Last weekend, the Cass County Fair rodeo continued 25 years of family tradition.
On Friday and Saturday, hundreds of cowboys, cowgirls and rodeo fans celebrated that tradition, one that spans generations for many of the contestants and their families.
Barrel-racing contestant Melanie McKay grew up in a rodeo family, developing her passion for horses and competing at a young age.
McKay, 34, started barrel racing when she was 7 years old. In the nearly three decades since, she has competed in 35 to 40 rodeos a year throughout Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.
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Young rodeo fans are the most important part of McKay’s own rodeo story.
“Kids look up to you when they come to the rodeo. I can share some of the joy I feel with them,” said McKay, a high school special education teacher.
Though she owns and competes with several horses, her favorite is Chance, a 16-year-old quarter horse.
“Kids love to pet my horse and he loves everybody. He’ll run across the arena to let kids pet him. Seeing the kids is my favorite thing.”
The McKellips family also brings passion and family history to the rodeo.
For nearly 20 years, Chuck and Regan McKellips’ livestock farm in Harwood, Mo., has provided bulls, steers, calves, horses and sheep for rodeo contestants. Chuck’s son, Charlie McKellips, has been the rodeo announcer and managed the McKellips’ livestock operations for most of those years.
“This is a family event,” Charlie McKellips said. “For many families, it’s a multigenerational activity. It teaches kids about responsibility and respecting animals. They also learn sportsmanship.
“Rodeo’s an individual sport, but there’s a lot of helping one another out. Rodeo is a community made up of families and tradition.”
Though rodeos and competitors have remained close to their roots, the rodeo world has seen changes since it originated over a century ago.
“Rodeos have gotten more competitive,” Regan McKellips said. “Cowboys bring more edges to their games, and livestock is specifically bred to perform in rodeos. Technology has also had a big impact on breeding and training.”
Matt McKay, horse trainer, rough stock rodeo competitor and Melanie McKay’s husband, has embraced the new training technology.
“We’re using AquaTred to train our horses now,” McKay said. “The horses train year-round in a heated, indoor pool with a treadmill on the bottom. They get a better strength workout in the water, with less toll on their joints and feet than they get on hard ground.”
Cowboy Noah Howerton, 4, is not quite ready for this high-tech rodeo world yet. Nevertheless, he started writing his own rodeo story last year. In his straw hat and boots, this preschool cowboy has competed in mutton-busting events from Arkansas to Texas. Today, his rodeoing is a family affair.
Last week, Noah traveled from his home in Arkansas to compete in Cass County’s mutton-busting competition. His grandparents Kevin and Holly Wehner cheered him on from the bleachers.
“Noah practices barefoot on grandpa’s back,” Holly Wehner said. “I love this. It’s so much fun to watch him. Mutton-busting gives him the feeling of being a cowboy without the risk.”
Noah loves riding the sheep.
“The sheep are fluffy,” he said. “They feel like a couch.”
Someday, Noah’s rodeo story may resemble that of David Kenyon and his family. For the past 30 years, David Kenyon, rodeo cowboy and farmer, has competed in team- and calf-roping events throughout the Midwest. His daughter, Stacey, 20, also rides in rodeos, competing in breakaway roping events. Kenyon’s son, Don, manages the family farm in High Point, Mo.
“Rodeos were set up as something for cowboys to enjoy after working hard to raise the animals and crops that feed the world. Farmers allow us to be self-sufficient in the world. I love this way of life, the loyalty and community. It’s how I have chosen to raise my family.”