Three junior high rodeo students from the nether regions of far western South Dakota clinched their tickets to National Junior High Rodeo Association Finals hosted in their home state next week.
Grey Gilbert, a freshman in the fall at Harding County High School in Buffalo, took home the boy’s all-around title from South Dakota Junior High Rodeo Association Finals last month for his efforts in his specialty: timed events. Mataya Ward, an soon-to-be eighth-grader at Belle Fourche Middle School rode her family’s formerly-retired horse to a state win in pole bending. Chloe Crago, a future freshman at Belle Fourche High School, has qualified for nationals all three years.
Gilbert wrapped up state finals with a trailer full of prizes, winning chute dogging and ribbon roping with partner Landry Haugen of Sturgis, capturing the boys’ all-around title and qualifying for nationals in all four of his events, including team roping and calf roping.
“It was a pretty big honor to win all-around cowboy. There were a lot of good kids that did multiple events,” he said. “I had to work pretty hard.”
Gilbert has won chute dogging at state all three years of middle school, won the team roping as a sixth grader, and also earned rookie of the year then. He has been in the top four in team roping and calf roping multiple times.
His big dun calf horse, as he describes him, won horse of the year this year at state finals. Gotter Dun, who boasts papers filled with Doc Bar, Frenchmans Guy, and Colonel Freckles, is Gilbert’s ribbon roping and calf roping mount, though he can also team rope off of him.
At the high school level, he plans to team rope, calf rope, and steer wrestle. He isn’t concerned about transitioning to high school steer wrestling.
“The way I’ve been taught to chute dog will transfer over to horses,” he said. “I will have to learn how to get off, but everything will be the same once I get on the ground.”
Competing at the state- and national-levels has taught Gilbert to handle pressure; which is helped by his distinct strategy before competing.
“Usually I’m in a perf with two or three friends of mine, and we sit behind the roping chutes and tell jokes and make fun of one another,” he said. “It takes the pressure off and keeps me sharp.”
Throughout the summer, Gilbert practices an average of four to five hours per day, when the schedule allows, summing up to an average of 200 head of bull-dogging steers per week.
Barge On John, or as the family calls him, Jet, was called upon this year for Mataya Ward to compete in pole bending, and the 24-year-old gelding didn’t disappoint. Just as he did with her big sister in high school, Jet helped Ward earn the pole bending state finals title. The pair also earned top point-getter in the state in poles this season.
The Wards had plans to retire Jet this year, but when Mataya needed a horse, Jet was ready.
“This spring, I didn’t have a horse to run, and he was feeling really good, so we decided we would let him run some more,” she said.
Her father lucked upon Jet when he was shoeing horses for a college rodeo student, and she asked if he needed a pole and barrel horse. Her sister had needed one to compete on at the high school level at the time.
Mataya and Jet have won multiple all-around titles and saddles, including the Little Levi Rodeo, Sturgis Series, and other 4-H rodeos.
Mataya qualified for national finals in all four of her events: goat tying, ribbon roping, pole bending, and breakaway roping.
Outside of her favorite hobby, riding her horses, she sings and plays guitar, and she is active in sports, including volleyball, basketball, track, and softball.
“There’s a time to have fun and a time to be focused,” said Crago, who has qualified for nationals each year of junior high. She competes in barrel racing, pole bending, breakaway roping, team roping, and ribbon roping, and has qualified for nationals this year in breakaway and pole bending.
In high school, she will add reined cow horse and cutting to her repertoire
Crago clinched the 2017 South Dakota Junior High Rodeo Association title and state 4-H title in breakaway roping.
“My favorite horse, Tuff, is a breakaway horse and the best horse I have ever owned,” she said. “He’s a fun little chestnut gelding. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get rid of him.”
Breakaway roping clinician Carol Hollers helped Crago find this horse when her last was getting a little too slow for her competition level.
“No one else wanted to look at him, and we went down and tried him out in Gillette,” she said. “The first time I tried him, he was perfect.”
She purchased him from Crystal Heshey two years ago and has been upping her game ever since.
“It’s been different each year,” Crago said. “The first year, I was nervous the whole time, but when I got in the box, I zoned in and did what I do. The second year, I knew what I was doing.”
Crago has been rodeoing since she was three years old, and loves to compete in all sports, but especially basketball and volleyball. She hopes to finish well at National Junior High Rodeo Association finals but also wishes the same for others.
“Good luck,” she said, “to everyone at national rodeo finals this year.”
The National Junior High Finals Rodeo will be at the state fair grounds in Huron, South Dakota June 23 – 29, 2019. F