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In The Moment's Highlights From Their Spotlight On Rodeo
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In the Moment

In the Moment has spent the month of June exploring South Dakota rodeo traditions for our monthly SDPB spotlight coverage. We've welcomed cowboys and cowgirls, stock producers, and event producers. We've introduced you to ranch families and competitors, rodeo queens, and bucking horses.

Lori Walsh:
Today, we offer a few highlights, and we're going to zero in on those bucking horses. It's a rich highlight of our rodeo tradition. Let's start our recap by checking in with Dale Christianson. He's a long-time rodeo competitor and professional in South Dakota. He's national director for the state's high school rodeo, and he provides commentary for high school rodeo for SDPB. I asked him by way of introduction to our stories where people should begin if they want to learn more about rodeo.

Dale Christianson:
A lot of people come in and do not understand what we're doing. So I'll explain it there. But if somebody's coming in and really wants to know, find somebody with a dirty old hat on their head that doesn't look like they just bought it in town and ask them. And the rodeo people are an amazing group of people. They will tell you why that horse is bucking, what the flank strap actually does. It's a fleece-lined piece of leather that wraps around their flank area. It doesn't pinch anything, but it makes them kick. Why they're tying the calves like that, why in the steer rests when they... the different things that we do to protect our livestock because some of these horses are worth 50 to $100,000, these bucking horses. They'll buck once a month, some of the better ones. These guys are making their living off that livestock, and they want to take care of it. So we're not abusing them. And that's so far from the truth. And it's very frustrating when that gets out there, and people take that run because that's not what we're about in the rodeo world in the western world.

Lori Walsh:
So, from here on, we take our cues from the cowhands with the dusty and broken-in hats. Thank you, Dale. Duly noted. Let's head to a South Dakota ranch and meet the producers whose livelihoods and lifestyles depend on the success of those horses. We spoke with father and son, Steve and Brent Sutton of the Sutton Rodeo Company in Oneida. Their operation is built on six generations of South Dakota ranching. Here's Steve Sutton talking about life outside the arena and the challenges of stock breeding.

Steve Sutton:
It's just like in the racehorse world or the western pleasure world. The bloodlines mean a lot. We really take pride in raising our bucking horses. And I made the comment last year or two years ago... Last year was an off year, but in all our pro rodeos, we hauled 67 different horses, and all but one of them were raised here on the ranch. This is a special time of year for me, and when May 1st comes, I've got little pastures around my house, and I've got 60 mares and colts in six different pastures. And I can see them all from the house. And I see these babies born and run around and them playing and then down the road get to watch them maybe throw their first cowboy off when they're three years old. It's pretty special to me, but the bloodlines and... It's very important in the rodeo world, too. So you don't just stop and start. I mean, we've been breeding bucking horses for 100 years, and it would take at least 40 years if I wanted to start from scratch to get it where it is right now.

Lori Walsh:
How does a bucking horse perform well in the rodeo arena? What makes some horses better competitors than others? Here's Brent Sutton of Sutton Rodeo with insight.

Brent Sutton:
If you like immediate results, raising bucking horses is probably not for you because it takes a long time. Like you said, you pick the mare and the stud to go together, and then you pretty much wait for four years until you even get to see if you made the right decision. But in the meantime, you get to see them grow and mature. We start out... It's mechanical dummies usually how we start them. It's a lot more controlled than having a human rider, and if they're a smaller animal, a smaller horse, it's better to start them out with that because you can control it when the dummy falls off, and you can help them learn how to get rid of it. But with the bucking horse, too, I mean, you can't teach it. It's just natural. They know what they're doing. It's like raising a child, taking them to youth wrestling deals, or then on to high school wrestling tournaments. You're just there along the way to help put them into situations that will let them learn and then sit back and watch them in action when it all comes together.

Lori Walsh:
The rodeo arena can be a dangerous place for horse and rider. One of the state's most well-known cowboys is Billy Sutton of the Sutton Leadership Institute. Billy served as minority leader in the South Dakota Senate. He ran against Kristi Noem for governor in 2018. Sutton grew up on a ranch near Burke before getting a full-ride rodeo scholarship from the University of Wyoming at Laramie. He was the school's all-time leader in rodeo points and rode on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association circuit, where he ranked in the top 30 worldwide. His professional career was cut short when a bucking horse flipped on top of him in the chute during a Minot, North Dakota rodeo. The accident partially paralyzed Sutton, and it changed the course of his life. Here's Billy Sutton talking about that day.

Billy Sutton:
So I drew a horse by the name of Ruby, who I had been on a couple of different times. I had won the Clearlake Rodeo that summer on Ruby. And she's a really good horse, one of those horses that if you did your job, you were going to win. She just was good to get on, and she really bucked hard and good and just friendly to ride, too. And so I sat down in the saddle, and when you think about rodeo, you worry about a broken arm or a broken leg. That happens to about everybody at some point in their career, it seems like, or other injuries, but not usually not career-ending. But that day was a career-ending injury for me, which is, I would say, somewhat rare, but it does happen from time to time. I was in the saddle reaching for my right stirrup before we got out in the arena, and Ruby flipped over on me and smashed me against the back of the shoot, stood up, and I was instantly paralyzed from the waist down. And just a life-altering moment for sure when really rodeo was my only thing that I cared about at that time. And so it was hard. It's hard.

Lori Walsh:
This all happens in a second, in a flash? What do you remember? Do you remember it even happening?

Billy Sutton:
Yeah. I mean, I somewhat, yeah. I mean, like I said, I remember reaching for that right stirrup. She flipped. It was kind of hazy, and then I do remember her standing up, and I was still in the saddle, and I reached on because you're in the shoot and with my right hand and left hand reached and grabbed the side of the bucking shoot to hold myself there. And I remember saying, "You guys got to get me out of here. I just broke my back." And there was just this moment of nobody knew what to do at first. And then they jumped into action. They tied her in the shoot. They brought a spine board. The EMTs are at every rodeo. They brought a spine board and attached me to that, and slid me out from behind. And I think adrenaline was keeping me conscious at that point. But then I was just very much in and out of consciousness for the next probably... really probably the next week while they life-flighted me to Minneapolis and did surgery. And that's when the journey really began.

Lori Walsh:
Competitor Billy Sutton never made it out of the bucking shoot the day of his accident. Once a rider and horse cross the threshold, it's a thrilling performance for spectators. They aren't alone in the arena, though. Enter the pickup man. That's the cowboy responsible for everything from ensuring nothing will disrupt the ride to scooping the competitor off the bucking horse and carting him to safety. Troy Heinert is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe along with Brent Sutton, who you heard earlier. Heinert is one of the nation's top pickup men. Here is Heinert talking about the risks and rewards of rodeo life.

Troy Heinert:
I've been in the arena where someone had passed away, and that's really, really tough. And that was at the Indian National Finals a few years ago. And that's tough to take, but for the most part, when you're out in the arena and you have such great livestock as our contractors have today, and you see a guy like Wade Sundell make a ride that you don't know how he stayed on that horse because it was bucking so hard. And then you slip in there, and you get the horse gathered up, and the guy gets to the ground, and the crowd is going crazy. That's just an unreal feeling just to play a small part in that and watching that horse leave the arena knowing that he's going to be able to do it again and the guy's going to be able to do it again, you can't compare it to anything.

Lori Walsh:
If there was a common thread to our rodeo spotlight coverage this month, it was this- the importance of family. A few examples. Billy Sutton talked about his mother and the support of his wife. Brent and Steve Sutton, who aren't related to Billy, talked about the depth of their father and son relationship. Troy Heinert talked about gathering around at the end of the day, telling stories with friends and family on the rodeo circuit. And here's Scott Deal. He's Stanley County Fairgrounds manager. We were talking about why so many rodeo families would be hard-pressed to separate rodeo from South Dakota culture. I asked him how he would explain rodeo to an outsider, someone who had never experienced it. And here's what he had to say.

Scott Deal:
I'd explain it this way. You can have somebody that's 12 years old in the team roping with his grandfather, who's 70 years old. There ain't very many sports that that can happen. It's the whole family... The whole family can be involved in it. Their whole life, from the time they can... Basically, from time they can walk and start riding clear up until they can't anymore. And it's the family aspect of it, I think, that is the main drawing for it for me and a lot of people, getting kids involved. And it's just we have a greater sense of value of things, I think, in rodeo life and ranch life, western life.

Lori Walsh:
Before we wrap up our rodeo recap, let's spend a moment with at least one rodeo competitor who doesn't sport a broken-in dusty cowboy hat. Martina Loobey's hat sparkles, not because she's new to rodeo, but because she's the queen. She's our Miss Rodeo South Dakota, and part of her job is to share that rodeo knowledge with the nation.

Martina Loobey:
So my role is to serve as basically the first lady of professional rodeo in South Dakota. And so I represent the cowboys that are with the PRCA, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, cowboys, and cowgirls. I represent the rodeos that we have here all the way up from 4-H, amateur high school, PRCA. We mostly work with the PRCA, but I'm an advocate for kids coming up through the ranks if you will. And I am also an advocate for the agriculture industry and educating people about how agriculture and rodeo are related to one another and kind of bridge the gap and show people what we do, what we're about.

Lori Walsh:
Martina Loobey is from Sturgis. She'll compete for South Dakota in Las Vegas for a national title. That's coming in December.

South Dakota Rodeo is equal parts agriculture, economic development, sports, family, and even politics. You can find all our rodeo coverage on our website at

And here's what's ahead for July's spotlight coverage: SDPB takes you to summer school. 

Throughout the month of July, we'll talk South Dakota history. We'll explore how that history is interpreted and taught both to students and to visitors from around the world. We'll also unpack critical race theory and the battle over the notion of a more patriotic education.

We want you to be part of that coverage. We begin with this question: What's something that you know now about American history or South Dakota history that you wish you had learned in school? Leave us a message at 605-951-0740. You might hear your comments on the air.