Before she could walk, Aubrey Smith’s dad took his first-born and stuck her on a horse.

It was a family event he’d experienced himself.

Horses are a way of life for the Mesa family. Jeff Smith hauls livestock around the country for a living, and his dad, Butch, shoes horses.

“As far as being able to ride a horse and be comfortable on one, I kind of expected that,” of Aubrey, Jeff Smith says. “For her to rope as good as she does and to be doing what she’s doing, it’s something I am very proud of, but I didn’t expect that. She’s just picked it up naturally. It came to her pretty easily.”

“What she’s doing” is being one of the state’s top teen cowgirls in breakaway roping. Aubrey, 17, and her dad will travel in July from their home in Mesa to Gillett, Wyo., with 43 other Arizona teens to compete in the National High School Rodeo Association’s signature event, the National High School Finals Rodeo. There, Aubrey will compete in the two events she qualified for: breakaway and team roping.

About 250 teens are registered with the Arizona High School Rodeo Association this year. During rodeo season, they take their horses to places like Globe and Buckeye, Florence and Payson to show off their skills.

With the western way of life being very present in the East Valley — it’s not uncommon to see horses walking across Baseline Road in Mesa or farms in Gilbert and Queen Creek — many of the teens herald from these communities.

They split their time between chairs in area high schools and their saddles.

“It’s definitely a commitment,” Aubrey says. “You can’t just take time off and go back to it and expect to be good. If you want to win and be at the top of everybody, you have to practice daily.”

That’s why the Skyline High School senior spends hours roping the dummy at her family’s house, drives to Apache Junction to ride her horse, Gilligan, around her grandparents’ place, and trailers him out to Florence for training.

“She’s a perfectionist. She really works at something until she’s got it down right,” Jeff says. “That’s a dedication thing she does on her own. I try to give her the right tools and the right information and say, ‘There you go’ and try to help her all I can. Then she puts it together and makes it work for her.”

Nicole Speeding, 16, is also at home on a horse. After four years of English riding, she traded her saddle in for a western one and started barrel racing when she was 9 after her family moved from Gilbert to Queen Creek. Like the Smiths, horse riding runs in the family.

The Queen Creek High School junior will be at nationals also, as the Miss Arizona High School Rodeo Queen.

“It’s really a lot of girly outfits and makeup. I’m not that type of girl. I really love rodeo. I just thought it was a great way for me to grow up as a person,” Nicole says. “You represent rodeo and the western heritage.”

During the summer, Nicole wakes at 7 to get time on her horse, Dally. Not only does she compete in barrel racing, but in pole bending.

That event requires her to ride her horse through a pattern of poles in a race against the clock.

“Rodeo is just something different. I feel I meet a lot of neat people through it. It teaches you a lot of skills for life. You have to be responsible for your horse all the time. You have to be at the rodeo grounds, turn in your entry fees on time … You learn a lot of people skills and how to deal with situations in the moment, especially when you deal with an animal. You never know what they’re going to do. There’s something that’s just drawn me to it,” Nicole says.

Queen Creek’s Devon Burris, 16, didn’t take up rodeo until he was 11. He got good quick, competing at the National Junior High Rodeo Association’s U.S. nationals three years in a row.

He’ll get his first shot at the high school national title in Wyoming in calf roping and steer wrestling.

“It’s an adrenaline rush. Throughout the weekend you get to see all your friends. It’s just fun. It’s like no other sport I’ve ever played,” Devon says.

When he’s not at work or in class at Mesa’s AAEC (Agribusiness and Equine Center) high school, the former football and baseball player can be found in the arena at his family’s home honing his skills.

“There’s camaraderie in rodeo: You get there the day before and take care of your horse, hang out, ride around town and then rope all the next day,” he said.

With the growth of rodeo’s popularity — and more colleges offering scholarships for the sport’s best — more teens are competing, said Heather Tripp, a member of the Arizona High School Rodeo Association’s board. Tripp’s son, Ryan, will also compete at nationals.

Heather said Ryan’s interest grew from the time he was 3 and living in Chicago. The Tripps — who had never been involved with horses or rodeo — learned what they could to share in their son’s interests.

“This isn’t just a sport. It’s a lifestyle,” the Phoenix resident said. “I would come home Sunday evening, unpack our trailer Monday, clean it Tuesday, pack it again Thursday and leave again Friday,” for another rodeo around the Southwest. “It’s a really family oriented sport. When you pull into a rodeo, everybody’s there with usually their mom or dad … It’s not like you drop your kids off, they play football, and you pick ‘em up. We spent many a weekend in a horse trailer. I will always cherish those memories. Not many people can say they’ve spent that time with their kids during those years.”

Some kids, like Ryan Tripp, pick up the sport because they’re interested in it. Others, like Gilbert’s Brady Payne, grow up with it.

Payne’s father, Denton, has competed at the National Rodeo Finals.

“It’s been pretty much my whole life,” Brady said during a travel break from Reno, Nev., where he and his dad attended a rodeo this week. “I just grew up with it and wanted to follow in his shoes.”

Brady will compete in team roping at the nationals.

Cowboys and cowgirls who finish in the top four spots for their events earn a chance to compete at nationals. Joining the Arizona team from the East Valley are Chandler Height’s Stephanie Payne in girls cutting (no relation to Brady) and Mesa’s Dee Patrick in pole bending.

Those in fifth through 10th place can compete earlier in July in the Silver State International Rodeo in Nevada. Queen Creek’s Chantel Jensen, 16, first attendant in the Miss Arizona High School Rodeo competition, will travel to Silver State rodeo in the queen competition as well as pole bending and cutting.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6549 or

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