SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — About 650 youth qualified for the rodeo ring this year in the South Dakota 4-H Rodeo Finals in Fort Pierre. It was 668 to be exact.

“We’ve had an increase over the last two years,” state 4-H finals secretary Kim Larson said. “We’ve had more entrants in rodeo projects and more entrants in the finals.”

Interest in the South Dakota Rodeo Association has also been steady, said SDRA president Dave Malone.

“Right now, at last count, I’d say we are at 400 contestants,” Malone said.

From late May until mid-September, there’s likely to be at least one rodeo in a town in South Dakota.

The state 4-H rodeo structure has 38 of its own that 4-H members can participate in from Memorial Day through the second week in August, Larson said.

At least 25 are listed on the SDRA website.

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Rodeo also includes those geared to high school students and college students as well as Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeos.

No matter where a rodeo fan goes, there will be a high level of competition, Malone said.

“It’s very strong competition,” said rodeo judge Chuck Maher.

“There is absolutely good competition in 4-H,” Larson said.

“Rodeo is very strong here. It’s the no. 1 sport in South Dakota,” Maher said.

Rodeos on tap for this fall include this weekend’s Sioux Falls PREMIER rough stock event on Friday and Saturday. The SDRA has its rodeo finals from Oct. 7-9 in Sioux Falls.

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“Our (contestants) can complete anywhere,” Malone said of the rodeo participants.

Competitors in the SDRA may concentrate on in-state rodeos but they also leave for national PRCA events.

“They compete in Cheyenne (Wyoming) or go out to Pendleton (Oregon),” Malone said. “They are just as good as the rest of them but they just can’t be gone to the extent (others are).”

Maher said many state high school competitors do well at nationals. “A lot of kids have the goal of making nationals,” he said.

Growing the next generation of rodeo contestants

The state’s 4-H program is a big part of growing the next generations of rodeo contestants, Maher and Malone said.

“We’re growing, part of that is 4-H rodeo,” Malone said. “High school rodeo is the same way.”

Youth can start competing in 4-H rodeo events at age 8. They can participate until age 18 but “some don’t go the whole way,” Larson said.

Just as other rodeo structures have expanded rodeo categories by adding break-away roping for females, so has 4-H.

“There’s pretty good interest in break-away,” Larson said.

The PRCA has also added break-away roping for females.

Maher noted that timed rodeo events are improving but the rough stock riding has dipped. Rough stock is events such as bull riding or bareback bronc riding.

The state 4-H noticed the dip in rough stock events, Larson said.

4- H has added events “to try and get (kids) ready for rough stock,” Larson said.

Those events include junior bareback steer riding or junior calf, heifer or small bull riding, she said.

Photo is from the South Dakota 4-H rodeo finals Facebook page.

Malone said the SDRA was started in the 1950s as a way to create rodeos for non-professionals to compete. Member rodeos use the same set of rules and entry system, he said.

SDRA has long been considered a circuit where younger contestants could learn and ‘cut their teeth.’

“We like to think of it as a stepping stone for high school and 4-H kids,” Malone said.

But Maher said there appears to be somewhat of a trend with some younger contestants. They are skipping the SDRA and going straight to the PRCA. But some of those who skip the SDRA are not competing that well in the PRCA, he said.

The 4-H program has also had a firm foothold in the success of future professional rodeo contestants, Larson said.

“Any of the famous people in rodeo, almost all of them participated in 4-H rodeo,” Larson said.

Money to win

The top three finishers in many amateur or professional rodeo events earn a payout.

For example, the first-place steer wrestler on one day of the SDRA finals won $920.00, according to the SDRA website. The top barrel racer also won $920.

The saddle bronc payout was $616 to first place in the 2021 Wagner Labor Day Rodeo. The top barrel racer at the Fort Pierre July 4 rodeo won $1031.84.

The payouts get larger on the PRCA level. The top barrel racer in the first round of the 2022 Pendleton Round Up won $5,381 while the first round bull rider won $5,722, according to the Cowboy Channel website.

This weekend’s Sioux Falls PREMIER Rodeo rough stock event said on its Facebook page that
PRCA contestants will compete for $40,000 in “Xtreme Bulls Tour, Xtreme Broncs, Xtreme Bareback Riding, and Freestyle Bullfighting.”

Money may be a factor in why some continue to participate in rodeos but the is an element that starts when they are young.

For many “it’s just a way of life in South Dakota,” Larson said. She competed when younger. Her son wasn’t interested but her daughter was.

Now, she sees families riding together to 4-H rodeo events to share some of the travel costs, Larson said.

“It’s a great family sport,” Malone said.

Competitors are also friends who are cheering for each other to do well, Maher said. It’s also a sport where a competitor is successful or fails by themselves, there is no one else to blame, he said.

Given what he’s experienced the past couple of years, “the future looks bright” for rodeo in South Dakota, Malone said.