FARMINGTON — Four high school students from the Four Corners area will make their way to Gillette, Wyo., next week to compete in the 68th annual National High School Finals Rodeo.
Bloomfield’s Levi Whitley, Aztec’s Olivia Morehouse, Ignacio, Colo.’s Lauren Kelsey and Durango, Colo.’s Tyllor Ledford all qualified for the event, which runs from Sunday, July 17 through Saturday, July 23.
Students from 41 different states, as well as Canada and Australia, will make up the field of approximately 1,500 qualifying contestants.
For Kelsey, 17, and Morehouse, 15, it’s not their first rodeo.
Kelsey, who will graduate from Keystone Online School in December, qualified in the reined cow horse division. The Ignacio resident is a natural, having qualified for the NHSFR twice since she picked up the sport just two years ago.
Riding a different horse than she rode in the event last year, Kelsey said she’s feeling more confident and determined this time around.
“Last year, I went for the experience. I went on a horse I knew I wasn’t probably going to make short go on,” Kelsey said. “This year I’m going to place and win.”
After cracking the top 50 in reined cow horse last year, Kelsey, and her horse, Centerfold, are aiming for a top-10 finish in 2016.
Morehouse will only be a sophomore when she begins classes at Dora Online High School this fall. But the former Piedra Vista student is far from a newcomer in barrel racing, which she’s been doing for six years. She said she fell in love with the sport at age 8.
“I love the speed and the grittiness of it,” she said. “It’s just really intense and a good adrenaline rush.”
Morehouse said her horse, Tink, has a lot of heart. The two made it to the National Junior High Finals Rodeo for barrels last year, so chemistry is on their side.
During the NJHFR, Morehouse ranked 17th in barrels after an excellent opening round, but she hit a barrel in the second round and fell out of contention. She said she thinks the work she’s put in over the past year will pay off this week.
“I’ve spent some time with my trainers in Arizona fixing all the little things,” Morehouse said. “I’m going in there expecting to not hit a barrel this time. Just go fast and ride how I ride.”
Bloomfield’s Whitley, 17, has overcome a pair of serious injuries to make his first NHSFR appearance.
In May 2015, the soon-to-be senior bull rider broke his hip during a high school rodeo when his bull bucked him off and stepped on him.
The timing of the injury couldn’t have been worse for Whitley, who said he’s been riding sheep since before he knew how to walk. The broken hip sidelined Whitley for two months, which forced him out of the state finals and disqualified him from a possible NHSFR berth.
Whitley didn’t miss a beat when he returned for the 2015 fall season, where he won the bull riding event in Santa Rosa, his first rodeo back from injury.
But before this year’s spring season, when his bull bucked him off during practice, Whitley landed awkwardly on his left arm and broke it, setting him back another two months. He said the second major injury wasn’t as poorly timed.
“I made the last (rodeo) of the spring season, and then I made state finals,” Whitley said. “So I got lucky I guess — I made it back in time to qualify.”
Whitley said he’s not about to squander his long-awaited opportunity to compete in the NHSFR.
“I better go over there and ride some bulls, I’ll say that,” he said. “I want to do well, for sure. It’s good experience, and I’d like to go to college for rodeo, so I’m sure that would help out a lot if I did good out there.”
Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.