Southern Arkansas University Rodeo has enjoyed another outstanding year. The team will send seven members to the College National Finals in Casper, Wyo., in June. Michaela Caudle, Ashton Glascock, Hannah Springer, Jacie Sullivan, Cooper Lee, Britt Driggers and West Smith will represent the University at the competitive event, Rusty Hayes, rodeo coach, said.
The Women’s Team finished 2016-2017 as the Reserve Champions of the Ozark Region while the Men’s Team placed third in the Region. Individually, Springer won the Ozark Region Breakaway Roper Title and Sullivan the regional Goat Tying title. Caudle is the No. 3 breakaway roper and Glascock placed among the Top 10 in breakaway roping and goat tying.
Lee is the Ozark Region Reserve Champion Team Roping Header with Driggers the No. 3 steer wrestler and Smith the No. 3 calf roper.
Caudle, Driggers and Glascock spoke about their experiences in rodeo and their expectations of the Finals. Hayes called this year’s team “some of the strongest competitors I’ve ever seen.”
Glascock, a junior from Ashland, Mo., said she has been roping since the age of 10. “My dad roped and though I didn’t like the whole ‘horse thing’ at first, I grew into it,” she said.
She chose SAU once she learned of its state-of-the-art rodeo facilities. “It was very convincing,” she said. “Not many places have facilities like Story Arena. It is the top of the line, and I knew the program had the full support of the University. It made me want to go to school far from home.”
Caudle, a sophomore from Horatio, Ark., said she started roping at age 12. Her father, Jason Caudle, participated in rodeo at SAU in the 1990s. “Dad got me into roping,” she said. “It’s definitely a family tradition.”
Driggers, a junior from Hot Springs, Ark., also has a family connection to SAU Rodeo. His father, Jimmy, participated at roughly the same time as Caudle’s father. That connection, plus the program’s reputation, brought him to Magnolia.
“I’m not surprised they’ve reached this level of competitiveness,” Hayes said of the team. “We’re never satisfied. We’re always looking to improve our skills.”
Each member has had to work hard to be successful in rodeo and academics. “We’re known as a smart team,” Hayes said. “Historically, I go for the more academic students, but I also look at character and ability.”
“We have to balance rodeo with academics and social life,” Glascock said. “The top competitors are very successful in the classroom.”
“Ninety percent of this team is on academic scholarship,” Hayes said. “We have 40 students on our team and that’s a good number for us. By focusing on academics, we are more selective with our open spots and I think that gives us more of an edge.”
Hayes has been rodeo coach since he started at SAU in 2005 and has won two Individual Championships so far. SAU Rodeo won the national title in Hayes’ fourth year in the program. “We’ve won four top 10 team finishes, and I can’t keep count of all the third- and fourth-place finishes,” he said. This will be his 12th trip to the College Finals.
The students said they’ll prepare for the Finals in different ways, but mostly by going back to their roots. “I’m going home and letting my dad chew on me,” Glascock said. “It’s definitely crunch time. You have to re-hone your skills and compete at a faster level. You want to stay consistent and rope every calf to win the average.”
“I’ll be going home and practicing,” Driggers said.
They described their horses as athletes and stressed the importance of riding every day to keep their horses in shape. “They have to be in top condition,” Caudle said.
“You practice riding them and exercise them,” Driggers said.
“It’s like track,” Glascock said. “We trot our horses, get them able to run.”
“A lot of our stuff is muscle memory,” Caudle added. “You have to get it right in practice. In breakaway, we’ll have a little calf, and we’ll rope it and rope it. Most of the time, ideally, you need to do that in less than three seconds – you don’t have time to think about it.”
During practice, Hayes said, ropers “reinforce that memory in each muscle.”
They will have to be well-prepared. “It’s a dogfight,” Caudle said of College Finals. “Everybody deserves to be there.”
“They’re all the best,” Hayes said. “I’d say that when I’m up there, I’m more nervous during that week than I am the rest of the year combined. You’ve got 11 regions and the top three out of every event. It gets pretty intense.”
“It’s not a vacation,” Glascock said.
“It depends on what stock you draw,” Caudle said of roping success. “If you’re breakaway, you’ve got to draw a calf that runs straight, not too fast, not too slow. You never know 100 percent what it’s going to do until it happens.”
“If they draw the right stock – the right steer, the right calf – then I’m very confident in what this team can do,” Hayes said. “Especially these girls, and all three guys are very capable of winning. It’s just very intense up there, and exciting, especially toward the end of the week.”
Each team member will take his or her own horse and equipment to Wyoming. “We’ll all leave from different places,” Hayes said. “It can take 24 hours to drive up there. They’ll be taking their own horses, their own trucks and trailers – all that’s their personal stuff. We’ll drive 1,300 miles through every kind of weather. You worry about motors and bearings and everything else that can go wrong between here and Casper. You never know what you’re gonna hit.”
Glascock said it can be hard on the horses making the journey. “You put down a lot of shavings for them to stand on for 10-12 hours a day. You’ve got to stop every so many hours to get them out and walk them, you have to make sure they stay hydrated. You can’t drive like you normally would, you’ve got to go easy on the brakes, take curves at certain speeds. Sometimes other people don’t respect that.”
Hayes said winning another national title would shed more light on the SAU program. “It helps us recruit more quality kids and just makes everyone proud. Generations know about our program; it really is a tradition for a lot of families.”
Each student commended SAU for having Story Arena to offer its rodeo students. “You can practice any time you want, and I think that’s the reason we’re so good,” Driggers said.
“The boys will be out here until midnight,” Glascock said. “That’s what it takes.”
“It is a luxury,” Caudle said. “Ninety percent of kids don’t have anything close to this to practice in. It’s a huge draw.”
“It’s a completely different program now than when I started,” Hayes said. “We had only one barn. When past team members see what we have now, they can’t believe it.”
He said the arena is not only good for SAU but Magnolia, as well, drawing thousands of visitors annually. “It is a boon for us. I know the restaurants like it.”
He said that when he started in SAU’s rodeo program, there were only 14 students. “We’ve gone from 14 to 40 and it would be bigger than that if I would let it. The costs are much higher for trucks, trailers, horses, transportation, but the quality of our athletes is also much higher.”
The program remains one of the most diverse on campus, he said. “We are recruiting nationwide. We’ve had kids here from 38 states and a Canadian province. We have them from California, Hawaii, Indiana, Missouri and Alabama.”
Another trip to the College Finals will bring more exposure. “It’s not just an American sport,” Glascock said. “It’s big in Australia, Canada and Brazil. I’ve met so many kids from around the world.”
Each student recounted his or her most memorable rodeo event. For Caudle, it was a seventh-grade appearance in the county fair. “Everybody came out to see me rope, and everybody knew me,” she said, laughing. “I was as nervous as all get-out. I’d be embarrassed in front of all of Sevier County if I missed this calf! But I roped it and won the rodeo, and the crowd went insane. To this day, that was the happiest I’ve been and the biggest night of my life. I was 13 years old. Nothing else has measured up.”
For Driggers, it was winning the steer wrestling competition at the University of Tennessee-Martin, at a rodeo “that is probably the biggest in the Ozark Region – 2,000 or so people and it was really, really loud,” he said.
Glascock said she was proudest of winning Reserve All Around in high school, “but I’m really proud of our Women’s Team. We’ve gotten really close and pushed each other to be better. We’ve won five out of ten rodeos and that feels great. We’ve stuck together.”
Caudle is majoring in Agriculture Science-Pre Vet. Driggers is a senior Agriculture Business major. Glascock is a senior English major pursuing a minor in Education. Springer, of Lavaca, Ark., is a senior Agriculture Business major. Smith is a native of Emmet, Ark., and is a Business major. Sullivan, of Mount Vernon, Ark., is a junior Psychology major. Lee is a native of Quitman, Ark., and is a sophomore majoring in Agriculture Science-Pre Vet.