It was the down time between the morning events and those in the evening. Shadows of metal fences spread across the gray dirt, reaching out to cowboys and cowgirls taking a siesta, grooming animals, repairing tack or enjoying a bowl of homemade gumbo made for the Future Farmers of America fundraiser.
This was when those participating in the Southeast Louisiana High School Rodeo Association's annual rodeo, March 12-14 at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales, could slip out of the hot, sweaty jeans and boots for a little while, put on some shorts and have a moment of peace. Soon again, the center would be filled with a crowd cheering entrants on as horses bucked, bulls bowed and goats bleated — almost as if they thought the shouts were for them.
Once again this year, Michelle deVeer was at the rodeo as a volunteer and organizer. And once again, she had to pay attention to the clock so she didn't miss her own child’s competitions. There was a lot to keep up with, too. High school competitors came from area parishes to be in the rodeo: Ascension, East Baton Rouge, East Feliciana, Livingston, Pointe Coupee, Tangipahoa and West Feliciana. More of them than in years past were home-schooled or attending public school virtually amid the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why the club asked members of the crowd to wear masks and participate in social distancing when they could.
DeVeer said the rodeo traditions continue thanks to events and groups like this — from grandfather to grandson, mother to daughter and so on, as it has for decades. It’s a bit of a warm-up for the regional rodeo coming next, where the winners go on to compete in the National High School Rodeo Association Rodeo in the summer. After state finals, the nationals generally are held in another state.
“A few years ago, we were so afraid the kids wouldn’t have anywhere to compete and our traditions would slowly slip away,” deVeer said. “So community and family members, about 30 in all, began this organization. We’ve had our ups and downs where there have been fewer in the SLHSRA. There’s the virus, and a lot of kids grow up and graduate.”
Thanks to deVeer’s three daughters, two grown and one still competing on the high school circuit, the traditions are alive in her family. The older ones are still there and volunteering their help. Daughter Kallie deVeer has been practicing hard to hold her own in breakaway roping and goat tying. The first girls’ event is over when a calf is roped and the other end breaks free of the saddle. There’s no jumping down in the dust and tying the calf. The boys do that in their heat.
Her other girls participated in the same events as Kallie, but the middle daughter also competed barrel racing and pole bending. Other events that might induce interest by young rodeo association members include: breakaway, chute dogging, ribbon roping, team roping, boys goat tying, bull riding and saddle bronc steer riding.
“This year at the Gonzales rodeo, I came in pretty calm,” Kallie said, “so I came up seventh in breakaway and won goat tying. I always seem to do good in tying and have won the time two years in a row. The rodeo is where I meet most of my friends. We spend so much time on the road at rodeos, it’s hard to meet people otherwise. I have completely different experiences.”
Next year Kallie will be a senior at Dutchtown High School and will return to the arena, as she hopes to do most of her life in college and beyond as an amateur.
Sonya Brouillette, from St. Francisville, has a son who is a senior and a daughter in eighth grade busy practicing for the rodeo. After graduation, Owen will go to Kansas’ Fort Scott Community College, where he has received a full-ride rodeo scholarship and has a saddle seat on the community college rodeo team. Riding bareback horses and calf roping has paid off in more than blisters for him. At this high school rodeo, he won bareback riding and was sixth in calf roping plus earned the rodeo all-around award.
Dark-haired Landry, 14, competes in barrel racing, pole racing, goat tying and ribbon roping. The priority for her right now is fun. Afterward, she hangs out with Savannah Stafford, who is taking care of a goat. Savannah, is from Tangipahoa Parish and enjoys cutting and reined cow horse competition, pole bending and barrel racing. The two have become good friends.
“I like rodeo because it allows me to take care of animals, teaches me respect and responsibility and lets me make friends and see them and my family on the weekend,” Landry said. “You also have to have a good mental capacity because it’s a mental sport. You have to feel your horse’s direction, and it’s a partnership. You work as one.”
Off to the side of the main events office, Austin James, of Rosepine High School, is taking a break from saddle bronc and bareback riding, breakaway competing, ribbon and team roping and goat tying. The goat seems glad. He is with longtime friend Gentry Silver, of Bell City High School. He’s there for the same events as Austin, minus the bareback and saddle bronc riding. Right now they are grooming their horses, and Austin gives a demonstration on how to get on a bareback horse. “He’s been rodeoing since he was 3 years old, and I was 4 years old,” Gentry said. “We met mutton busting together as little kids, and we’ll probably be friends the rest of our lives.”
Nearby, big brother Taylor Allen and his sibling Tyrin Allen kick up the dust while practicing their roping. From Pointe Coupee Parish, the boys “don’t normally compete in this,” Taylor said, “but it’s fun.”
Mary Grace Thibodeaux, who will be 17 soon, won the Calcasieu Parish High School Rodeo Queen title this year. She lives in Livingston Parish and is a member of the Southeast High School Club. However, that Club does not have a queen contest, so she signed up for Calcasieu event. Just one week before it was to be held. Having never competed for a queen title before. And she won.
Now you’ll see Mary Grace walking around rodeos wearing her sash, crown and award buckle. She’ll represent the Calcasieu Club June 3-5 at the high school rodeo state finals in Sulphur. From there, winners go on to compete at the national event in Lincoln, Nebraska, in July.
When not waving to her royal subjects, Mary Grace also competes along with her horse in the reined cow horse event, showing she has various command and guidance principles in moving the cow around. “I went to rodeo and watched this and knew my horse could do it,” she said “The next day, we started training — about eight months ago. I’ve been doing reining about four years.”
Mary Grace also started training in cutting and will compete at the high school level next year. “I’m very glad I started reined cow horse,” she said.
In addition, Mary Grace is riding King, her liver chestnut quarter horse, during queen appearances, Mary Grace said her favorite part of appearances other than that is walking around and talking to little kids about what they want to do in life. “If you enjoy that, then go for being a queen. It’s so liberating to hear those kids and what they want to do,” she said. “I wanted to inspire them. And if you enjoy going fast and adrenaline, then go for my event. Seeing the agility of your horse is unbelievable.”
Wearing No. 166 this year representing East Baton Rouge Parish at the rodeo, Cece Carter also has the legs for soccer — scoring All Metro and All District titles. Her mother, Lisa Carter, said Cece does very well in poles and barrels. “She is riding with the pack,” Lisa said. “She kind of represents the future of the Club.”
“I like this because my mom used to do it, and it’s kind of in my blood,” Cece said. “My mom a professional barrel racer and competed in poles, too. I enjoy going fast, too. It’s so fun — like an adrenaline rush.” Because her black horse, Midnight, is getting ready to retire soon, the family is on the look out for a younger horse. “We retire them, we don’t replace them,” Lisa said. “We just keep adding to the crew.”