PHOENIX — Jessilee James looks every bit a rodeo veteran as she and her horse thunder from the start gate and weave through a line of poles in the arena, then weave back through to the finish line.
“You and the horse are going to be a team together,” James said. “It’s just you and him or her against everybody in the rodeo, you’re trying to beat everybody in the rodeo. It’s so much fun at the same time.”
On this day, before a crowd at the Arizona State Fair, she recorded the fastest pole-bending ride among 47 competitors, at 20.355 seconds. Last week, she was scheduled to return to class at Verrado High School in Buckeye, where she is a sophomore.
James, one of 200 student-athletes participating in the Arizona High School Rodeo Association’s 10-event circuit, has competed in pole bending, barrel racing and .22-caliber long rifle shooting for three years. Growing up riding horses led her to compete in the rodeo, she said.
“I couldn’t find a sport that I liked to play a lot, and I thought maybe rodeo would be a good idea,” she said. “Once I got into barrel racing I just loved it. It is just so much fun for me.”
The association organizes rodeos for junior high and high school entrants as far south as Sonoita and as far north as Cottonwood. The cowboys and cowgirls in the AHSRA come from all over the state, and a few are from neighboring states.
The State Fair rodeo was the second in the latest season, which culminates with junior high finals in May and high school finals in June.
Jack Assini, president of the AHSRA, said it is critical for participants to enter every rodeo because the top four students in each event go to the national rodeo at the end of the season. Junior high nationals are held in Des Moines, Iowa, and high school nationals are in Rock Springs, Wyo.
Students in the AHSRA aren’t allowed to receive a grade lower than a C in any class. During rodeos, participants are required to wear their assigned numbers even away from the arena, and if someone in the community reports bad behavior a contestant could lose the privilege of competing, Assini said.
“Most of these kids put in so much effort during the week, going to school and going home and then practicing and then coming to the rodeo, the last thing they can afford is missing one rodeo or being banned from one of the events,” he said.
Zoe Billings, AHSRA student president and a senior at Mayfield High School in Las Cruces, N.M.., serves as student ambassador for the organization, checking in contestants before the rodeo, helping to set up individual events and assisting younger riders along with her obligations as a participant.
“There’s a lot of responsibilities in rodeo, such as taking care of your animals,” she said. “If my parents are out of town or they can’t come with me to a rodeo, I have to do everything myself, and it prepares me for when I go off on my own I can do things on my own and not have to take such a big step.”
Burley White, a sophomore at Combs High School in Queen Creek, said he has made strong friendships through rodeo.
“I get along with everybody at school, but once you get here you always have those good friends that you know will always have your back,” he said.
James said the friendships extend into sportsmanship among the cowboys and cowgirls.
“Rodeo is just like a big family,” she said. “They always want to help you, be there for you and watch you, even if you are competing against them.”