When asked why his daughter chooses rodeo over cheerleading, Allen Decker's answer is simple: "Because she can't sing or dance," he jokes.
But rodeo is serious business for 18-year-old Keller High School senior Casey Decker. Having grown up with the rodeo lifestyle, she said it's all she knows how to do.
“It’s funny to hear football guys talk about getting hit during games,” she said. “I take hits from a huge animal. I go to bed sore, I wake up sore, but it’s what I love so I’m gonna keep doing it.”
Like Decker, instead of choosing football or soccer as an extracurricular activity, the students of the North Texas High School Rodeo Association (NTHSRA) choose a sport that involves bumps, bruises, and 1,500 pound animals.
"Each ride is yours - just you, your horse, and your skills," said NTHSRA president Chris Chopin. "You have to keep it up. The rider and the horse are a team and it’s a special bond they have with the animal."
The non-profit organization is in it's 40th year and puts together rodeo competitions among high school students grades 9 through 12, who participate at the main arena in Saginaw. Rodeo isn't the average high school athletic sport, but many schools across North Texas have teams that compete in the NTHSRA. The high school rodeo season runs from September to May, with 26 to 28 rodeos a year. The kick-off rodeo in August, called the "Black and Blue Rodeo," allows any student interested the sport to get their feet wet and try the animal riding experience.
Merissa Youngblood, a junior at Legacy High School in Mansfield, loves horses and got her first taste of rodeo at a kick-off rodeo event three years ago. Although she didn't grow up with the sport like many of the other students, she said she loves it.
"Before I started rodeo, I never got to do anything with horses, and now that I’m in it, I ride them all the time," she said. "You just get on and do it, and if you mess up, you mess up. You just try again and get it right the next time."
There are 13 events in the NTHSRA. Cowboys compete in Bull Riding, Bareback Riding, Chute Dogging, Calf Roping, Saddle Bronc Riding, and Steer Wrestling while cowgirls take on Breakaway Roping, Steer Undecorating, Goat Tying, Barrel Racing, and Pole Bending. Some events are scored by the judge and others are timed by speed, which only involves mere seconds in the arena.
It's during those few seconds that a million things are running through Casey Decker's mind.
“It's everything you can think of. Everything that runs through your mind in about 2.5 seconds. Broken bones, a fast run, a slow run, what could go wrong, trying to picture the run in your head, if it will turn out alright -- everything. It’s a lot to take in," she said.
A high-ranking cowgirl and president of the NTHSRA student board of directors, she competes in multiple events including Breakaway Roping, Steer Undecorating, Pole Bending, and Goat Tying, which involves jumping off a horse at full-speed and running to tie the legs of a goat in the middle of the arena.
"They’re sitting on that horse, and all of the sudden, it’s going 90 to nothin’. It’s a rush you don’t get throwing a football," said Chopin.
Aside from the students that ride in the rodeo, it takes a huge operation for the NTHSRA to function. To run a rodeo, organizers need judges, medics, timers, security, secretaries, and stock contractors to manage the animals. Some of the animals ridden by the students are even used in professional rodeos. Mounted pick-up men are constantly on the arena during a competition, rounding up animals used in an event and ensuring the safety of the students.
The bull fighters (also known as the rodeo clowns in professional events) have similar responsibilities as the pick-up men, except they don't have a horse standing between them and a 1,200 pound bull.
"It's an adrenaline rush. I'm not running from the bull, I'm running to him," said Clayton Norton, who's worked as a bull fighter for 17 years and has a close call with an animal every weekend. "I do it more for the kids -- I help them out and keep them safe. They want to ride bulls and need someone to keep them from getting hurt."
Each student is in charge of the animal they ride in the rodeo. They are held responsible for making sure they are fed, hydrated, and in shape.
“It takes a lot more patience and dedication, and you can’t just think about yourself like in other sports -- it’s you, your horse, your equipment...it’s everything," said Casey, who rides before school, after school, before work, and after work at night.
At any given competition, the arena is filled with just as many parents clad in boots and cowboys hats as students. It's this aspect of rodeo that stands out to Chopin: the family-oriented atmosphere.
“Rodeo people are not cut-throat. If I go to a football game with my kids, they won’t acknowledge that I’m there,” he said. “When you go to the rodeo, they want me there every step of the way -- to help in the arena, point them in the right direction, and help with their animals.”
Watson High School senior and bull rider Matt Ward also grew up in the sport. He wants to pursue rodeo in college and even try the professional world at the Professional Bull Riders Finals in Las Vegas.
"It’s what I always wanted to do, it’s my dream," he said. "I ride more bulls in class in my mind than in the arena."
Like many other students, Forest Marshall has rode in rodeo for most of his youth and is a student at Hill College pursuing an engineering degree. A former competitor in the NTHSRA, he now competes on the college’s team, so rodeo hasn’t left his agenda.
“Rodeo is always on your mind -- you eat, sleep, and breathe it,” he said.
At the end of the year, 15 students from each event go on to finals. But even after the season is over, Marshall adds that it's a sport a student must stick with.
"It’s not something that you’re going to pick up the first time. You gotta stay with it," he said. "You’re gonna take your bumps and bruises and you just gotta go on with it."
Despite the bumps and bruises involved in the sport, Allen Decker still wants his daughter to stick with it because he "hates soccer." And like many others within the NTHSRA, he calls rodeo an individual sport.
“You ain’t got a team to carry you, you don’t got nobody to count on you, and either you do it or you don’t. You’re dedicated or you ain’t,” he said. “But if you’re not dedicated and dealing with 1,200 pound animals, there’s a chance that you’re going to get hurt, and that’s just a part of rodeo.”
North Texas High School Rodeo Association
6229 Windy Ryon Way
Fort Worth, TX 76179
Rodeo competitions are held every weekend.