The National Junior High Finals Rodeo will be held this year in Huron, which is convenient if you’re from Waubay, like Tigh Gaikowski.
Gaikowski, 12, is in his first year of junior high rodeo. But the 4-H veteran jumped right into the new level of competition. He’s been doing rodeo competitively since he could barely talk and started 4-H in second grade, so the move up was natural.
“I like how it’s fun and very competitive,” Gaikowski said. “I like meeting new people along the way.”
Gaikowski qualified for the finals in boys breakaway roping, a discipline he says requires great timing and great communion with your horse.
“You have to keep your horse calm and warmed up,” he said. “When you nod (to release the calf), you have to be ready. You don’t want to break the barrier, you have to time that calf, have your tip down over your shoulder, follow through — it all has to be timed perfectly.”
Gaikowski may be a long-time vet of the sport, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t nerves.
“I’m really nervous,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m also excited. There’s so many people there, and you want to do your best, but you also don’t want to screw up in front of everybody.”
Of course, for Gaikowski this year, competing in Huron means “everybody” really means everybody.
“Huron got the bid again this year, and it’s pretty nice to have it in your home state,” Gaikowski said. “It saves on travel, and my family can all come down and stay instead of having to travel halfway across the country.”
Family matters to Gaikowski. His dad, Glenn, is a old rodeo guy himself and got Tigh into the sport. His grandpa, Dean Gaikowski, is an old rancher who competed in ranch rodeos from time to time.
“My dad grew up with horses and loved them,” Tigh Gaikowski said.
He loved them so much, Gaikowski said Glenn set up a “little loopers” ranch rodeo where Tigh got his start as a two- or three-year-old.
As much as dad and granddad impact Gaikowski’s love for the sport, mom Misty might be even more important, the rider said.
“A good influence is my mom,” Gaikowski said. “She keeps me going and believe in me every day.
With all that positive looking up to do, Gaikowski also has folks looking up to him. He’s got four younger brothers.
“They’ll all do rodeo, yup,” Gaikowski said. “One brother does 4-H, he’ll do junior high next year. Another is doing 4-H next year and two more younger brothers will be doing 4-H in a couple years. I teach them, I help them out.”
The competition at this next level was tough, but Gaikowski feels he just keeps raising his game.
“Every swing, every year I feel like I’m getting way better,” he said. “I’m learning from my mistakes and from other people that have helped me out.”
No rider is much without something to ride, and Gaikowski says he’s got a great one. John Wayne, the seven-year-old quarterhorse Gaikowski has ridden since he was a just-broke three-year-old and ridden exclusively since the horse was four years old, is like the young man’s “bread and butter.”
“If I was to choose between him and another horse, it’d be him every time,” Gaikowski said of John Wayne, who is so named because he looks an awful lot like the Duke’s old horse from the movies.
Horse and rider head to Huron June 23 through 29.