EDITOR’S NOTE: Membership in high school rodeo has declined by 20 percent in eight years, much to the chagrin of three eastern Idaho families who live for all things roping, riding and rural. This is the second part of a three-day series on the impacts of rodeo on three close-knit families.
VICTOR — Another week, another rodeo registration deadline the Cookes don’t want to miss.
After dialing the number, Jacki Cooke hands the phone to her youngest child, a blond-haired, 10-year-old boy named Cooper. He registers his family for their events, hangs up and runs outside into the July evening to practice roping on the back deck where a haystack sits.
Cooper’s siblings, Teton High School students 17-year-old Cade and 15-year-old Libby, share a sofa and snack as they watch television in the family room surrounded by rodeo memorabilia.
As indicated by declining participation numbers nationwide at the high school level, rodeo is a dwindling sport. For the Cookes, however, rodeo has long been the reason for weekly registration calls, early mornings, late nights, compromised activities and catching naps on the road. Jacki, an office assistant for Carson Concrete who grew up in Driggs, figures she and her husband, Casey, who is self-employed at Cooke Cable, have taken three weeks off work since June. Two of those three weeks consisted of traveling through three states to 25 rodeos and nine of Cooper’s baseball games.
Road trips are nothing new to the Cookes, who traveled at least four hours one way to Idaho Junior Rodeo Association events when Cade and Libby were younger. When home, the Cookes practice in their outdoor arena alongside Highway 31.
Despite the sacrifices, the Cookes love their on-the-go lifestyle. Rodeo has given them a solid family bond, countless memories and friends from across the nation.
“A lot of families don’t spend every weekend together,” Jacki said. “We have friends in every town. That’s just how rodeo people are.”
By the time Jacki met Casey 20 years ago, he had been a cowboy since he first competed at age 5.
The youngest of three brothers, Casey grew up on a ranch his parents still own just minutes from his current house. He took up rodeo, a sport his parents weren’t involved with, and competed regularly until age 20, specializing in bareback.
Casey did team roping for a while after he and Jacki were married. Evening roping practices and rodeo trips with Casey’s nephew became commonplace as their family grew.
“The kids have been horsebacking and had a rope in their hand since they could walk,” Jacki said. “And roping pretty well.”
All three Cooke children rode horses and participated in 4-H at a young age, and Cade accompanied Casey on cattle drives when they owned cows. Baseball and softball remained their sports of choice, however, until Cade was 9.
“He said, ‘Mom, maybe I don’t want to play baseball. In summer, could you take me to some rodeos?’ ” Jacki said. “It was the best move we ever made.”
Libby and Cooper soon followed Cade’s lead. The outdoor arena was added to their property and the all-day trips to rodeos began.
Although they took up rodeo later than he did, Casey saw it coming.
“I was pretty happy about it,” he said. “I just figured it’d be a matter of time.”
As rodeo became a serious commitment, Cade and Libby practiced with stock contractors during the offseason and Casey helped them train their horses to cut costs.
When Casey isn’t traveling for work, he has the horses tacked and in the trailer by the time the kids get home from school for an out-of-town-practice in the winter. At rodeos, he goes back and forth between each kid’s events to make sure they have what they need.
“I don’t think any other sport … you’re quite that dedicated,” Casey said. “You’ve either got to be all in or not. It keeps the family tight.”
Casey even resumed bareback riding this summer at age 40 after a 20-year absence. While working out during the winter, he made a deal with friends that he would ride bareback again if he lost weight. He has ridden twice so far for the full eight seconds, but he said he isn’t stopping until he receives a score.
“It gets a little better every time,” he said. “I’m gonna keep going. I’ve got a few more in me.”
A good life
Cade starts the ATV, pulling the roping dummy behind it in the arena as Cooper and Libby practice roping in the arena. After all three have had the chance to rope, they sit on two of the many haystacks between the arena and the highway.
Libby wears the District 7 rookie all-around cowgirl buckle she won in the spring. Cooper wears a steer riding buckle he won at the 2011 Tetonia rodeo.
“That was the first time I ever rode a steer,” Cooper said.
Like his siblings, Cade wears his favorite buckle. His reward from the National High School Rodeo Finals for bareback, the words “Top 10” are visible from afar.
Although they have traveled as far as Gallup, N.M., and Winnemucca, Nev., the Cookes find solace on their land. Within the three siblings’ lifetimes, Teton Valley has grown and started a rodeo club that is now Idaho’s largest.
Casey believes rodeo will be the remnant of the disappearing ranching lifestyle from his childhood.
“All the guys that I rodeoed with in high school, all our kids are doing it now,” Casey said. “I think that interest will always be there.”
No matter how much the sport — or their hometown — changes, Libby and Cade plan to remain active in rodeo.
“When I’m married, I’ll still teach my kids,” Libby said. “Hopefully my kids have kids and I’ll always be at a local rodeo. When I’m not in it and my family’s not in it, I’ll be at a rodeo. I want to be a mentor and role model to younger kids.”
Cade, who graduates in the spring, isn’t certain about all of his post-graduate plans, but knows rodeo will be part of them.
“I’m most likely gonna rodeo in college and have kids that rodeo,” he said. “I might have a string of bucking horses and be a high school stock contractor.”
And as they pass down rodeo, they won’t forget their roots.
“This ranch is who we are,” Jacki said.
“This town made us who we are,” Libby said.
BY THE NUMBERS High school rodeo membership in the U.S. 2012-13 7,678 2011-12 7,758 2010-11 7,857 2009-10 8,049 2008-09 8,512 2007-08 9,265 2006-07 9,395 2005-06 9,583 *-excludes Canadian and Australian members
High school rodeo membership in Idaho 2012-13 604 2011-12 603 2010-11 582 2009-10 608 2008-09 667 2007-08 665 2006-07 694 2005-06 724 Source: National High School Rodeo Association