As much as it is for anybody — or likely more — for Shane O’Connell, rodeo is a painful sport.
The bareback rider from Rapid City exited the arena after an event-winning run in obvious pain. Exertion flowing through him as the adrenaline wore off and the torment replaces it, his eyes sunk into his skull and the tendons in his neck torqued against the effort it took to keep his jaw tight.
O’Connell, one of the best riders at the Dacotah Stampede Rodeo on Aug. 13 at the Brown County Fairgrounds, was the picture of grit.
“I am hurting on this arm pretty bad. I’ve got to do some special things to it,” O’Connell said arena-side as he stripped several layers of bandages and supports off his left arm to reveal a powerful biceps. “But we do (the wrapping) every time just to prevent stuff.”
He lists his various injuries — tears, separations, other tears, a sprain — like he’s rattling off the list towns he’s visited recently. No big deal.
“It’s just that time of year,” the 22-year old O’Connell said. “We deal with that stuff.”
He’s not just a glutton for punishment, though. O’Connell is striving for something.
“I’m about 10th in the world now and I’ve got two more months left,” he said. “I’ve got to hold my spot, so there ain’t a lot of time to go home — I turned down a few rodeos here and there to try to heal up, but going home just to heal up for a month, there’s no way that’s going to happen. I’ve got two months out here to grind it, and I’m young enough. I’m going to stay out here until I make the finals.”
O’Connell grew up on a ranch north of Wall. His dad, a bareback rider himself, got him started.
“It’s been my life,” he said. “My whole entire life.”
O’Connell said he could’ve played football or wrestled in college, but he picked rodeo.
“It’s what I love,” he said.
Even within rodeo, O’Connell had to sacrifice one passion for another. He loved bareback riding so much he gave up bull riding to focus on the singular discipline.
“A lot of people do it for the money, and of course you do do it for the money,” he said. “But if you don’t absolutely crave riding bucking horses, you ain’t going to make it, especially when times get hard and you want to go home. You have to crave these animals because they’ll eat you up and spit you up if you don’t.
“You’ve got to crave every hair on them. The way they breathe, the way they buck. You just become kind of one a little bit. You’ve got to know your animals.”
There’s a mentality he’s found that helps get through the pain.
“If you sit on your butt out there and you ain’t prepared, you’re going to get hurt even worse,” O’Connell said. “As soon as you put your chaps on or even get your tackle bag out of the van, you’ve got to have your motor running.”
Grea t name and a great ride
Kash Deal was born with a heck of a rodeo name.
But he wasn’t necessarily born with the ability to ride a saddle bronc as well as he’s now able to.
Deal, from Dupree, was the winner in the saddle bronc event, riding a clean 8 seconds on a tricky-enough ride to impress the judges.
“Pretty nice horse,” Deal said. “Makes it a lot easier when you have them like that.”
Deal has been doing this maybe 15 years, eight or so with broncs.
The key, he said, is pretty simple.
“Just stay in rhythm with one and make it look as pretty as you can,” he said.
The feeling when a horse is giving you just the right ride is something difficult to explain, he said.
“It’s phenomenal,” Deal said. “You can’t really see, but feel everything and it feels right.”
Ridi ng out the string
The sun’s about to set on a long, successful career for Brent Belkham.
The barrel-chested steer wrestler from Blunt won his event on Aug. 13, and it was sweet, like it always is to win.
But it was a little sweeter knowing his career is getting close to the end of its rope.
At 34, Belkham could do this for a while longer, but he said he’s made a commitment to his now-13-year-old son that once the boy gets started in rodeo himself, Belkham will call it quits to focus on him.
“I’ve been doing it about 20 years,” Belkham said. “(You need) good horses, determination, the drive to do it, being in decent shape is always a plus. I’ve got a boy and he keeps me driven to keep going because wants to get started himself in a couple years.”
Belkham got started thanks to his grandpa Jack, a steer wrestler himself, who let the young Belkham get on and off some horses and learn the sport.
“There’s a good camaraderie, especially among the steer wrestlers,” he said.
Belkham’s son will probably start in a year or two, and so the end is coming quickly.
“It’s relaxing in ways,” he said. “And kind of a little sad in other ways.”
He’ll miss the people, seeing the young guys come up and start in the sport, and even the travel.
“You get sick of the travel,” he said. “But when you ain’t doing it, you’re going to miss it.”
Every go is precious now.
“When you’re young, you take things for granted, but when you’re older, you take in the little things that you missed when you were young,” he said. “I wish I could’ve put my 34-year-old mind in my 24-year-old body. I wish I could’ve done that. As you get older, you’re smarter. Physically it’s harder to win, but mentally it’s easier.”
Second-chance ride puts Minnesota cowboy in the money
The night got off to a rather inauspicious start for Tanner Aus on Aug. 14 at the Dacotah Stampede Rodeo at the Brown County Fair.
First, his horse ran headfirst into the fence, then sat down, then fell over on top of him.
The whole ordeal happened in a matter of seconds — time being the currency of the rodeo circuit — and the Granite Falls, Minn., cowboy just hung on.
“Stuff like that happens sometimes,” Aus said. “You don’t think about it too much in the moment. You just take care of business. It happened so fast. I was able to hold on to my rigging and just wait for help.”
Help came in the form of both pick-up men, both bull-fighters, and a variety of men in the arena, all of whom raced to Aus’ aid, holding down the horse until the rigging — and Aus — could be extricated.
“That makes sure the horse stays safe and doesn’t hurt itself trying to get up, then I can get away,” Aus said. “Then they let the horse up and get the rigging off. It worked out as well as it could have.”
It was a disappointing end to a promising ride for Aus, who had just scored a placing ride on the very same horse last week in Cheyenne, Wyo.
“I know she was good,” he said. “Just a little bit different arena. Just got a little too close to the fence and piled into it. Just thankful to come away from it unscathed.”
The fall proved to be a continuation of a run of bad luck for Aus.
“The last horse I got on fell down, too,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s a rough sport. Stuff like that happens.”
Regardless, Aus’ spill earned him a second-chance ride, this time on a horse named Spit Fire. And he took full advantage, scoring an 81.5, just half a point out of the top spot on the leaderboard. Shane O’Connell of Rapid City scored an 82 during the action on Aug. 13.
“That’s a good horse, too,” Aus said. “I got on that horse last year in Dickinson, so that was a good opportunity.”
The check was good, as well, since Aus is returning from a month and a half injury break. The three-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier is on the outside looking in when it comes to the world standings. Only the top 15 earn spots at the NFR, and Aus entered Aug. 14 ranked 23rd.
“I’m back now, trying to sprint to the finish,” he said. “It’s good to have opportunities for re-rides when you need a chance to win money.”
Meanwhile, in the bull riding, it was Gumby Wren taking home the top honors. Wren, one of the smallest bull riders in the competition, standing just 5-foot-4, hung on to his bull Spotted Fever and managed a score of 84 points, edging out a pair of 81-point rides.
Wren, of Sydney, Iowa, said he’d seen his ride for the first time in Sioux Falls not long ago, but had never climbed on until Aug. 14.
“I saw he was around to the right the other day,” Wren said. “That was kind of the same tracks he knocked out (Aug. 14).”
Wren’s 84-point performance was the final qualified ride of the night.
Saddle Bronc Riding