University of Arkansas at Monticello Coach Rusty Jones has taken his rodeo teams to Casper, Wyo., for the College National Finals Rodeo in 11 of the past 13 years.
UAM has two rodeo team members who will compete June 11-17: Cole Skender, a third-year student from Hamburg, in bull riding; and breakaway roper Aubrey Lee, a third-year Mount Vernon student.
This competition is the "Super Bowl" of collegiate rodeo. Each cowboy and cowgirl start their season with a goal to make the college finals.
"It's kind of what all the kids are trying to achieve throughout the year, so once you finally get that last rodeo over with, and you know you made it, you just want to practice as much as you can," Jones said.
Skender is a junior majoring in electronics at the Crossett campus. Skender competed at the high school level through the Arkansas High School Rodeo Association.
SKENDER AMONG THE TOP BULL RIDERS
Skender said nobody in his family rides horses, but his dad was a bull rider before injuries cut his career short.
Skender was first introduced to bull-riding by his dad one day after baseball practice. He rode his first bull in shorts, tennis shoes, and a ball cap. Skender remembers being scared to death.
He kept asking why he couldn't hold the rope with both hands. He was told, "You can't; those are the rules."
Skender credits his uncle Chuck White, from near Hamburg, for getting him started. White is a 2005 inductee into the Arkansas Cowboy Association Hall of Fame and a former member of the Professional Bull Riders Association. White has a practice facility near Hamburg where Skender and others practice bull riding. Skender made the national high school finals in all four years and won the championship in his junior year.
Initially, Skender attended college in Poplar Bluff, Mo., at Three Rivers College on a rodeo scholarship. While there, Skender qualified to compete at the College National Finals Rodeo both years. He finished second one year and third the other.
Skender said when he finished general education there, he transferred to UAM's Crossett campus, where he is working on getting his electrical certificate.
Skender said the 2022-23 season has been good. He's enjoyed returning to Hamburg, where he still practices with family and friends at their pens. Skender has qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo again this year, winning the Ozarks Region Championship.
"I don't worry about injuries; I guess you just got to put that out of your head and try and handle your business," he said. "It's a dance. You could sit there and drink a Dr. Pepper on top of the bull if you're in the right position. It's that easy. But if you're not, it goes south pretty quickly."
Skender said bull riding is a mental thing.
"When you're in the bucking chute, you see some people get jacked up, but I think what works best for me is trying to stay cool, keep breathing, and slow everything down," he said.
He explained what goes through his mind just before a ride.
"I've had my mind go completely elsewhere before a ride," he said.
Skender said getting settled into the right spot on the back of the bull is important.
"You want him standing decent and just kind of get up in your spot because, I mean, if you're off on your rope by one inch, that's a big deal," he said.
Skender couldn't let the interview end without thanking the bullfighters.
"Oh, I love bullfighters. I shake all of their hands before and after every rodeo. I love those guys. When I hit the ground, they go in there and grab the bulls by the head. That's a relief," he said.
NOT HER FIRST RODEO
Lee will head to Casper, Wyo., for the second time in three years. Lee qualified in breakaway roping as a freshman and placed nationally in the top 10 competitors. Lee comes from a rodeo family.
"I'm actually like a third-generation rodeo competitor. My family has been putting on rodeos for, I think, this is the 64th year that we've done it," said Lee. "So, I was born into it. I didn't have much of an option."
She said rodeo was in her blood. She has an older brother, who also made it to the rodeo finals, and is now a regional coach. She has an older sister who also rode for Jones. But she credits her dad with being the most significant influence.
Lee describes breakaway roping as an individual sport more than a team sport. She said she travels to rodeos with another girl and shares road expenses, but her coach provides the encouragement and technical knowledge of the sport and helps her get her form to where it needs to be to compete. Lee said she is also thankful for all the support from her mom and dad.
Not everyone knows what breakaway roping is. Lee said the sport had been around, but it's now becoming more known. She said the sport has become big money professionally.
"You could win a bunch," Lee said.
She describes a run, which can last less than two seconds.
"They go on me when I nod and release the calf from the chute. The roper then has to let the calf out a certain distance. If the roper leaves too early, they have broken a barrier, and judges add a 10-second penalty to your time. You can only have your rope around the calf's neck called a bell-collared catch," Lee said. "If you have anything else in your loop, you get no time."
Aubrey said her fastest time so far is 2.0 seconds.
"We've had had quite a bit of success since I've been here on a national level. Our women's teams won the region several times. So, we've got to take a whole team of women out there to the college finals, and our Ozark region, overall, is very competitive," she said.
While not specific to any rodeo competitor, Jones said it's easy to spend between $4,000-$5,000 on a rodeo season when figuring out the fuel, travel, equipment, and feed. That doesn't include a stable and food for the horses for the rest of the year. Rodeo scholarships offset some of that, but for the most part team members do it because they love their sport and animals.
"We've won some rounds at the college finals and had several kids make the short round," said Jones. (The short round is the top 10 scores).
Jones believes Skender and Lee will be competitive at this year's Collegiate Rodeo "Super Bowl."
The University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offer all of their programs to all eligible persons without discrimination.
Lon Tegels is with the College of Forestry, Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.