Gillette High School Rodeo Club bareback riders Garrett Ford and Justin Kissack know the ups and downs of rodeo.
They both love that rush when the chute flies open, the horse’s ears go flat and the ride is on. And both know how to cowboy up when times are tough.
The first-time national qualifiers will get their chance to shine on the big stage at the National High School Finals Rodeo next week at the Sweetwater Events Complex in Rock Springs.
Spills and thrills
It’s been a long road back for both.
Ford broke his right arm and missed all of the fall season this year. His first rodeo back during the spring schedule was at Laramie in mid-April. The 2012 Campbell County High School graduate came back to place second in the Wyoming High School Rodeo Association rankings and qualify for the national finals.
Kissack, who will be a senior next year, had a chance to qualify for the national finals a year ago, but broke his right arm at the third rodeo in the spring of 2011 and missed the chance to ride in his hometown at the NHSFR.
“Even though I broke my arm, I looked at the positive side. I covered these horses and they don’t have nothin’ that can beat me” said Ford, who trailed only Jeffery Zdziarski of Sheridan by just 30 points.
“This whole spring season I was just after points. I was just in survival mode. My whole goal was just to make it to nationals.”
More than 1,500 competitors from 41 U.S. states have the same goal in the National High School Rodeo Finals.
For Kissack, who has attracted attention from the University of Arizona rodeo team, bareback riding is 90 percent mental.
Gotta love it
“You’ll do a lot better if go out there and think you’re going to tear this horse up than if you’re thinking, ‘this is scary,’” he said. “It got in my head a little bit. I broke my arm on my 10th horse last year. Then got on two more and broke it again. I was thinking, ‘What am I doing to myself?’
“But you can’t ride scared. I got on one more horse and I fell in love with it again.”
Kissack and Ford ride in the same rodeos and rig-up in the same arena. They grew up in Gillette and go to the same school. They’re friendly, but they aren’t particularly close friends. They also go about their business in different ways.
Business as usual
Kissack likes to talk to the stock contractor about his draw to find out a little more what the horse likes to do. He marks out his horse, goes through the same routine and rigging preparation every time.
“Once I get my horse marked out, I know I can ride just about anything high school kids get on,” the Gillette 17-year-old said. “I just need to get my feet above the shoulder and make it to the bell.”
For Ford, he likes to take a look at the horse before he’s up. He pays attention to its muscle structure, because that will tell him a lot about how the horse is going to buck. He doesn’t like to come up with a particular game plan based on previous rides.
“Most bareback horses just go straight across the arena,” he said. “I don’t visualize what the horse is going to do because you get in trouble when they don’t do what you expect.
“But I do visualize making my mark, holding my feet, lifting and staying back before I ride.”
It is the big stage for the Gillette cowboys, who would like to do this for a living somewhere down the trail.
“When I was a little kid, I went to every (NHSFR) in Gillette. I told my mom one of these days I’m going to be riding in this,” Ford said with a sense of pride that he made good on his word. “She didn’t believe me because that was before I started rodeoing. I guess I proved her wrong.”
Kissack says he’s going to ride just as long and as hard as he can.
“These last few days the butterflies have been building because I want to do good,” said Kissack, who has been branding calves for Matt Burch this summer. “Rodeo around here is like playing football at the University of Texas.
“This is the biggest rodeo everybody’s ever dreamed of going to.”
The NHSFR starts Monday in Rock Springs. Seven cowboys and cowgirls from this area will compete.
National High School Finals Rodeo
Sweetwater County and the Events Complex
Rock Springs, July 15-21
Gillette High School Rodeo Club
Lexi Hamm, Rozet: Girls cutting: Monday a.m., Friday p.m.
Kassidy Kruse, Gillette: Barrel racing: Monday p.m., Friday a.m.
Emily Faber, Rozet: Goat tying: Monday p.m., Friday a.m.
J.W. Thrush, Gillette: Team roping: Monday p.m., Friday a.m.; tie-down Roping: Wednesday a.m., Wednesday p.m.; shooting rifle: Tuesday a.m.
Bailey Young, Gillette: Tie-down roping: Monday p.m., Friday a.m.
Justin Kissack, Gillette: Bareback riding: Tuesday a.m., Thursday p.m.
Garrett Ford, Gillette: Bareback riding: Monday a.m., Friday p.m.