LARAMIE, Wyo. — Clad in ornate chaps, protective vests and straw cowboy hats, little cowpokes crowded the Albany County Fairgrounds bucking chute return, anxiously eyeing the horned beasts to their left and right.
Cowboys and cowgirls, ages 8 to 18, cooled their nerves with idle chatter and last minute advice about what could be the most important eight seconds of their summer.
Silence fell over spectator and participant alike, hats were placed over hearts and heads bowed as the national anthem filled the arena, kicking off the Laramie Jubilee Days Junior Bull Riding Rodeo.
All eyes focused on the arena.
Each chute opened revealed a new chapter in the saga of rider vs. bull. Mud flew, riders fell and hooves kicked. No matter the outcome, every bout was met with a round of cheers.
But behind the chaos, hidden among the numerous volunteers working the chutes, Roland and Georgie Smith, co-owners of S&S Mini Bucking Bulls, were hard at work ensuring the animals were ready to go and fit for performance.
“I started riding steers at 10 years old,” said Roland Smith, a clean-shaven 62-year old with weathered hands and a neighborly smile. “It’s not the same as riding bulls, and a lot guys didn’t take the transition from steers to bulls well.”
Without access to better alternatives, he explained many junior rodeos used steers for young bull riders until they were big enough to straddle the full-grown bulls used in the professional rodeo circuit.
“I felt there was a need for something in between,” Roland Smith said. “So, we started raising mini bulls about 10 years ago. It can build some good bull riders, starting them on mini bulls. It’s kind of like a bull riding university if you will.”
Jubilee Days has hosted junior bull riding for about 16 years, but for more than a decade, the Jubilee Days Committee found steers and yearling bulls on local ranches for the kids could ride, Jubilee Days Committee Vice Chair Myron Hales said.
The stock was enough to get people involved, but he said it was a less than ideal situation.
“The kids like the mini bulls so much better,” Hales said. “Those peewee bulls by no means are mean, and they don’t buck a lot. But at the same time, they give the kids the feel of riding a bull.”
About four years ago, Hales discovered S&S and has contracted with them ever since.
The Smith’s mini bulls are bred specifically for the junior bull riding experience, Roland Smith said.
“They’re a different breed altogether,” he explained. “We started out breeding zebu cows with mini brahma.”
While the zebu and miniature brahma mix achieved the size and temperament they were looking for, the resulting bulls didn’t always have the energy to keep up with the kids, Roland Smith said.
“We started breeding in Scottish highlander, angus and dexter cows, so the bulls are truly a crossbreed,” he explained. “The dexter, angus and highlander give them power and thickness and the stamina to buck.”