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The National High School Rodeo is more than just a collection of kids in chaps and cowboy hats. It is, in fact, the world's largest rodeo—1,131 competitors from 29 states and two Canadian provinces this year—and it was kicking up dust every day last week in the magnificent Helena Valley, where a sign says WELCOME TO MONTANA. LAST OF THE BIG TIME SPLENDORS. By the time everybody got assembled and saddled up, a small cow town of 837 motor homes and assorted camping contraptions filled the Lewis & Clark County Fairgrounds.
As with all rodeos, no matter how big, a considerable amount of pageantry precedes the rib cracking, and it seemed that every teen-ager who could ride was galloping his or her horse around the arena, American flag snapping in the breeze. It was perfectly fitting, allowed Claude Mullins, the man who started the event in Texas back in 1949. "After all," he said, "this country was settled and won from the back of a horse."
And next, as if to prove that cowboys never come up short where sentiment is involved, the rodeo prayer was invoked: "Help us. Lord, to live our life in such a manner that when we make the last inevitable ride to the country up there where the grass grows lush green and stirrup high and the water runs cool, clear and deep, that You as our last judge will tell us that our entry fees are paid." Not that the kids were praying for a draw that would spare them a chute-fighting horse, as one of them put it, but should that happen, well, glory be.
When the country's best young cowboys and cowgirls take over a place for their championship, chaos erupts. By comparison, Cheyenne Frontier Days, the big one for grownups, is a family picnic. High school rodeo is emerging as big stuff these days, even though in many states it gets only grudging acknowledgment from school athletic departments, which generally means little or no money. But make no mistake, this is a real event—a fact that could not be obscured, even with the boys spending some of their spare time roping the girl competitors in hotel and motel lobbies and out around those 837 campers.
Come time for competition and seriousness settled in, especially for the Sunday finals. When the last chute had burst open, three of the 13 events had been won by Texans—Monk Dishman in the bareback broncs, Jerry Daniels in saddle broncs and Kirk Dillard in the calf-roping—and Texas had won its second straight high school title. The all-round cowboy title went to 18-year-old Sterling Wines of Ruby Valley, Nev., who really wasn't entirely all-round—he excelled only in the saddle broncs—but intricate supporting rules and a whirring computer said that he was the one. All-round cowgirl was Lori Primrose, 17, of Tucumcari, N.M., who modestly admitted, "I didn't think I could do it at all." And the rodeo queen was Janice Nelson of Jerome, Idaho, who concluded that she was just thrilled.
All through the week there were plenty of guys hanging around playing macho by spitting juice from their Copenhagen chaws into the dust. And there were plenty more talking of how they will go down the road soon with the professional rodeo cowboys and win a bunch of money. But that was a typical stance among the young men. Just as representative among the girls was Barrie Beach, 17, of Gilbert, Ariz., who had won the goat-tying competition for the last three years and was in Helena going for an unprecedented fourth straight.
Drugstore cowboys who become convulsed over an exploit called goat tying should know that when Barrie is performing at her peak, which is often, she is described as "a blur who really whips it on them." The event was established in 1972 as an alternative to the boys' steer wrestling. Contestants must ride a horse about 50 yards, jump off, race to a goat staked in the middle of the arena, seize and throw it and tie three of its legs together. Times vary with arena conditions, but 10 seconds is considered very quick, and Barrie has been known to accomplish this task in eight seconds.
Small wonder. Back home, she gets up at 4 a.m. each day before school and goes to a practice arena set up on the family spread. There she throws goats to the ground and ties them until she gets 20 clockings in a time that meets her exacting standards. Then she'll practice tying, at least 100 times. Then she'll practice for the breakaway roping event, at which she also excels. After four hours, she quits for breakfast. In the evening she returns to practice team roping, at which she also excels. "She's too hard-driving," says her mother, Pat. "I tell her she doesn't enjoy things."
Before coming to Helena, Barrie had won 21 saddles and 150 belt buckles as amateur trophies. Many of them were in goat tying, an endeavor that has the added benefit of handsomely qualifying her as a Christmas fill-in at J. C. Penney's gift-wrap counter. Her trophy saddles runneth over so much that Barrie has sold five of them for between $200 and $500 each, but she laments, "I hate to do that because I always think I might not win another."
A candid athlete with a face as open as the West, Barrie is asked what the fun is in goat tying.