Hundreds of young rodeo competitors from across the region finished up their season last weekend as the Young Guns Timed Event Extravaganza held its finals at the Western State Bank Expo Center.
Kids from as young as three all the way through 18 compete in events such as barrel racing, roping events, and steer wrestling.
Rodeo typically follows a spring and summer season, but over the winter opportunities to train and actually test abilities against live competition are hard to come by, especially in the remote area served by most of the Young Guns competitors.
Four area families originally got together three years ago to start the Young Guns program to fill the void of winter competition.
Amy Wallace and her husband Troy were part of the original group of families that started Young Guns. Her daughter Tia is 14 and competes in several events. Wallace said Tia and the other competitors needed a venue during the winter and Dodge City's facility was a prime location.
“Just like any kind of athletics, the horses have to stay in shape the kids have to stay in shape and stay on top of their game,” Wallace said. “The Expo here is such a nice facility and when they built it we thought they should be doing something nice for the kids to continue working during the wintertime.”
Young Guns board member Troy Snook said the association is a prime example of involved, caring parents coming together to advance the interests of their children.
"We're very proud of these kids," Snook said. "We've built an association of good rodeo people. I would put my kid in a pickup with any of them and send them across the world."
Wallace said that most rodeo participants get in regular practice at home over the wintertime, but they get more benefit out of working in a competitive environment as well as having the chance to be around so many of their fellow participants.
“Since Dodge City has such a nice facility we thought they should be utilizing it and helping the kids at the same time,” Wallace said. "They have the opportunity now to stay sharp and meet other kids who do the same things."
Young Guns also further solidifies the character found across the board in the rodeo community. While some athletes can take a break for weeks or even months during the off-season, kids in rodeo have daily obligations and year-round commitments.
Personal responsibility is paramount to the rodeo life. Wallace said her daughter began riding at an early age and has developed responsibility beyond her years.
"She has to take care of her horses every day,” Wallace said. “She’s out there feeding them twice a day. It has definitely made her grow as a person.
"I feel like rodeo kids are polite and full of responsibility and respect. They know how hard it is to do all this and they’re very appreciative. They don’t take a lot of things for granted."
The Young Guns rodeo doesn’t just serve to foster character and responsibility in young people, it's a boon to the local economy as well. The vast majority of kids are from outside the area. Ten rodeos over five separate weekends bring hundreds of people to Dodge city, filling hotels and restaurants and during a typically slow winter tourism season.
"When a lot of these kids come both sets of grandparents or aunts and uncles will be here, too," Wallace said. "I don’t think the city and county realize how much this brings in."
According to Wallace, organizers of the Kansas High School Rodeo Association came to a Young Guns event during the first year of the group’s existence. Those organizers were so impressed with the Expo Center facilities that they decided to bring the junior high finals to Dodge City last year. The finals will be coming back this year - a four-day event in May that also promises to bring hundreds of visitors.
"We’re glad that Expo Center is here and we’re going to take the opportunity and use it," Wallace said. "We feel like we’ve helped expose that to others and helped to get them to use it as well."
Snook said the facilities at the Expo Center are among the tops in the state.
"They do a heck of a job," Snook said. "This is a premier facility. The stall barn with the news stalls has been a great addition. We work with the city and the county, the tourism board and the Community Facilities Advisory Board ... they've all been a part of helping us."
Snook said the farming and ranching heritage common to most families is they key to pulling off such a large event over five months.
"It takes a large effort," Snook said. "We don't have a ball field we can just go to. It takes a collective effort to get this done and we all understand that.
"We come from agricultural background. We all get up early in the morning and we all stay late ... that's our way of life. We obviously love to do it because it's definitely a lot of work."
The competitors in Young Guns don't simply get a chance to sharpen their skills over the winter. The competition is real and the group awards an average of $20,000 in prize money every weekend, according to secretary Jamie Schweer. At the final award banquet Feb. 18, almost $100,000 in prizes were awarded.
Judges are paid a small amount at each event, and the Young Guns does pay a secretary to handle the mass of information stemming from hundreds of young people participating in thousands of events over the winter.
Giving back to the community and lending a helping hand to anyone in need is a big focus. At each event dozens of volunteers show up to help set up fences and gates, drag the dirt during competition to keep it relatively uniform, wrangle cattle and pull ropes, work the chutes, and help out in virtually any other activity on rodeo day.
“There’s no way we could afford to pay everybody,” Wallace said. "We all do it just to make this work for the kids so they get the chance to compete and make themselves better."
Snook said that attitude stems from examples set forth by rodeo parents.
"Everyone who comes here is part of this community," Snook said. "If somebody gets in a bind they go help them. It's the western way of life, it's what we do every day.”
Most of the families participating in Young Guns over the last couple years had been from places relatively close to Dodge City. This year dozens of kids from Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma have joined the association.
Wallace said that expansion helps to grow the camaraderie within the rodeo community. She said that her daughter met a girl from Colorado who was competing in the same events and the girls and their families hit it off immediately, enthusiastically cheering for one another.
"Most of us had known each other and were used to helping each other," Wallace said. "You’ll even find the kids sitting there cheering for other riders. Even if they might beat you in an event, you know how hard they worked and so you want them to do their best. You still want to win, but everybody wants to win with everyone doing their best.
"It’s just really cool that people can come from all over and we can all get along so well," Wallace said.
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