Instructors key to summer rodeo

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Coaches bring expertise while mentoring Cody Nite Rodeo contestants

Bret Franks offers some constructive insights to up-and-coming bareback rider Mason Ortega during the Cody Nite Rodeo this past summer. Franks, the rodeo coach at Clarendon (Texas) College and a three-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier in saddle bronc riding, is just one of many elite cowboys to offer their expertise to the cowboys and cowgirls who compete at the Nite Rodeo.

CODY, Wyo. – The foundation of any building is the first layer of the process that leads to the sturdiness and ability to withstand all sorts of pressure.

The same can be said in sports, where fundamentals serve as the right footing. The greatest athletes focus on the little things first, then build on them. There is no Michael Jordan without Dean Smith coaching him; there is no Roger Staubach without Tom Landry.

For rising rodeo stars, the best training ground can be found every summer at the Cody Nite Rodeo. It’s not only a chance to hone their skills, but it’s a place where they can receive expert coaching from some of the biggest stars to have ever competed in the game.

“I’ve got a whole career’s worth of experience and things I’ve figured out along the way,” said Kody Lostroh, the 2009 PBR world champion who was inducted into the PBR’s Ring of Honor this year. “I want to help shorten the learning curve for some of these kids so they should be successful faster. It’s my way of giving back to the sport, making a positive difference in the world.”

Lostroh is one of dozens of instructors who every summer make their way to Cody, where they share their expertise and passion for rodeo. How many young bull riders can say they received hands-on training from a champion? How many dreaming bronc riders have been guided by Dan Mortensen or Rod Hay?

Under the direction of producer Maury Tate with Mo Betta Rodeo, the Cody Nite Rodeo has provided the perfect avenue for success for contestants hoping to be the next superstars. Working with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the students receive instruction while experiencing actual competition through the summer months.

“The biggest benefit of the Cody Nite Rodeo is two-fold,” said Heath Ford, a three-time National Finals Rodeo bareback riding qualifier. “The biggest thing a young person has to do is get on good stock consistently, and they can do that in Cody. Through every night throughout the summer, you’ll get on more livestock than most kids get by the time they’re 18.

“The key is not just getting on but having NFR-caliber coaches every day to help you fine-tune it and help you see the little things most people can’t see.”

Ford grew up in a rodeo family. His father, Glen, qualified for the NFR in bareback riding, and his uncle, Bruce, is a five-time world champion in that event. Heath Ford’s brother, Jarrod, qualified for the NFR twice in bull riding.

“I got to grow up with good people giving me good coaching, so I took that for granted,” Heath Ford said. “Learning how to ride and learning how to be a winner are two different things, and you can get both.

“The thing about Cody is it’s not just for cowboys; there have been some great bullfighters, barrelmen, announcers and soundmen that have come through there. To me, it’s the ultimate training facility for rodeo.”

There’s also something about getting on the right kinds of animals. Oftentimes, younger cowboys in bronc riding and bareback riding get on colts at youth, amateur, high school and intercollegiate levels. The better quality of animals, the better the chances are to learn something about each ride.

“We need to train the kids on level-appropriate animals and not be afraid to challenge them as they grow,” Ford said. “If you leave them at the beginner-level animals, they never go beyond it. If we put them on the rank horses, they don’t stay on.

Heath Ford, an NFR-qualifying bareback rider, helps a young bronc rider as he gets ready to ride at the Cody Nite Rodeo this past summer. Ford grew up in a rodeo family with a father who made the NFR and an uncle who won five world titles, so he understands the importance of expert tutelage when it comes to competing in rodeo.

“When you can get on the right animals in the roughstock end, then you start seeing the mentality of the guys that have been there and done that, the cowboy attitude and the mentality of a winner. That’s what it takes, that fire and that grit, and sometimes it comes with the people you hang out with and the animals you get on.”

Mark Gomes won the 1998 bareback riding world championship and qualified for Las Vegas eight times in his career. There is a business to the game, from knowing how to enter to traveling North America to controlling one’s finances. In rodeo, money not only covers the business expenses, but dollars equal championship points. There’s a lot that goes into riding broncs or roping steers or maneuvering fast horses around the cloverleaf barrel pattern.

“You’ve got to be tough to be in rodeo,” Gomes said. “Even in the timed events, the mental aspect, the wear and tear on the body, the travel, the being away from home … there’s a lot to it. It’s not for everybody. It’s a special group of men and women that can do that and excel at that.”

It’s that type of training that Gomes provides to students when he arrives in Cody. Another is something that is already happening at the Nite Rodeo.

“The one thing any roughstock cowboy can do for yourself is get on multiple animals, and it’s the greatest benefit to your career,” he said. “With the Cody Nite Rodeo, you can potentially get on 90 head in the summer. When I was a kid, it would take five or six years to get on that many animals. I tell the kids all the time to just keep getting on.

“In the roughstock more than the timed events, it seems like there’s a wall you have to go through. I’m sure part of it is the fear element. When you first start, it’s a nod and a big blur of everything. By the time you’re able to actually compete, it slows down for you; I think that’s because of the number of animals you get on.”

It helps, too, that the bucking horses in Cody allow for the right kind of education to continue.

“Mo Betta has some great stock up there, and it’s perfect for those kids that are getting on every day,” Gomes said. “Maury tries to keep good stock to help these kids. If you don’t have a lot of money, you can stay in the bunkhouse there, and Maury will help you get a job so that you can continue to get on every night and work on your skills. It’s a great training ground for rodeo.”

When Lohstroh was developing his skills as a youngster in northern Colorado, he competed junior rodeos on weekend nights; as he aged, he started attending more open bull ridings, getting on bucking bulls at least twice a week. While it was beneficial to his success, Lostroh understands that the younger generation at the Cody Nite Rodeo has an advantage.

“The benefit for young guys and girls is just the repetitive experience of being able to rodeo every night of the week for an entire summer,” he said. “There are a lot of drills and practice things that competitors can do, but there’s no substitute for real-world experience. Obviously, they get a ton there.”

The repetition is key to a variety of aspects of being a competitor. Each ride or run allows for a focus to be made on fundamentals. Having coaches on hand only helps invigorate that step; the drills that are developed through coaching can be put on display during through the rush of adrenaline that comes with competition.

“A person’s mental game really takes shape over a period of time, not typically overnight or through a little coaching,” Lostroh said. “Most of the time, we make things too complicated. We’ve got to get out of our own way. When you’re able to explain that and understand that it’s not complicated, it starts to resonate with them.

“Keep it simple, and you’ll do fine.”

Gomes, who just finished his third year teaching in Cody, pointed to the importance of the process. So much can be learned through mistakes; figuring out how to avoid them can be instrumental in a young contestant’s development. It plays into the theory of mind over matter.

“Having a situation like you can get in Cody is huge, because you’re going to learn everything from riding and being there,” Gomes said. “It’s important to know how to lose. When you’re rodeoing for a living, there are a lot more losses than victories, so you have to know how to ride through that and still find a way to win when it counts.”

It’s also vital to have the right kinds of instructors, the ones that have gone through the storms before and can teach others about how to avoid them.

“You’ve got guys there all the time that can really help because they’re proven instructors,” Ford said. “I think that makes a difference. Having good teachers is amazing. When they can relate to those kids and bring it to them in a way that makes sense, it speeds up the process.”

It’s a technique that works.

“I wish I would have known about Cody Nite Rodeo when I was young,” Gomes said. “For any high school kid that wants to go on to a college or pro career, I think a summer at Cody would be a summer well-spent.”


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