Bucking the trend: Junior Roughstock Association cultivates future roughies

Tamara Choat
For Tri-State Livestock News
Morgan Buckingham rides at the 2018 Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo. Junior Roughstock Association riders whose daddies had previously ridden at “The Daddy of ‘Em All” were invited to ride in the Legends and Legacies performance. Photo by Jackie Jensen

He eases onto the horse’s back, runs his hand in the riggin,’ leans back and nods his head.

The gate opens and the cowboy spurs for all he’s worth. The whistle blows and the crowd goes wild, while the cowboy returns — more often than not — to mom and dad.

Although the performances of the Junior Roughstock Association look in many ways like the full-sized versions, these kids aged 6-17 are matched first to miniature horses, then Shetland ponies, then half-ponies, before moving up to full horses. The whistle blows at 6 seconds for those in the youngest division, but otherwise, all roughstock rules apply.

The sport of rodeo is steeped in tradition. What it lacks, currently, is an abundance of participants, particularly in roughstock. Seeking to reverse that trend are youth rodeo associations that prep kids to compete in sustainable ways and at their level.

“It’s exciting to see the talent and ability these kids have when they’re actually paired up with stock that matches their ability.” Lacie Demers, 406 Rodeo director

The Junior Roughstock Association, founded just four years ago, was started to develop future bareback, saddle bronc and bull riders by providing bucking stock at “kid-friendly” levels.

406 Rodeo is one of two associations (the other is Montana Mini Buckers) in the JRA Montana region. Their motto is: “Filling the chutes of the future, while saving rotten ponies.” Lacie Demers of Phillipsburg, Mont., is the director, and she and her husband, Joe Demers, own and contract out 180 of what she laughingly refers to as “the rotten little buggers.” What was once a Christmas present gone bad, today is filling a gap in the future of the sport.

With a strong family involvement in roughstock circles — Joe Demers and his two oldest sons all rode — Demers said she is amazed how the organization has exploded.

“It’s exciting to see the talent and ability these kids have when they’re actually paired up with stock that matches their ability.”

In 2018, 78 roughstock riders competed in more than 20 Montana JRA rodeos.

Demers said as the sport of rodeo has advanced, professional breeders are doing an outstanding job producing bucking stock that can buck — and win. While overall this adds up to an exciting draw and is needed for the sport, what it inadvertently has done is forfeit building the cowboys. Stock that may be only a few points short of making the short-go at the NFR filters down to the amateur or college levels. “Across the board in high school and amateur rodeos, these great bucking bloodlines are too much for the weekend warrior or guys just getting started,” Demers said.

Those involved with rodeo say the scarcity of skilled — or simply, any — roughstock riders is noticeable. Both professional and amateur rodeo associations struggle to find enough riders to fill the gap and provide a show. They often reach out to college or high school riders to mount up for a performance. Some professional events have relegated to taking the best times — as there are not enough qualified rides — to move competitors to the short go.

“My husband refuses to turn roughstock into a timed event,” said Demers. “We feel this stepping-stone approach is the best way to develop kids and keep them involved while staying true to the nature of the sport.”

This year Montana sent 22 kids to Las Vegas to the Junior National Finals Rodeo (soon to be called the World Championship, as it now draws international youth).

Morgan Buckingham of Miles City, Mont., is one rider 406 Rodeo seems made for. He made his second trip to the JNFR this year and again brought two sets of gear — qualifying in bareback and saddle bronc both years. On the record at least, the barebacks treated him better this year. He was the 2018 Montana JRA champion in bareback, and ended up sixth in the world in that same event.

The 13-year-old eighth-grader comes from a long lineage of rodeo. Both his grandfather, Terry Buckingham, and his dad, Marty Buckingham, rode bareback — Marty rode professionally for several years. His mother, Vandie, met Marty while working for Brookman Rodeo, and her father, Jack Stensland, ranches, ropes and is a long-time board member of the Montana PRCA Circuit.

Buckingham said he rodeos “because it’s fun — and I win buckles and money.” In the two years since he started riding roughstock, he’s competed in all three events but plans to focus on the equine buckers. Although his talent and drive make him a likely candidate for future success in all circuits, his parents say the JRA is the best fit for him now. High school rodeo uses full-sized horses, and they feel developing skills on the JRA ponies and small horses is a better fit — at least, they say, until he “breaks 100 pounds!”

In addition to smaller mounts, one other notable difference in the JRA is pony muggers. “Pickup horses sit higher than the ponies,” Vandie explained, “so it’s hard for them to get the ponies stopped. A pony mugger is essentially a ‘bullfighter’ for the rider — they are his lifeline.”

The Buckinghams say the stock and pony muggers are so important they evaluate each rodeo Morgan enters based on who will be mugging. “Yes, there’s still a chance he could get hurt, but we prefer to set him up for safety and we feel that’s what the JRA does,” said Vandie.

Morgan said his best ride — just recently in Vegas on a pony called Hillbilly — was also his worst. “I got her covered, but then got my hand stuck.” He proudly asks him mom to show the video: “I wasn’t scared, I knew the pickup men and muggers were going to help me.”

Mom agrees. “I don’t get freaked out because I know he’s going to get taken care of.” She did, however, stop videoing after a few seconds of the wreck.

Morgan said rodeo means everything to his family; it’s something they do together. Dad is the helper — “He helps me get my riggin’ on and coaches me.” Mom is the supporter — making sure the van is gassed up, clothes are clean and entry fees are paid. “Oh yeah, and she’s really loud when I ride,” said Morgan. They joke that the main role of little sister, Ellen, 11, is to socialize at the concession stand, but for now, rodeoing is a complete family package.

Mom also diligently posts results and photos on social media, always graciously giving credit to everyone who helps Morgan on his journey, and specifically recognizing sponsors. In the JRA, each contestant is allowed to seek out three sponsors per event to help cover entry fees, travel, autograph sheets and other costs — although the real costs far exceed the donations.

Demers said the future of roughstock rodeo depends on up-and-comers like Morgan, and the involvement of all families like the Buckinghams. She noted the level of volunteers who came to help the youth in Vegas, including former NFR competitors and current finalists was amazing.

“Some of those guys who were riding each night couldn’t get there fast enough to help. There are a lot of people rallying for these kids.”

For now, Morgan Buckingham has a lot of homework to catch up after being in Las Vegas for eight days. But he also has a shiny new Short-Go Qualifier medal, some sharpened skills, new friends, and a spring season of roughstock to look forward to.

His parents, they’ll keep cheering – and gassing up the van.

Those interested in the Junior Roughstock Association as a contestant, volunteer or sponsor can check out F