeo Com­pany.

Kris and Roy Lee left Texas in 1957 to pur­chase

Fly­ing L Ranch in Mount Ver­non and raise live­stock. As the Lees started their fam­ily, Roy Lee’s love for horses spilled into a love of rodeo. The cou­ple started pro­duc­ing rodeos, with Roy Lee putting to­gether a pen of bulls and horses and Kris Lee or­ga­niz­ing events on their ranch in Faulkner County.

Their pas­sion con­tin­ued, with the Lees’ chil­dren com­pet­ing in rodeos in Arkansas and around the coun­try and rais­ing their own chil­dren the same way.

On Satur­day, Fly­ing L Rodeo Com­pany hosted its sec­ond an­nual Elite Youth Rodeo Chal­lenge, Arkansas’ largest one-day youth rodeo. Sit­u­ated at the Don Owens Sports Com­plex in Con­way, the com­pe­ti­tion at­tracted about 75 par­tic­i­pants ages 5 to 19 from sev­eral states. Some com­peti­tors al­ready have state and world cham­pi­onship ti­tles.

Rodeos can last all day and in­clude events where rid­ers on horse­back lasso goats and calves, wres­tle steers or work through ob­sta­cles. The top fin­ish­ers of each event com­pete in a “short round” in the even­ing, and the rider with the low­est time for that round wins.

Many young rid­ers hope to earn new sad­dles or schol­ar­ship money, and some hope to one day make a liv­ing on the rodeo cir­cuit.

The weeks around July 4 are what many re­fer to as “Cow­boy Christ­mas,” with sev­eral op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­pete.

On Satur­day, the Lees’ daugh­ter, Bar­bara War­ren, sat with her own daugh­ter, Jesse Moss, in the shade of a mo­tor home canopy. They watched the arena from across a plas­tic ta­ble that held score sheets list­ing par­tic­i­pants’ names and home­towns, which ranged from Ben­ton to towns in Ten­nessee, Texas and Florida.

Moss said she never had a free week­end grow­ing up. Though she never par­tic­i­pated, she loved watch­ing her sib­lings and cousins com­pete.

“Once, I asked my mom why we never had a fam­ily re­union,” Moss said with a laugh. “She said, ‘We have one ev­ery week­end.’”

Many young rodeo con­tes­tants are third- or fourth-gen­er­a­tion cow­boys or cow­girls.

For Myles Neigh­bors, the 18-year-old 2016 Na­tional Lit­tle Britches Rodeo world cham­pion steer wrestler, there was never a ques­tion about whether he would ride and rope.

“My grandpa rodeoed when he was young, and my dad rodeoed, and now I rodeo,” he said.

Neigh­bors likes the thrill of steer wrestling — rid­ing his horse along­side a steer about a foot shorter, then lean­ing over, slid­ing his right hand down the steer’s neck, then shift­ing off his horse and tack­ling the steer.

He com­pared the adren­a­line rush to go­ing out on the field dur­ing a foot­ball game, but he said rodeo is dif­fer­ent.

“There’s no other sport that you’re gonna go out, you can be win­ning first, and your friend can come up and you’re gonna be push­ing their calf and be right there be­side them, or be loan­ing them your horse, any­thing,” he said. “In foot­ball, you’re friends with all the peo­ple on your team, but there’s no teams in rodeo.”

Ken­lie said her fam­ily will take along a friend or two to out-of-state com­pe­ti­tions if they need help haul­ing horses and sup­plies. She likes see­ing new places, like a moun­tain arena in New Mex­ico.

“It’s like a road trip,” she said.

The Raby sis­ters and their cousins bal­ance week­end rodeo com­pe­ti­tions with high school classes, basketball and watch­ing Grey’s Anatomy. Aubrey Lee, 14, said she saves her week­end home­work for the first block of school Mon­day. On hot days af­ter school, she waits un­til the even­ing and prac­tices rop­ing us­ing the lights from her front porch.

“You do get tired some­times, but when it’s the love of your life, you don’t re­ally get tired of it,” Aubrey said. “It’s a bless­ing.”

At the arena, Ken­lie’s horse stood at the fence, wait­ing. Then the gate opened and her horse shot through it, weav­ing through a row of poles be­fore turn­ing around in a quick fig­ure eight, knock­ing down three poles and kick­ing up a cloud of dust on the way to com­plet­ing the route.

In less than 15 sec­onds the event was over, and Ken­lie walked her horse back to rest and get ready for the next event as the an­nouncer of­fered en­cour­age­ment over the loud­speaker.

“To­mor­row will be a new day, sis­ter, and you can hang your head high.”

Many young rid­ers hope to earn new sad­dles or schol­ar­ship money, and some hope to one day make a liv­ing on the rodeo cir­cuit.

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