Lyle Sankey, owner
and founder of Sankey Rodeo School, gives advice to 12-year-old
bareback rider Cotton Wheeler. Sankey Rodeo School teaches cowboys
of all ages and skill levels how to be better riders.
Sean Prichard rode bareback for the first time, his right leg began
shaking noticeably. He strained to get in position as a man wearing
a black baseball cap leaned over the chute and calmly offered advice.
Sean occasionally glanced up and shook his head in response, but
his concentration was honed in on the 1,200-pound black gelding that
waited beneath him, like a tightly wound spring ready to explode.
Sean’s leg began twitching even more with anticipation.
think he’s nervous?” asked one onlooker.
gate flew open and the animal burst out, bucking madly as Sean
clung to the leather rigging handle.
The bronco flailed in every direction but Sean held on, his arm
jerking back and forth as if attached to a jackhammer. Around
the six-second mark, the wild horse darted dangerously close
to the fence, but the rider’s adrenaline
kept him from letting go.
eight seconds, a whistle blew and Sean loosened his grip. He slid
off the horse’s left side and
scurried to safety.
behind the chutes and breathing heavily, Sean smiled as he told a
group of fellow riders about his first ride.
“All I remember
was getting close to the fence and letting go,” he
said, panting for breath. “It sure was fun — but I think
wait to ride again until in the morning.”
It was the second
evening of the Sankey Rodeo School, held near Humansville on Dec.
1-3. Two days earlier, a strong snowstorm left much of the state
buried beneath more than a foot of snow and ice. Yet these cowboys
and their families traveled thousands of miles on slick roads to
reach the Double J Indoor Arena, a 1,500-seat rodeo arena located
10 miles west of Humansville.
A bullrider at Sankey Rodeo School holds on tight as his fellow
students cheer him on.
They came from
as far as Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. Months earlier,
the 37 rodeo athletes and their families had signed up and shelled
out $380 for the school. Now, they weren’t about to miss it.
were all there to learn from the man in the black cap — a
rodeo great named Lyle Sankey, who runs Sankey Rodeo School, based
out of Branson. And while the students came from different states,
ages and skill levels, they all had one thing in common — they
wanted to be better riders.
learn tricks of the trade from other people, but sometimes it’s
not the right way,” explained Robbie Babson, father of bareback
rider Sean Babson of Vilonia, Ark. “That’s why
we decided to go to a rodeo school. Who else better to learn
from than a rodeo professional?”
who better than Lyle? He’s one of just four men in the
history of rodeo to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo
in bareback, saddle bronc and bullriding. He’s also won
the National Finals Rodeo Bull Riding event twice. But before
becoming the teacher, even Lyle was a student at a similar
“It was quite
an eye-opener,” Lyle
recalls. “I thought I actually
knew something until I got to the rodeo school and realized
there are better ways to do things.”
Lyle, as well
as his brother, Ike, learned from the school and went
on to great success in professional rodeo. After a number
of years on the circuit, several hometown friends asked
the Sankey brothers to host a rodeo school in Rose Hill, Kan. “It was
successful, so it just grew from there,” says Lyle.
Today, Sankey Rodeo
School hosts 30-35 sessions per year and works with approximately 1,500 families
annually. The school accepts nearly all ages and skill levels, based on the
rider’s maturity. During the school’s 31 years, Lyle
has watched many former students go on to win numerous
rodeo awards and honors.
|Cotton Wheeler listens
to Lyle’s advice while sitting on
a mechanical bucking horse designed by Sankey Rodeo School for
that sets this rodeo school apart from the competition is the personal
attention,” says Lyle. “You’ve
got somebody in the bucking chutes with you, somebody in the arena right
after you get off and open sessions with a video review of the ride, where
students interact and ask questions.”
A weekend at Sankey
Rodeo School goes something like this: On the first day, riders choose
a single event — bullriding,
bareback or saddle bronc — which
they will focus on during the entire school. The
staff then leads a number of drills and practices, as well as lectures,
demonstrations and reviews of the bucking chute procedure, riding skills
and dismount techniques. Before the day is over, students mount up and
ride. The most frequent comment he hears is “It
looked easier on TV.”
like skateboarding or skiing,” says Lyle. “It
looks a lot easier when someone else does it.”
each riding session, staff members critique
the riders by reviewing a video recording and then
answering any questions. The class adjourns late
in the evening, and riders return early the next
morning. For the next two days, the school follows
the same format — ride, then review.
came up with the schedule over years of trying to polish and perfect,” says
Lyle. “It’s a continual process.”
the schools, Lyle is there every step of
the way. He’s constantly critiquing
riders’ techniques, encouraging timid
students by telling them to “grow
some fangs” and sharing his own personal
experiences. He never lets students progress
until they’ve mastered each step
and feel comfortable in moving on.
Kiger of Coalmont, Ind. wraps tape around another cowboy’s
glove before a ride.
always got enough time from Lyle,” said
Robbie Babson. “Like
it says on the school’s Web site,
he’s not working by the hour. Any
time you have a question, he’s
right there to answer it.”
school’s final day, students
get to show off their stuff by competing
in a rodeo. Sankey’s staff awards
points based on technique and improvement,
rather than strictly the time and intensity
of the rides. Afterward, a handful
of students who have shown the most
improvement receive prizes.
the main prize went to Courtney Thomas,
the only sanctioned female bullrider
in the state, according to her father,
Mike. After the school, her father
raved about the experience.
learned more in three days than
four years of trial and error,” he
said. “At first, I couldn’t
see paying out $380, but we ended
up saving money in the long run.
I wish we’d done the school
when she started.”
rodeo and awards ceremony conclude,
riders and their families hand
in gear and chat with Lyle and
the rest of the staff. It’s
usually a heartfelt time of handshakes,
hugs and goodbyes.
hardest part is leaving after
the schools,” says Lyle. “You
spend a few days getting to
know these guys, and all at
|After every riding session, riders gather to review tapes of
their rides. A Sankey Rodeo School staff member critiques each
Still, Lyle keeps
in touch with many of his
students, and he offers future feedback
free of charge. Hearing from
students is one of the most
rewarding aspects of the job,
Recently, for instance,
he received a letter from a former student named Garrett Panser,
who was being recruited by Notre Dame and other top colleges to play
football. He said the lessons he learned at Sankey Rodeo School translated
to other areas of life.
“Garrett said his success strongly related to
the moments in the school,” says
Lyle. “Those kind of
moments are really rewarding
because they go way beyond
To learn more about Sankey Rodeo School, call (417) 334-2513 or visit