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Best of the best

Three area athletes placed in the top three in their events at the National High School Finals Rodeo last week. Shay Hough of Gillette walked away with All-Around Cowgirl honors, Montana's Houston Brown won the saddle bronc riding, and Natalie Leisinger brought third place prizes from the Reined Cow Horse competition home to Highmore, South Dakota.

Shay

Hough earned the All-Around trophy saddle, having placed in both pole bending and barrel racing. She barely missed the pole bending championship, losing by just a tenth of a second. She also ended up 14th in the world in the barrel racing.

She runs both events on her 17-year-old gelding, named "Tex." Hough's family purchased the horse from a young woman who had gotten him from a "dude" ranch. Mattie Hepp discovered, with a little training, that the horse was entirely too talented to be on a dude ranch and he eventually became Hough's barrel and pole horse.

Tex is a cribber, and wears a cribbing collar when he's not being used. "He acts like he has ADHD most of the time," adds Hough. Because Tex always does his job, Hough chooses to look beyond his small quirks. It has paid off for her so far.

"This year, I was going for the win," she said. Nervousness before last year's first round caused a below-average run. This year was a different story. After a solid run in the first round, her week only got better. "My second round, I won it. I ran the second fastest time I've ever run." Going into the short go, Hough and three other girls were very close in the average. "Two of the girls ahead of me tipped poles. The girl behind me – she had to run a certain time in order to move me – and she ran that time."

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"I'm still a little disappointed that I didn't win the pole bending," Hough said, "but the All-Around made up for it." Hough's ultimate goal was to have her name put on the display board outside the Cam-Plex that lists champions from Gillette. She still achieved that goal, though not in the fashion she planned. Her name will be listed next to the words "All-Around Cowgirl" this year.

Hough will be a junior at Campbell County High School, where weightlifting is her favorite class. She plans to add goat tying and breakaway roping to her events before next year's season. In her free time, she likes to enter jackpots and help her family with ranch work. Her uncle, Bill Mankin is the owner of the historic 4J Ranch south of Gillette, which is right across the road from her grandma, Betty Hough. Shay keeps her horses at both places, and enjoys moving cattle and branding during the spring and summer.

Though college is two years away, Hough is considering attending the University of Wyoming. Her cousin, Sara Reed, attended the college and enjoyed the program. Hough would like to thank her mom, Holly Hough and step dad, Gibby Barnett for their support, along with the other family members mentioned.

Houston

Powderville, Montana consists of only a few buildings and a discontinued post office, but the little ghost town on the Powder River is home to the newly crowned National High School Champion bronc rider. Houston Brown, who graduated from Broadus High School this spring, handily won the title, topping the three-head average by 18 points.

Brown's spring season was no walk in the park. "I dislocated my shoulder two and a half weeks before state," he said. "I tried to do some physical therapy and get back into shape as soon as possible. It healed up quick enough that it was good by state." Brown rode all three of his broncs at the finals in Baker, Montana to be the state champion. As an added bonus, he had a run of 8.6 seconds in the short round of the tie-down roping to win the round, and had enough points to win the All-Around. "It was something I always wanted to do," he said of the title.

Brown is no stranger to the National High School Finals stage. He competed his freshman year in the bull riding, and every year afterwards in saddle bronc riding. His decision to quit riding bulls was simple. He said, "I like bronc riding a lot more. I wasn't riding bulls very well at the time, so I quit."

Horses were an important part of Brown's success at this year's national finals. "Kachina Doll" was the horse he drew for the first round, owned by Bill and Dona Vold Larsen. The horse was, "about what I needed to draw for the first round," Brown said. He scored 82 points on her to win the the round. "Second round I had a horse that bucked really long and took really long jumps. It was pretty hard to ride." Nevertheless, he scored 73 points to keep him in the average. "In the short go, I had a horse that was out the first night of Summits.' He was a little bit weak in the short go, but he was good enough that I was 79 on him," Brown concluded.

There was no shortage of pressure on the Montana cowboy, as he chased a gold buckle. After Sage Newman, a fellow Montanan, won the same title a year ago, many encouraged Brown to "keep it in Montana." He said, "It was a lot of pressure on me. I got more nervous after the first one."

Brown will attend Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne this fall to pursue a degree in ag production. He will compete in bronc riding, tie-down roping and team rope with his older brother, Logan, while representing the Golden Eagles. His parents, Joe and Stacey Brown, own a cattle ranch near Powderville, and Stacey is a medical technologist at the Rosebud Healthcare Center in Forsyth, Montana.

The young athlete will pursue professional rodeos, and his short term goals are to qualify for the Montana Circuit Finals and win his college region. His long-term goal is to be a world champion. "Billy Etbauer has always been my idol," Brown says, although he looks up to many other professionals. His favorite quote is, "No man is great if he thinks he is."

Natalie

A repurposed horse nearly took one South Dakota cowgirl all the way to a national title. Natalie Leisinger placed third in the nation in the Reined Cow Horse event at the NHSFR on her horse named "Chili."

Leisinger is the daughter of Matt Leisinger and Colleen Harris, and world champion team roper, Bobby Harris is her step dad. It was Bobby's horse purchase that eventually led to Leisinger's huge success in Gillette last week.

Her top-twenty placing in last year's NHSFR qualified her for the High School World Show in Forth Worth, Texas in This past winter. A horse that they had purchased just months before the show did not show as well as they expected. "It didn't go very good," said Leisinger. "He wasn't the caliber horse that I was looking for." She continued to show the horse, barely qualifying for state finals.

Meanwhile, Bobby purchased a new heel horse from his friend, Justin McBride, while they were in Fort Worth. He began roping on the horse at home, and noticed that he might have been trained for a little more than just team roping. "Bobby said, 'He'll slide pretty good. Let's put the spade bit in him.' He immediately dropped his head. Bobby was like, 'I think he's been trained,'" Leisinger recalls. Chili became Natalie's new cow horse. She decided to give him a try at the national level, and said, "He was a step up, and going into nationals, I was going to need that."

This was Leisinger's third trip to the high school finals, but this year, the reined cow horse competition was held in Gillette College's practice barn. The ground gave many horses trouble, and at least one horse fell in every performance. A fall in the reined cow horse event is an automatic "no score." Even though Leisinger experienced a fall at last year's national finals, the thought didn't rattle her nerves. "I was a little nervous, because I've fallen before. But I knew that if you were in control the whole time and had a good horse, you wouldn't fall," she said. Chili, the 8-year-old sorrel gelding, literally held his ground.

Leisinger finds that her step dad's vast competitive experience very helpful, even in the show pen. "Going through all the competitions and all the big stakes that he's been through – he knows how to handle pressure really well," she says. "His little speeches and pep talks that he gives me is so critical to how I compete and in life."

She enjoys helping on the ranch, and playing varsity basketball and volleyball at Highmore High School. Her goals for the near future include being a state champion and going on to win the national title next year.

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