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Rural Missouri Magazine

Grabbing the bull
by the horns

Cowboys of all ages learn the ropes
at Sankey Rodeo School

by Jarrett Medlin
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.

Moments before 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.

”You think he’s nervous?” asked one onlooker.

Suddenly, the 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.

Finally, after eight seconds, a whistle blew and Sean loosened his grip. He slid off the horse’s left side and scurried to safety.

Afterward, standing 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 I’ll 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.

They 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.

“People usually 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?”

More specifically, 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 rodeo school.

“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 bareback riders.

“The thing 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.”

“It’s like skateboarding or skiing,” says Lyle. “It looks a lot easier when someone else does it.”

After 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.

“We just came up with the schedule over years of trying to polish and perfect,” says Lyle. “It’s a continual process.”

At 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.

Robbie Kiger of Coalmont, Ind. wraps tape around another cowboy’s glove before a ride.

“We 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.”

On each 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.

At Humansville, 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.

“We 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.”

Once the 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.

“The hardest part is leaving after the schools,” says Lyle. “You spend a few days getting to know these guys, and all at once it’s over.”

After every riding session, riders gather to review tapes of their rides. A Sankey Rodeo School staff member critiques each ride.

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, he says.

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 eight seconds.”

To learn more about Sankey Rodeo School, call (417) 334-2513 or visit www.sankeyrodeo.com.

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