A trip out West to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, isn’t complete without an adventure to the Jackson Hole Rodeo. Rodeo, a competitive sport that generally infests the West, consists of many breathtaking and risky events, from bull riding to bareback broncs.
It’s been over 120 years since the Wilson family founded the rodeo in a small western part of Wyoming that borders Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The name was then passed down to Chet and Chancy Wilson, who rode bareback and saddle bronc in rodeos. Chancy went on to compete in the 1976 National Finals Rodeo, which many rodeo-goers and competitors consider “the Super Bowl of rodeo.”
Many visitors attend the rodeo not knowing what to expect, because everything is unpredictable when someone is atop a 1,500-pound bucking, spinning, and kicking bull. What the visitors least expect are kids competing, but it isn’t rare. Many kids who do compete are raised around the sport and come from a family or even a few generations of riders and competitors.
Underneath cotton-candy skies on a May evening, 15-year-old McKenna Schroeder stood behind the bucking chutes observing and filming competitors. It’s been over 10 years since McKenna first started competing in rodeos for barrel racing, an event in which the rider of the horse must complete a clover-like pattern around three barrels as quickly as possible. She also competes in breakaway roping, goat-tying, and poles. “Barrels was how I learned about rodeo, and I have been doing it for as long as I can remember. The rest I picked up as I advanced through the sport,” she said.
In 2017, McKenna, her 14-year-old brother, Zane, and her father, Tony, traveled to Lebanon, Tennessee, for the National High School and Junior High Finals Rodeo. To qualify for nationals, you must place in the top four at state finals for your event.
Along with the Schroeders went 14-year-old Brody Hasenack, who rides bulls in rodeos in Wyoming and across the nation. Hasenack also competed in the 2017 World Finals in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Recently, he won first in the state of Wyoming in junior bull riding. He and classmate Tipton Wilson headed to Huron, South Dakota, this summer for the Junior High Finals Rodeo, where Hasenack placed ninth in bull riding.
McKenna, Zane, and Brody have grown up around the rodeo and have made their fellow competitors their families. Every Wednesday and Saturday during rodeo season, the kids arrive early to the rodeo grounds just to soak it all in.
“My favorite part about rodeo is the competition,” said Brody. “Not so much against other people in the event, but it’s you versus yourself, pushing your limits to see what you can do.” He speaks with passion about rodeo, and how it pushes him to be greater not only in the sport, but also in life and as a person. He spoke about how his mentality when competing in rodeos is what keeps him striving for more.
Over the last 14 years, Brody has watched rodeos, participated in them, and fallen in love with the sport. He makes it a priority that his struggles don’t set him back. “The biggest challenge of riding bulls and rodeo in general is working through the pain that you get and keeping the mentality that no bull can buck you off,” he said.
Zane has been part of the rodeo for over eight years and has learned the “ropes” of the rodeo from his family and his fellow competitors. “I think that not really rodeo, but being a cowboy, teaches you respect,” he said. “You learn to work hard and be thankful for what you have.”
No matter if you’re an elementary school kid or a high school graduate, the rodeo ensures that one’s age is not a setback. Rodeo has given kids all over the country a challenge and an irresistible chance to be a cowboy or cowgirl. The sport of rodeo encourages young buckaroos looking to make it big. “Being a kid who competes is an interesting concept, especially when it comes to rodeo,” said McKenna. “Rodeo is something I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Photographs by Richard Johnson/Official Jackson Hole Rodeo Photographer (from top: Brody Hasenack, McKenna Schroeder, Zane Schroeder)