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Eight seconds can seem like a lifetime to a rider hanging on with only a rope and a prayer as an 1,100-pound, very agitated bucking horse tries everything in its bag of tricks to heave the unwelcome load off its back.
“It’s a challenge, definitely, but that’s why I love it, and that’s why it’s fun,” said Cody Stephens, a senior at LaRue County High School who is the defending state high school rodeo champ in bareback bronc riding.
The rules are simple; the hard part is staying on. Each competitor climbs onto a horse, which is held in a small pipe enclosure called a bucking chute. When the rider is ready, the gate of the bucking chute is opened and the horse bursts out and begins to buck.
The bareback bronc rider does not have a saddle or rein, but uses one hand to grip a simple handle on rigging placed on the horse at the animal’s withers (the ridge between the shoulder bones). The rider leans back against the bucking horse and spurs up and down with his legs, in rhythm with the motion of the horse.
He attempts to stay on the horse for eight seconds without touching the animal with his free hand.
On the first jump out of the chute, he must “mark the horse out.” This means he must have the heels of his boots in contact with the horse above the point of the shoulders before the horse’s front legs hit the ground.
The rider that manages to complete a ride is scored on a scale of 0-50 and the horse is also scored on a scale of 0-50. Scores in the 80s are very good, and in the 90s, are exceptional.
A horse which bucks in a spectacular and effective manner will score more points than a horse who bucks in a straight line with no significant changes of direction, according to Wikipedia.
Cody, the 18-year-old son of Rick and Sharon Stephens who live off Ky. 357 near Rocky Hollow in LaRue County has been riding the saddle-less horses since he was 14, but he caught the riding fever much earlier.
“It started from the day I was born a son of an ex-bareback bronc rider,” he said. “My dad used to be in Indiana High School Rodeo years ago and he owned and operated RS Rodeo Company for about 15 years, so I was always around it and it is just in my blood.”
High scores require not only great skill by the rider, but also a bronco bent on bucking.
“They score the horse and you, so I want a horse that will buck,” he said, explaining that riders draw numbers to decide which horses they’ll be on.
“It’s important to get a good horse and then to ride well, too, as some competitions pay up to the first five places with the winner getting $700-800,” Stephens said. “In big shows, like one at Detroit, the top prizes go $2,700 to $2,800.”
With 40 states fielding high school rodeo teams and many hosting pro events in which he participates, Stephens’ competition takes him far from home at times. In one recent long weekend, he competed on Saturday at Salem, Va., left there around midnight and sped straight to Detroit for his next ride at noon.
“Up there, the horse bucked me off at the last second, ending what would have been a good ride,” said Stephens who was up against 17 other competitors.
Riding short of the eight seconds yields neither score nor money. Stephens has notched his share of victories, though, winning the Kentucky State Rodeo Finals last year and competing in places such as Charlestown, Ind., Bowling Green and Decaturville, Tenn.
“It’s a year-round sport,” he said. “You have your indoor rodeos in the winter months and outdoor in the summer months.”
Successful riding means the competitor must have endurance.
“You have to be physically fit and you have to have a quick mind to counteract the quickness of the animal’s movements,” Stephens said. “A lot of it is muscle memory, too, so that means a lot of practice.”
When he is unable to ride practice horses between rodeos, he has a spur board at home and an electric bucking machine that help him retain that muscle memory and keep him in shape.
When competing, he wears the proper approved equipment for the sport consisting of chaps, protective vest, a neck roll to lessen the impact of the horse’s jerking the rider around, boots and spurs with bareback rowels (small spiked revolving wheels on the end of a horse rider’s spurs), appropriate riding gloves made especially for bareback bronc riding and approved rigging so the horse won’t be injured.
Although he said he doesn’t worry about what might happen each time he mounts a bucking bronc, he is well aware that injuries happen.
“I guess the worst injury I received was when a horse I was riding backflipped me and kicked me while I was still in the air, breaking my jaw,” he said. “The rope which a rider holds onto can also be rough on that arm.”
“You’ve got to just think about the ride, not the danger,” he said. “I try to stay in the middle of the horse’s back to have more control.”
He has scored in the 70s riding against some of the top professional hands in the IPRA (International Professional Rodeo Association) and has finished just out of the money each time he has competed against them.
At the high school rodeos, he has always placed, and more often than not, won.
“Right now I am sitting No. 1 in the state of Kentucky for high school rodeo in bareback riding,” he said. “I hope to keep getting better so that I will not be out of the money at the bigger rodeos with the adult top hands.”
To help him improve, he plans to attend, on full scholarship, Fort Scott Community College, the oldest continuously operated community college in Kansas.
Arnold Arena, on the campus there, contains a gymnasium and an indoor rodeo arena. The school also has an outdoor arena complete with practice livestock. The coaches hold weekly practices for each event to help students obtain the training they need before the next event.
“I’m looking forward to going there, watching others ride and learning more myself,” Stephens said. “I plan on continuing to ride as long as my body holds up.”