Grit & Glory: Inside the Thrilling World of Montana Youth Rodeo

July 2023

by brooke wagner | photos by Mark LaRowe

A classic country song croons, I should have been a cowboy…I should have learned to rope and ride. Fortunately, many young cowpokes in the Big Sky state will never know the regret this song refers to. Cowboys and cowgirls learn to ride almost before they learn to walk, as the Western lifestyle welcomes children of all ages under its wide-open skies.  

While some youngsters learn to score a touchdown or throw the perfect curve ball, other Montana kids are roping a dummy calf in the practice pen or fine-tuning the nuances of a perfect barrel pattern. The sport of youth rodeo has consistently been enjoyed in our great state with no slowdown in sight. Although it requires an extensive commitment (from both two-legged and four-legged competitors), the payout is well worth the price. Young athletes learn lessons like responsibility, accountability, the value of teamwork, and often, how to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and get back in the saddle again.  

A young Montana cowgirl named Mackenzie Griffin hails from Belfry in Carbon County. Griffin can’t remember a time she didn’t love being around horses, from the Breyer collector figurines she played with when she was little, to the real-life equine companions she spends most of her time with today. Although rodeo is a big part of her life, Griffin says, “Neither of my parents ever rodeoed when they were younger. My dad grew up on a farm where he had horses, but my mom grew up in the city where she never was around anything like that.” Griffin and her older sister first started watching barrel racing on TV during big-name events like the National Finals Rodeo. Barrel racing is wildly popular among cowgirls of all ages and involves a horse and rider, racing at breakneck speeds in a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels in the arena. Then, both athletes must work together as one to try to complete the pattern in the fastest time.  

Griffin remembers “running the barrel pattern on our hands and knees in our living room” before finally getting her first horse, a gelding named Liberty. She says of her family, “We basically taught ourselves everything we know but have received help from very generous people along the way. We started out at little youth rodeos but eventually began to travel all over the state and then compete nationally in the sport we love.” In addition to barrel racing, female rodeo athletes like Griffin can enter breakaway roping, team roping, goat tying, and pole bending. 

Griffin says there are many components to a successful rodeo career, no matter the competitor’s age. “My key elements to a successful rodeo career are keeping a positive attitude and a healthy mindset, along with being humble. I try to keep in mind the phrase iron sharpens iron, which helps me choose who I hang around with. I need people who are going to encourage me and help make me better as a person and competitor.” She also notes that even though winning is fun (and profitable!), staying humble is equally as important. She says, “The only person you should focus on trying to beat is yourself. You want to be better than you were the day before. Having a positive attitude and healthy mindset helps you focus on your goals and also plays a key role in how you compete.” Griffin quickly notes how this approach transfers to other areas outside the arena, saying, “You won’t compete well if you're thinking negatively about your run, and this applies to school as well. You're never going to do well on your test or in your classes if you're thinking negatively.” 

Athletes need to balance excellence in the arena and the classroom. Certain organizations, like the Montana High School Rodeo Association (which Griffin is a part of), award its members college scholarships and assistance with continuing education based in part on academic achievement and accomplishments in their sport. Founded in 1947, 12,500 National High School Rodeo Association students compete in over 1,100 sanctioned rodeos yearly. Top competitors qualify to compete in the National High School Finals Rodeo, a Super Bowl-esque event for these young athletes. Griffin, a rising high school junior, says, “Balancing rodeo, school, and my extra activities are honestly pretty easy and manageable for me. I work really hard to get good grades in school, as I need them to keep in good standing with the MHSRA. I play high school basketball in winter, which is usually the off-season for me and my horses. I care a lot about my rodeo career, but that will have to tie in with my education, so that's my main focus. We travel on the weekends and during the summertime when school doesn't interrupt my studies, which is really nice.” 

Rodeo often feels like one big family since athletes usually travel to the events with the same people weekly. Griffin credits her success to her family members: "My mom and dad are very supportive towards anything I do. They are the most selfless people on the earth, and do anything for our family to make sure we have everything we need. My mom is beautiful and strong and is the backbone of our family. My dad is hardworking and motivated, and very caring. My sister is my best friend. She's strong, hardworking, and beautiful. She's selfless and has the biggest heart.” Griffin says, when asked to describe herself, “I don't put up with anything, but I have a very big heart. I care most for the ones I love, and I'm very motivated and passionate in what I do.”  

The Western lifestyle doesn’t exclude animals in conversations about family since, many times, livelihoods are dependent on the health and happiness of these equine friends. With personalities and temperaments as distinct as their human companions, rodeo horses are carefully trained to fit perfectly with the demands of their sport. Griffin laughs, “I treat my horses better than I treat myself! They all have such different personalities. My goat horse is very spunky and loving but the most well-behaved 7-year-old at the same time. My barrel horse is very laid back and calm but is very serious about his job. My breakaway horse is on the more-shy side but loving, and she is very solid and serious as well.” 

Rodeo is truly one of the great American pastimes, encompassing the values of perseverance, community, and hard work in one of the most exhilarating displays of athleticism you’ll ever find. From a small-town fair rodeo to the bright lights of Vegas and the NFR, there is a place for everyone in the arena. Griffin echoes this family atmosphere, saying, “I would never be where I'm at today or be the competitor I am if it weren't for my parents and sister. Absolutely none of this would be possible without my family. They really are my biggest supporters and contributors to my rodeo career. No words could describe how grateful I am for them.”  

Originally printed in the July 2023 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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