LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — Clad in ornate chaps, protective vests and straw cowboy hats, little cowpokes crowded the Albany County Fairgrounds bucking chute return, anxiously eyeing the horned beasts to their left and right.
Cowboys and cowgirls, aged 8-18, cooled their nerves with idle chatter and last minute advice about what could be the most important eight seconds of their summer.
Silence fell over spectator and participant alike, hats were placed over hearts and heads bowed as the national anthem filled the arena, kicking off the Laramie Jubilee Days Junior Bull Riding Rodeo.
All eyes focused on the arena.
Each chute opened revealed a new chapter in the saga of rider vs. bull. Mud flew, riders fell and hooves kicked. No matter the outcome, every bout was met with a round of cheers.
But behind the chaos, hidden among the numerous volunteers working the chutes, Roland and Georgie Smith, co-owners of S&S Mini Bucking Bulls, were hard at work ensuring the animals were ready to go and fit for performance.
“I started riding steers at 10 years old,” said Roland Smith, a clean-shaven 62-year old with weathered hands and a neighborly smile. “It’s not the same as riding bulls, and a lot guys didn’t take the transition from steers to bulls well.”
Without access to better alternatives, he explained many junior rodeos used steers for young bull riders until they were big enough to straddle the full-grown bulls used in the professional rodeo circuit.
“I felt there was a need for something in between,” Roland Smith said.
“So, we started raising mini bulls about 10 years ago. It can build some good bull riders, starting them on mini bulls. It’s kind of like a bull riding university if you will.”
Jubilee Days has hosted junior bull riding for about 16 years, but for more than a decade, the Jubilee Days Committee scrounged for animals the kids could ride, Jubilee Days Committee Vice Chair Myron Hales said.
“What we’d do before the mini bulls is we’d try to round up steers and yearling (bulls),” Hales explained. “We’d get local animals from local ranchers, whatever we could find.”
The stock was enough to get people involved, but he said it was a less than ideal situation.
“The kids like the mini bulls so much better,” Hales said. “Those peewee bulls by no means are mean, and they don’t buck a lot. But at the same time, they give the kids the feel of riding a bull.”
About four years ago, Hales discovered S&S and has contracted with them ever since.
The Smith’s mini bulls are bred specifically for the junior bull riding experience, Roland Smith said.
“They’re a different breed altogether,” he explained. “We started out breeding zebu cows with mini brahma.”
While the zebu and miniature brahma mix achieved the size and temperament the couple was looking for, the resulting bulls didn’t always have the energy to keep up with the kids, Roland Smith said.
“We started breeding in Scottish highlander, angus and dexter cows, so the bulls are truly a crossbreed,” he explained. “The dexter, angus and highlander give them power and thickness and the stamina to buck.”
Before Georgie Smith married Roland Smith in 2003, she’d never worked a ranch, but nowadays, children flock to her side inquiring about how to ride the different bulls.
“I tell them to ride them jump for jump, because even though a bull acted one way at one event, there’s no guarantee they’ll act the same at this one,” Georgie Smith said.
Without Roland Smith’s agricultural background, the rodeo was a wide new world.
“The thing that always surprises me the most about rodeoing is the kids aren’t competitive with each other,” she said, rolling her plaid sleeve up to her shoulder and adjusting the brunette pony tail poking through her ball cap. “They are only competitive with the animal they’re about to ride.”
Living in New Mexico, the Smiths drive nine hours one way to deliver their bulls the day of the event, then turn around and drive back the next morning.
Because of the long trip, Roland Smith said they often contract with other breeders around the area to supply additional bulls, allowing the couple to make the trip with a single trailer of their own stock in tow.
“It was a lot easier when we lived in Colorado a year ago,” Georgie Smith said. “But when we moved, we knew we didn’t want to lose this event. We love it.”
Roland Smith added, “Myron is great to work with. The people come out in crowds, and there’s lots of kids who love to ride bulls. It’s a great event to be a part of.