Laura Dean Bennett
Four young people from Pocahontas County are currently competing in the West Virginia High School Rodeo Association.
They are Hannah Burks, Mya Workman and Lilly Stephens, who are competing in rodeo events – and Keaton Baldwin, who is the West Virginia state high school champion bull rider – two years running.
In the upcoming weeks, we’ll meet all four rodeo riders and explore the world of West Virginia High School Rodeo.
Hannah Burks, a 15 year-old freshman at Pocahontas County High School, has always been a sporty girl. She plays soccer and basketball, but, even as a two year-old toddler, she took to horses like a duck to water – and she’s been in the saddle ever since.
Hannah started competing on the Junior High School Rodeo circuit when she was in seventh grade and now, as a freshman, she’s still at it – still training, taking clinics and travelling to every rodeo she can to earn experience and points.
She does goat-tying, barrel racing, pole-bending events, and wants to get into break-away roping, too.
“I think I was about four or five when I started really riding,” Hannah recalled. “Riding and rodeo gets in your blood, but it takes a lot of work. You really have to love it.
“And I do.
“I play basketball and soccer, too, and that helps me keep in shape.
“But it’s hard to keep up with another sport when you do rodeo competitively. It takes so much time, because you have to travel so much.
“I’m missing a lot of basketball practice because of my rodeo schedule, but I have to get my rodeo points in, and I can’t miss any competitions,” Hannah said.
Like any sport, serious competition takes passion and dedication.
Besides early mornings – rising before daybreak – and the hard work on and off horseback in all kinds of weather, there’s chasing points to qualify for the next rung of competition.
It’s an endless quest to improve skills and beat the clock – to shave seconds and tenths of seconds off of each goat-tying time.
It was her cousin, Nicole Brock, who can take credit for getting Hannah interested in rodeo.
Brock, the president of the Pocahontas County Saddle Club, also started competing in West Virginia High School Rodeo as a young lady.
“From the time I was a freshman through my senior year, I competed, and “goats” was my favorite event,” Brock said. “It’s that adrenalin rush – jumping off a horse that’s going 15-20 miles an hour.”
Brock will never forget the day Hannah sat on her first horse.
“One Easter, when Hannah was two years old, I was out riding and John Paul and Cindy (Hannah’s parents) pulled up beside me with a very fussy baby in the car. I mean, you could hear Hannah having a fit,” Brock said. “She was all dressed up in a pretty Easter dress, and she was not happy.
“I was sitting on my horse, and Cindy handed her up to me and said, ‘Here, take her.’
“I did, and Hannah stopped crying right away.
“And I guess that was that.
“Hannah was like a little sister to me. I taught her how to ride and started her doing barrels and poles and then she got serious and wanted to start High School Rodeo.”
Hannah’s not the only Pocahontas County girl Brock introduced to rodeo – she trained Mya Workman and Lilly Stephens, too.
“They all started riding with me as little girls in elementary school,” Brock recalled. “We had some real fun times – trail riding and sleepovers.
“Being around horses is a great way for girls to grow up.
“Rodeo is good for girls. They learn to train hard and become strong, healthy, independent women.
“We have a whole horse family in rodeo. The kids support each other.
“Working with horses teaches you how to put hard work into something and be a good sport.
“I always say, horses are expensive, but they‘re a heck of a lot cheaper than drugs or jail,” she said.
“Riding well isn’t automatic. It’s not something you can just get on and do. It takes patience and dedication and time.”
Rodeo’s a real family affair for the Burks family.
It’s not just the rider who has to be dedicated – it’s a commitment for the whole family.
The High School Rodeo competition schedule and the other rodeos she competes in have Hannah and her family traveling at least one or two weekends every month.
And this means trailering horses and driving great distances.
Besides Brock, Hannah’s mom and dad and her 21 year old brother, Logan, are her biggest fans.
“Logan’s more into mud bogging, but sometimes he comes to the rodeos, too,” Hannah said.
Cindy and John Paul are both members of the West Virginia High School Rodeo Association, and they stay busy at the rodeos.
John Paul helps out in the arenas, and Cindy is the West Virginia High School Rodeo Secretary.
Talking about their recent trip to Texas for the Junior American Circuit Patriot Rodeo Finals in Fort Worth, Cindy said it was good experience for Hannah.
Hannah was competing in the 15 and Under category, and placed a very respectable 42nd in the goat-tying Semi-Finals, and she ran her fastest personal time ever.
“I was competing against 110 goat tiers, and I made my best time ever – 8.9 seconds,” Hannah said.
“We were so proud of her,” Cindy added. “When she finished, her face just lit up because she knew she had just beat her best time.”
Hannah can tell you why goat-tying is her favorite event.
“I’ve been competing in goat-tying since my first year in Junior High School Rodeo, she said. “I started in seventh grade.
“It’s exciting, and each time’s a little different, and it can be tough, sometimes.
“I’ve come off wrong, hit hard and rolled over in the dirt, and sometimes I’ve face planted.
“But I like it. It’s not scary, but it gets my adrenaline going.”
At this age level – 15 and Under – all goat-tying contestants are female.
Rider and horse gallop past the timer toward the tethered goat, the timer starts and when the rider finishes tying the goat and gets her hands in the air, the judge drops the flag, and the timer stops.
When she judges that she’s the right distance from the goat, the rider leaps off the horse and grabs the goat.
The idea is to get the goat off its feet and securely tied and to do it faster than anyone else.
“I have to hit the ground running, and I have to be running as fast as the horse was going or even faster,” Hannah said.
“When I come off the horse, one end of the rope is in my mouth and one end’s in my hand.
“The goat is staked to the ground.
“But it can still move away from you, and you don’t know which way it’s going to move,” Hannah explained.
Hannah breaks down what it takes to keep improving her time.
“When I come off the horse and start running to the goat, I have to match the horse’s speed or maybe be able to outrun her,” she said. “I have to be able to shift and shorten my stride – take shorter steps – as I get close to the goat, and adjust to whichever way he’s moving.
“I hold the goat’s feet with one hand and tie with the other hand.
“Once I get him tied, the goat has to stay down for six seconds for my time to count,” she added.
It’s takes a lot of practice to get good at rodeo skills.
“She’s up at 5:45 a.m. and practicing tying – fifty times in the morning and fifty times every evening,” Cindy said of her daughter.
The family has a farm, so there’s often farm work to be done, as well.
“Sometimes she has to get up even earlier to squeeze in time to bottle-feed a calf,” Cindy said.
Hannah and Slider, the 17-year old Quarter Horse mare she uses for goat-tying are well matched.
“They both have red hair,” Cindy added, laughing.
Hannah also rides Classy, a 19-year old Appaloosa mare.
“She does barrels and poles on Classy,” Cindy said. “Hannah’s not riding Classy in the shows, but we trailer her along to the shows because Classy likes to go.
“She wants to be with Slider, so Hannah rides her in the warm-up arena to give Classy something to do.”
“High School rodeo is like a big family, too,” Hannah explained. “We all help each other and we’re rooting for each other.”
It helps that Hannah’s family buys and sells goats as a sideline.
It helps keep Hannah in goats for her to use for practice.
“But right now we only have one goat on the farm that I can use to practice goat-tying with,” she said. “All the rest are either too young, or pregnant.”
So it’s a good thing she also has a goat “dummy” because the name of the game is “Practice, Practice, Practice.”
High School Rodeo is year-round, and it’s all about the points.
“I’ll be going to the state High School Rodeo finals in May at Davis & Elkins arena,” Hannah said.
“Sometimes it’s at the state fair, but this year it’s at Davis and Elkins.”
The points are double at the state finals, and that’s where riders get their annual awards.
“I’ve set some goals for myself,” Hannah said, seriously. “I’m hoping to get an award in goat-tying at the State Finals.
“Next year, my goal is to go to the High School Rodeo Nationals and place in the top fifty.
“The year after that, when I’m a Junior, I want to go back to the Nationals and place in the top ten.
“In my Senior year, I want to win it.
“I’m starting to do some other events on the High School Rodeo circuit, too,” Hannah added. “Next year, I’d like to be competing in barrels, pole bending, goat-tying and break-away roping.
“I’m hoping to get a college scholarship in goat-tying for a college team, and probably get a degree in some sort of veterinary science – maybe a vet tech degree.
“In the West Virginia High School Rodeo Association, we collect points all year, but the finals rodeos are different. You get just one run and whoever scores the lowest time wins.
Rodeo is all about hard work, having a dream and never giving up.
Hannah summed up her rodeo philosophy this way:
“Your horse can take you there, but you have to do the rest of the work yourself.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the West Virginia High School Rodeo Association may find them at wvhrsa.org or on their Facebook page where upcoming events, photos and rodeo results are posted.
Pocahontas County Saddle Club
For those who have a horse and are interested in getting involved with some local Western horse shows, there’s the Pocahontas County Saddle Club.
It’s open to anyone who would like to join.
After much preparation and planning, the club built a nice arena for their shows.
“We looked at three different locations and decided on the one in Marlinton,” Saddle Club president Nicole Brock said. “It’s centrally located, and the arena is within walking distance of so many families in town.”
The Saddle Club arena is located on Second Avenue beside the Humane Society building.
“There are the typical 20 Western events at each show, so there’s plenty of ways to compete.”
Youngsters are encouraged to come out and take part, even if they don’t have a horse.
“For the kids without horses, we’re planning to get some stick horses so they can run the events just for the fun of it,” Brock added.
Upcoming Saddle Club horse shows are scheduled for July 25, August 22, September 19 and October 3, and the public is welcome to attend.