The family inheritance: Youth rodeo passes culture, tradition from parent to child

Morgan Hughes
Casper Star Tribune, Wyo.

To entertain herself, Tye Westbrook asks ridiculous and intricate questions, like, “If you had five dogs — three girls and two boys — what would their names be?” She demonstrates moonwalking and jazz squares while sitting in a booster seat in the back of her mother’s car.

Tye is “a pistol,” says her mother, Mandi. She’s impatient like an 8-year-old but brilliant like one, too.

She loves the water and makes every excuse to keep splashing for a few more seconds. “Let me wash my sandals,” she tells Mandi, buying another minute. She chases chickens around the coop in her backyard and thinks it’s funny when she pulls a leech from a pond and leaves it on her mom’s shoulder.

But in the arena, she’s a competitor, fierce as any. For 18 seconds, there are no toys or games or silly inquisitions. Just Tye, an old horse called Maggie and an open course ahead of them.

Tye is small, maybe even the smallest of the athletes in the Wyoming Junior Rodeo Association’s junior girls division. When Maggie bounds through the metal gates toward an upright barrel in the corner of the ring, Tye’s frame lurches forward and her whole body lifts off the saddle for a breath. But somehow Tye is still on the horse as they round the second and then the third barrel. On the way back, Tye guns it.

“My favorite part is going into the first barrel and coming back from the third barrel,” she says after riding out of the arena. “I like going fast.”

Like most of her fellow competitors, Tye is at least a third-generation rodeo athlete. Her grandparents were bull riders. Her father, too. Her mother races barrels. She loves every piece of it. Her ranch life on the outskirts of Casper. Her animals. The dirt.

“I hate being clean,” she says. “I want to be a farm kid and not a princess in a castle.”

What Tye won’t realize for a little while longer is that she is inheriting an empire of sorts, built on a century of history and grit.

A horse with no rider followed Gabby Longwell into a dusty rodeo arena last month at the Hot Springs County Fairgrounds. The empty saddle was a dedication to a fallen cowboy: Gabby’s grandfather Dennis Longwell, the patriarch of the Wyoming Junior Rodeo Association.

Cindy Longwell watched from the stands. She and Dennis founded this organization 30 years ago. He died of a heart attack earlier this year, and she gets a little emotional talking about the legacy her husband left behind.

“I’m really proud of the association,” she said. “I didn’t imagine it would continue this long. I worried it would just die out.”

The idea of youth rodeo was not new when Cindy and Dennis first considered starting an organization in Wyoming. They were raising four boys and driving them to youth rodeo events across the West in Montana, Utah — everywhere but Wyoming.

Today the association has about 100 members, and most of those members compete in multiple events. There are peewee events for children under 6 years old, like goat tail tying — a modified tie-down event that’s exactly what it sounds like: small children tying ropes around goat tails.

Seven through 10-year-olds and 11 through 15-year-olds compete in separate divisions and do everything from barrel racing to breakaway roping to steer riding.

Association members say that junior rodeo, and rodeo generally, is both a sport like any other and a sport uniquely its own.

“You get sort of trapped in it,” said Tye’s father, Chad Westbrook. Chad is the current president of the junior rodeo association. His own father rode bareback broncs and roped. Chad rode bulls in high school and competed with Cindy’s sons.

He said when it’s all you know, when it’s all your friends know, it’s all you want to do: “I don’t think there’s any sport or organization like it.”

Rodeo athletes are much the same as football players, ballerinas, gymnasts. It takes an extreme dedication, even at the youth level, to stand out and succeed. Many of the families involved said they practice for several hours every day, and nearly every weekend is filled with a rodeo a few hundred miles from the last one.

But rodeo is also distinct in its historical significance. The sport grew out of work life necessity. Old West cowboys needed to be able to rope livestock to keep a herd moving and wrestle them to the ground to administer medicine.

And though the utility of the sport has changed, it’s still an opportunity for these parents to teach their children to be good cowboys and cowgirls. What that means differs, depending who you ask. Tye’s grandmother and Mandi’s mom Joan Fleming said it’s about the lifestyle.

“You live the life, you work the life,” she said. “All I know is you can’t just put a hat on your head and call yourself a cowboy. You have to live the life.”

Joan grew up ranching, and while she didn’t compete in rodeos herself, her father and brothers did. Her husband and Mandi’s father, CR Fleming, was a bull rider for a long time. So it was only natural that rodeo would enchant Mandi next.

It’s a “family legacy kind of sport,” explained Shantel Moore, another rodeo parent.

So when Mandi was in high school, she taught herself to barrel race and took her dad’s old ranch horse to rodeos around Sheridan County, where she grew up.

“She found her niche,” Joan said.

And Tye is looking to do the same.

On rodeo weekends, Tye, Mandi and Chad load up a horse trailer with Maggie and another horse, Speck. They pack up their two dogs; Diesel, a massive Bernese mountain dog, and an old corgi named Cash. There are rodeos most weekends, and to qualify for the state finals, junior rodeo association members must compete in at least five other rodeos over the course of the summer. But because Chad is president and Mandi is secretary of the association, they’re at every rodeo anyway.

Tye loves the travel.

“She’s my little gypsy,” Mandi said.

The family was in Cody a few weeks ago. They made the three and a half hour drive that Friday morning, and the whole family competed in the weekend’s events.

While they were there, Diesel got sick and needed an emergency stomach surgery. It was stressful and emotional; the next weekend they drove the hour from Cody to Thermopolis for another event with Diesel recovering on the way.

“It’s a lot,” Mandi conceded.

But she said as soon as Tye stops having fun, they’ll stop. So far, though, Tye is still in love with the sport.

When Cindy Longwell started the association, she saw it the same way.

“I have absolutely no regrets over the time, the money, the horses, the calves, money spent on hauling the kids and travelling with them,” she said. “We did it as a family. I think that’s the one thing you can say about all of this, we did it as a family.”

The Westbrooks started raising cattle a couple of years ago. This year Tye has a few head of her own. She’s learning responsibility and how to care for the animals.

So when she was given a gentle Jersey calf to care for, she gave him a funny name — Darlene — like most 8-year-olds would, and loved it gingerly.

Last month Darlene’s curiosity led him behind a metal gate. He wedged himself between it and a shed wall, got stuck and suffocated. Mandi tried to save the animal but by the time she got to him, there wasn’t anything she could do.

It was hard on Tye, Mandi said.

“Ranching life can be heartbreaking,” Mandi said. “I tell her we can only name the ones we’re going to keep.”

Most ranchers will tell you the relationship with their animals is intimate and profound. They rely on them for their livelihood. They trust them with their children. All of the Westbrooks’ horses go to chiropractors and physical therapy. Mandi has bottle-fed runt or sickly calves and kept them in her living room until they were well enough to rejoin the herd.

So claims that rodeo is abusive, even deadly, to the animals involved are difficult for Mandi to hear.

“I want people to get their facts,” Mandi said. “Come behind the chute, see how it actually goes, see how we handle the animals.”

Major animal rights groups across the board condemn rodeo. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals encourages its members to protest rodeo events. Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) has been filming the Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo since 2005 to document alleged cases of animal abuse.

“It’s a different philosophy,” said Doug Corey, a longtime Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association veterinarian who helped the organization write new animal welfare policies in the 1980s.

Those policies required a veterinarian to be on-site at all PRCA events, and prohibited prods and “similar devices” unless an animal is stalled in the chute. As for the claim that rodeos result in high animal injury rates, Corey said that’s simply untrue.

“There’s always that potential (of injury),” he said. “But if the rules and guidelines are in place then that is absolutely minimized.”

He said .003 percent of all animals used in PRCA events are injured or killed as a result of the rodeo and that the chances of needing veterinary attention are low.

Mandi also worries about the perception that rodeo is dangerous to the competitors.

“Them saying, ‘How can we put our kids on 1,000 pound animals?’” Mandi started to say, trailing off and shaking her head.

Tye isn’t riding a 1,900-pound bull. She’s riding Maggie, a gentle, 17-year-old quarter horse Mandi used to race on. Mandi is always watching. Making sure Tye is being safe, making sure she’s not wearing long jewelry or baggy clothes that could get caught on the saddle horn.

Anecdotally, the only injury the junior rodeo association has seen in recent years was more of a freak accident than something that it could be prepared for. Last year, a boy’s horse died in the arena while he was riding it. It had a heart attack and just collapsed, falling on the boy and spraining his ankle.

No bull or bronc rider lasts long without some sort of injury, but those events don’t exist at the junior level. And even older competitors — roughstock or not — aren’t in any more danger than football players, according to data from the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. Between 1996 and 2005, 8.2 injuries happened at the National High School Rodeo Finals per 1,000 so-called “competitor exposures.” The rate is 8.1 for NCAA football and 10.4 for women’s gymnastics, according to recent studies.

Even within high school rodeo, roping events account for roughly 4 percent of injuries (the most common roping injury is “digit amputation”), and barrel racing accounts for 2.5 percent, according to the journal’s study.

Still, the sport isn’t risk free.

“It always makes me nervous, anything can happen at any time,” Joan said. “It’s comforting Tye’s such a good rider. ... I kind of wish she would have (a helmet).”

Tye has never been seriously injured while competing. Her family has taken a lot of precautions to make sure of it. Rather than learn on a full-sized horse, Tye started on a pony named Scottie that Joan gave to her. When she was ready for the next step, Mandi gave her Maggie, a horse Mandi loved and trusted and had known for years.

Tye admitted she was a little scared when she first rode Maggie. But the fear quickly evaporated, superseded by adrenaline and joy. When Tye wanted to start competing in pole bending, Mandi tried the horse they were looking at first to make sure it would be compatible with a little girl.

The precautions don’t stop at the size of the horse. Mandi has instilled a relative caution in Tye.

“Teaching your children respect of horses, respect of speed, is a big deal,” Mandi said.

Three rubber baby dolls are laid down to nap in a toy stroller Tye’s Nana bought at a Sam’s Club. Above them, a cartoon movie plays from a large, wall-mounted television. Tye is sitting next to the stroller holding another doll, Ella. She is trying to unknot an elastic from Ella’s long, blonde hair.

Mandi comes into the room and sits down beside her. Tye hands Mandi the doll and Mandi struggles with the knot for a moment before successfully removing the bind and handing Ella back to Tye.

The two visit for a while. They talk about Tye’s big win in breakaway roping the previous weekend at a rodeo in Thermopolis, where from the back of a galloping horse Tye was able to lasso a moving calf. It was the first time she’d made a catch, and naturally the pair were ecstatic.

“Some days she’s just got it,” Mandi says.

So far this season Tye has competed more than 30 times, including rodeos and barrel racing events. She’s 10th in the overall junior girls division standings. Last year, she finished third overall and banked more than $300. Even though she only recently caught her first calf in breakaway, it’s her best event. She will head into the state finals fourth in the event. Barrel racing is her next best; she’s seventh overall.

“She rides like the wind,” says Joan, Tye’s grandmother. “I knew from the time she was a little girl she was going to be quite the cowgirl.”

This talent stands to benefit Tye in the future. The opportunities rodeo can offer are undeniable. Athletes have the chance to win decent money. The No. 1 girl in Tye’s division this year has won more than $1,000 this summer alone.

Right now, though, those options aren’t on Tye’s mind.

She follows Mandi from room to room, dumps a bin of multicolored gel pens on the kitchen floor, and opens a coloring book at Mandi’s feet, always near.

When Mandi and Chad were married, they moved into the house Chad was raised in, where they still live. Mandi went to podiatry school. Chad started his own construction business. All the while they were trying unsuccessfully to have a baby.

Mandi knew it would be hard. Her mother struggled to get pregnant, but after having Mandi she had triplets five years later. So Mandi wasn’t worried. She “left it to God.”

After struggling to get pregnant once, Mandi and Chad agreed, “one was enough.”

But Mandi has been noticing that it might not be enough for Tye.

Eventually, she’ll want to see her friends every day. She’ll want to stay out late and not have to ask permission. She’ll want to go to a concert in the city or to prom or on a first date.

A few years ago Chad built Tye a treehouse, painted it purple and branded it with her name. The structure is massive — it holds a deck with a small couch. There are two stories, toys abounding from each and bunk beds built into the walls.

“We asked her why she never uses it,” Mandi says. “She said she didn’t have anyone to play with.”

For a little while, Tye was in public school at Oregon Trail Elementary. She missed more days than the administrators were comfortable with, and they let Mandi know it. At the same time, Tye was struggling with some of the material, so Mandi said enough and decided to try homeschooling.

“I like that I don’t have to be pulled out of school to do rodeos,” Tye says. “But I miss my friends.”

After Tye finished an event at the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo earlier this summer, she walked Maggie to her place outside their trailer. A water spout trickled a few dozen yards away. Tye filled a bucket and then carried it carefully with two hands back to Maggie.

Tye isn’t quite tall enough to remove Maggie’s saddle, so Mandi helped with that. By the end of the chores Tye was stir crazy and pulling at Mandi’s clothes, begging to go play with her friends.

“I guess playing is more important than rodeoing,” Mandi said playfully.

Tye said, “It is right now.”