Rodeo season is now in full swing, and that means horses, steer, trailers and barrels.
But most of all, it means family.
Samantha Jones, the secretary of the Soldotna Equestrian Association, has been involved with the association for 17 years, starting when she was 13.
Her family was very into motocross. Jones won a state championship on her bike and looked for something new.
“I’m the only one in my family who wanted actual horsepower instead of an engine,” she said.
The transition from motocross to rodeo was daunting. As Jones’ mother pointed out, horses are much more expensive and they don’t automatically go to the trailer when you tell them to.
“It wouldn’t have went as well if this wasn’t such a family,” Jones said while sitting at the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds on Friday at the start of the first major rodeo of the year. “I’m the only one in my family who did this. I came here not knowing anything and I didn’t know anybody, and I was always shy.
“Everybody’s so encouraging here and that’s what helps people stick around.”
No matter what kind of a ride she had, there was always somebody waiting at dismount to tell her what a great job she did. Jones now serves in the same “rodeo mom” role to all the children at the rodeo, including her 7-year-old daughter, Isabella Collum, and 15-year-old stepdaughter, Jaala Lopez.
One of Jones’ rodeo moms is Beth Fowler of Soldotna. Fowler was on the original SEA board and has been coming to the rodeo grounds since 1976.
“This is like home for us. The funny joke my kids always say is that they were riding before they were born,” Fowler said of Chelsea, 36; Mellissa, 33; and Jacob, 29.
With such experience of the past, Fowler has a keen sense of the future. That’s why she was so excited to hear 50-plus kids are entered in Saturday’s junior rodeo. The rodeo is even started an hour earlier than in the past — 1 p.m. — because of the increase in numbers.
The open rodeo today at 1 p.m. is $10 for adults and $5 for seniors, military, law enforcement officers and kids 6 to 12. Kids under 5 get in free. Proceeds of the rodeo benefit the Students in Transition Program for homeless children and youth.
Fowler remembers back in 1976 when there weren’t as many rodeos, and the ones that did exist were mostly about adults, points and money.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “It’s the next generation taking over. We’re all about kids. They’re our future.”
Fowler said the rodeo grounds are used for more than the big rodeos. There also are horse shows, 4-H Club, pony club, open riding and nights for things like team roping and cattle work.
“We’ve got three months to play, and we play hard,” she said.
Another prime example of the strong pull of family in rodeo comes from Corey Wilkinson of Lucky Horse Ranch, which is family owned and sits on 52 acres near Soldotna.
The ranch started in 2007 and began boarding horses in 2008, growing from three horses then to 28 today. In 2011, the ranch took another step forward when Wilkinson spent time in Arizona. Alaska rodeo was all she’d known and she was amazed by the competition, coaching and safe practices down there.
“Arizona was a different world,” she said.
That has led to Wilkinson coaching kids.
“A lot of parents don’t know where to go if their child wants to ride horses,” Wilkinson said.
Connie Green of Alaska C & C Horse Adventures, also located near Soldotna, has also given horsemanship in the area a boost by coaching riders of all ages. She has 14 horses on her 20-acre ranch and has a year-round riding area that is 30 by 72.
A horse requires a lot of land, money and knowledge. Getting a horse, only to have the child lose interest after three months, isn’t good for the child, parent or horse. Wilkinson and Green allow them to dip their toes in the water first.
Well, that’s if you consider spending five or six days a week with the horse dipping a toe in the water, which is what Wilkinson said her students do. The commitment is year-round now thanks to a 85-by-220-foot indoor riding area at Lucky Horse Ranch that became fully operational last winter.
“We’re trying to get rodeo to come back,” Wilkinson said. “It comes in waves. It skips some generations, but now we’ve got the next wave of kids.”
The pull of family that rodeo exerts became evident again two years ago, when Lucky Horse Ranch started partnering with Kenai Kids Therapy to use hippotherapy to work with special-needs children. Wilkinson said the partnership came about after meeting Lisa Reischach of Kenai Kids Therapy at church.
“We see 25 kids a week, and we have a waiting list of over 30 kids,” Wilkinson said.
She said it has been inspiring the way the rodeo community has stepped up to support the hippotherapy. She said her rodeo students love helping with the therapy. Same with the adults.
“I’m just shocked,” Wilkinson said. “Every week, if I need two or three volunteers, I’ll just post it and they always come.”
She said the special-needs students have given the adults and kids perspective.
“In the end, the kids really end up helping us,” Wilkinson said. “They make you realize how lucky you are.”
This year, the rodeo has granted 40 year-round free passes to the kids.
“Youth helping special-needs youth,” Wilkinson said. “It’s amazing. It’s eye-popping to see.”
This weekend’s rodeo is the first of six of the Peninsula Cowboy Roundup Series. Three more are in Soldotna: Autism Awareness Rodeo on June 21, 22 and 23; Progress Days Rodeo for breast cancer awareness on July 26, 27 and 28; and the very popular 9/11 Tribute Rodeo — on Sept. 6, 7 and 8.
The other two are in Ninilchik: The State Fair Rodeo on Aug. 16, 17 and 18; and the Fourth of July Rodeo on June 28, 29 and 30.