A Valley Falls teen is finding fulfillment on the high school rodeo circuit.
Leah Tenpenny rides a quarter horse like she's been doing it all her life.
She darned near has.
She likes to say she was riding before she was born. That's pretty close to true.
Her mom, Carol, was rodeoing and competing in barrel races the year Leah was born.
Leah was riding solo by the time she was 2.
"My mom used to take me to rodeos when she was ridin' and when she'd leave me to run the barrels, I'd throw a fit," Leah recalled. "I wanted to be with her and the horses. I'd get passed around to different family friends in the stands to calm me down, so I've known a lot of people around rodeos for a long time -- or at least they sure remember me."
Leah entered her first barrel race when she was 6. Then it was on to 4-H events, rodeo clinics and junior rodeos in the likes of Holton, Wichita, Manhattan and Valley Falls, and some bigger deals in Oklahoma.
Today Leah's 18, fresh out of Valley Falls High School. For the past four years she and nearly 200 other Kansas teen-agers have been competing in rodeos sanctioned by the Kansas High School Rodeo Assn.
The KHSRA is not your ordinary breed of high school sports competition. It's real rodeo. Teen-age cowboys ride bulls and broncos, wrestle steers, and rope calves. Cowgirls compete in pole bending, goat tying, barrel racing, and calf and team roping.
Like Leah, most have been around horses all their lives.
These athletes put their horses, bodies and hearts to the test 26 times over 13 weekends this last school year, in locales from Lakin to Phillipsburg to Great Bend to McPherson to Manhattan and eight other usually dusty, sometimes-muddy Kansas livestock arenas.
After the dust settles today at the state finals in Topeka (1 p.m. starting time at the Kansas Expocentre) they'll learn who qualifies for next month's nationals in Gillette, Wyo.
It's a family affair
A lot of these cowgirls and cowboys have been riding together for years.
The competition is tough; competitors are like family.
They're quick to share bits, bridles, lariats, saddles and moral support.
"I've loaned my horse when a girl's ride went lame," said Stacey Wood, an 18-year-old from Pomona. "It's common practice."
Stacey was valedictorian of her senior class at Pomona High School. She's headed to Kansas State University this fall on a scholarship and will compete on the rodeo team there. The scholarship, in addition to an academic stipend, will pay for the horse's boarding.
Because spring weekends are filled with rodeoing away from home, many miss their high school's spring formal. So they hold a cowboy version. Black ties, formal wear, shiny dresses and lots of cowboy hats.
No 'cheap operation'
Riders like Leah and Stacey usually haul three horses each to a rodeo -- one for running poles, another for barrels and one for goat tying and roping. The horses can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to well over $10,000 each.
Packing up for a trip to a rodeo is an adventure for the participants and their families. They each pull a trailer that's combination horse hauler and living quarters, complete with cooking and sleeping facilities.
Besides three horses, each trailer holds feed, ropes, bridles, saddles, blankets, clothing, food, water, buckets and a world of accessories.
"Hey," says "Chief" Tenpenny, Leah's father, "This is not a cheap operation. You figure you've got a hundred dollars in gas right off the bat, a hundred-dollar camping fee ...
"And did I mention vet (veterinarian) bills," he laughs.
"Now don't listen to him", says his wife, Carol. "He loves the rodeo as much as we do. Chief and I met at a high school rodeo, and we've been involved in rodeo since we've been married."
Carol sold her own horse to get Leah some better rides.
Speaking of expenses: Unlike most high school sports, winning an event in high school rodeo is worth some money. Each participant pays a $24 entry fee per event. After expenses, $15 goes into a pot.
If you have a heck of an afternoon, you can win $300 or more. You still won't break even.
Leah has enjoyed some good afternoons.
- Ninth grade: Third in the state in barrel racing.
- Sophomore: First in state in barrel racing and pole bending, fifth in poles in nationals.
- Junior: First in state in barrel racing and pole bending, third in poles in nationals.
She finished the regular season in the top 10 in all her events. She's talking seriously about a July trip to the nationals. Leah's mother competed in the nationals when she was a student at Topeka West High School.
So how do boys and girls rodeoing mix?
"The boys always complain that barrel racing takes too long and they have to wait to ride their bulls" mused Melissa Ward, Ottawa. "But the truth of the matter is, why would a guy want to go to a rodeo if there were no girls and vice versa?"
Melissa learned roping from her mother, Kay.
Spurred to compete
Compare boys calf roping to girls breakaway (calf) roping.
It's apples and oranges.
In boys calf roping, horse and rider chase after a calf, rope it, hit the ground running, throw the calf on its side and tie its feet together.
In breakaway, girl and horse pursue the calf and rope it, and as the rope plays out it pulls a small colored string from the rider's saddle and the calf lopes off dragging a rope.
Picture Leah Tenpenny or one of her "family" sitting on 1,100 pounds of ready-to-run quarter horse. It's backed into the far corner of the corral, rump against the fence. Leah weighs 120 pounds and is 5 feet 3 inches tall, without her hat. She's pulling hard on the reins, because at the slightest sound her horse will take off. Cowboys are positioning a calf into a chute behind a spring-loaded gate.
The gate flies open, calf fires out on a dead run. Horse and rider are close behind. That horse that was standing still a second ago now is going 35 mph.
A quarter horse is fast enough to beat a Kentucky Derby winner in a quarter mile.
Leah is standing in her stirrups, twirling the looped end of the rope over her head with one hand and holding the reins and the rope in the other.
Does riding with no hands while standing in the stirrups come to mind?
After some maneuvering, the lasso finds its mark and the green flag goes up for the timer.
Elapsed time: usually from three to five seconds.
She's got 'want-to'
Martha Josey is the only cowgirl to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo (rodeo's Super Bowl) in four consecutive decades beginning in 1968. She teaches a lot of people how to improve their barrel racing and other rodeo skills at her ranch in East Texas and in clinics across the country.
She knows the Tenpennys.
"I've never seen Leah on a horse without 'try' on her face," Josey said from her ranch in Karnack, Tex. "She's already talking about National Finals Rodeo. Her positive attitude, her want-to and focus will probably get her there. She gets wonderful support from her family."
So where does all this want-to come from?
"I love to win," admits Leah. "It's really a rush when people tell me how good I did or just say, 'nice ride.'
"Sly knows when he's had a good run, too. "
Sly is her 14-year-old pole-bending horse.
"He gets all cocky, struts around, and I let him buck a little. When he doesn't do well he minds his manners."
How upset does Leah get when she doesn't win?
"I really don't get upset. I try to learn from my mistakes and go out next time and try to do better."
She's heading for Pratt Community College this fall, where she'll continue to rodeo on a college level. Her horses will go with her.
Leah wants to be an elementary school teacher.
"I love rodeo, and I love kids."
As a cowgirl once said, life's great and rodeo's a bonus.
-- Bill Snead's phone message number is 832-7196. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.