Three years ago last month, Victor’s Cooper Cooke won the all-around cowboy title at the National Junior High Finals Rodeo in Lebanon, Tenn.
He was 13 years old, Idaho’s first cowboy to claim the NJHFR all-around title, and he did so with high scores throughout the week in two events.
Now an incoming Teton High School junior and the newest Idaho High School Finals Rodeo all-around cowboy, he enters his first National High School Finals Rodeo in those same two events: bareback riding and saddle bronc. Those similarities have crossed his mind as he prepares to compete at the NHSFR, which begins today in Rock Springs, Wyo.
“I know it is very doable with two events,” Cooke said by phone. “I’d like to become a national champion. I’d like to chase rookie, bareback and saddle bronc (titles).”
The all-around state title comes a year after Cooper missed half his freshman season with a broken wrist. Casey Cooke, Cooper’s father and former competitive bareback rider, said he roped the first half of the season but did not do any rough stock events until the second half of the season. The broken wrist followed a broken jaw that happened on a ski trip less than a year earlier.
Cooper won District 7 all-around cowboy, rookie all-around cowboy and took the district buckle in bareback riding even with not riding stock half his freshman season, qualifying for the IHSFR in five events. He missed qualifying for the NHSFR by one spot, placing fifth at state in bull riding. Casey believes that provided more motivation for this season, and while he acknowledged that the NHSFR is a different level than the NJHFR, Cooper knows what it takes to be in contention for an all-around title.
“Cooper, his technique I think really came around a bunch in the last year,” Casey said. “He’s had to clean up his technique and get stronger. I’m not gonna say he can do it with two events, but he’s gonna have to win some go rounds and he’s gonna have to keep accumulating points. He’s definitely gonna have to bring his A game every single time. I’ve had days where I wondered if he was really ready to go, have his game face on but he seems to pull it together when he needs to pull it together.”
No stranger to the big stage
Winning the NJHFR all-around title was in the middle of a remarkable stretch for Cooper that ultimately prepared him for competing at a high level.
Six months after that win, he took third in the world in mini bareback riding at the inaugural Junior National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, an event he was invited to due to winning the Mini Bareback Riding World Championships a year earlier. The Junior NFR, now known as Junior World Finals, was comparable to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo complete with autograph signings, photo shoots, interviews and large crowds.
While that atmosphere was a lot to take in as an eighth grader, Cooper said it helped having been at the Mini Bareback Riding World Championships the previous year and getting his nerves out there.
“I was super nervous going into that because I’ve never been on a stage that big,” Cooper said. “After that year, it all kinda felt natural. Basically when I’m up, I’m like, ‘All right. Big show. Do your best and let the cards play out where they will.’ I don’t feel super nervous going into nationals. I feel like I should be there.”
Thanks to those experiences at an early age, Cooper said he no longer battles nerves before rodeos. Growing up in a rodeo family certainly helped, as older siblings Cade (2014 Teton graduate and member of the 2013 Idaho team which won the boys team title at the NHSFR) and Libby (2016 Teton graduate and member of the Sheridan College rodeo team) have both competed in high school and college rodeo. Watching them and traveling with them introduced him to an on-the-go lifestyle and summers on the road, something he has had much practice with two years into high school.
Casey said maintaining that full schedule--including bigger, faraway rodeos--has only helped Cooper.
“I think the more those kids get on horses and go to rodeos the less they are to let the crowds, lights and everything tend to get to them,” Casey said. “Most of these kids that rodeo quite a bit are that way. The first rodeo jitters are kinda gone. They go and take care of business.”
Cooper, who has a summer job and lifts weights regularly, estimated he had been to 10 or 11 rodeos between June 15--the final day of the IHSFR--and June 27. July is especially busy. This weekend, he concluded the week-long International Finals Youth Rodeo in Shawnee, Okla., where he made the short go in bareback riding and saddle bronc.
“A bunch of my buddies did it last year,” Cooper said. “I entered it because I thought it would be good practice and stuff.”
He arrived in Jackson, Wyo., from Shawnee in time to travel to Rock Springs for the NHSFR, where he will be for a week before heading four hours east to the Cheyenne Frontier Days, deemed the World’s Largest Outdoor Rodeo and Western Celebration. Cooke was one of four high school cowboys in the nation and two from Idaho selected to compete in bareback in the youth division at Frontier Days. Fellow District 7 cowboy and 2019 IHSFR bareback champion Kelby Schneiter was also invited to participate. Frontier Days lasts nine days and draws hundreds of thousands of spectators each year.
“It’s gonna be awesome,” Cooper said.
More goals to chase
The 16-year-old Cooper could not be more different from the 6-year-old Cooper that his father recalls getting ‘tromped’ by a calf at his first junior rodeo in Preston.
The calf bucked Cooper off then landed on him and bloodied up his knuckles. Casey bandaged him, but Cooper could not be consoled.
“Finally I told him if you’re gonna sit and bawl, bawl in the horse trailer,” Casey said. “A long ways away, I could still hear him howling. I told (my wife) Jacki, ‘I think he’s done riding rough stock.’ He finished out that year and I don’t know if he got a calf rode that year.”
Cooper stuck with it, however, competing in mini bull riding, saddle bronc steer riding and bareback steer riding at the junior high level before moving to broncs upon reaching high school. His progression since the Preston rodeo makes for some lighthearted reflection by Casey now.
“That first ride, I would’ve never thought he’d make it,” Casey said. “He loves it.”
Along the way, Cooper gained plenty of company. Schneiter, who grew up in Rexburg across the street from professional bull rider and three-time NHSFR all-around cowboy Garrett Smith, went with Cooper to the Junior NFR. Now they are the latest in a long line of District 7 cowboys within the last decade to win state buckles and qualify for the NHSFR. Much like their older siblings before them, Cooper said coming from a competitive district helps all the contestants and also creates lasting friendships.
“Once you get down to state and you have such a competitive district, you guys have been pushing each other all year,” Cooper said. “It just makes you strive to be better and all those guys push you and you push them as well. In the rodeo world and in our district, I feel like everyone has so much respect for each other. Everyone is so alike.”
Three years ago, Casey described Cooper’s age group in District 7 as a talented, experienced bunch that would be fun to watch as they grew older. Now Cooper and Schneiter are competing alongside 23 year-old Cade in local rodeos and holding their own to the point that Casey said Cooper and Schneiter have matched Cade’s skill level. Cooper beat Cade at Jackson rodeo in late June a week after Schneiter beat Cooper at the Rigby Stampede.
“These young kids, I think they’ve had more opportunities,” Casey said. “They’re 16 right now but they’re competing with kids in that next age group. Cooper’s a bigger version of Cade, but their riding style is real similar. He’s way surpassed anything I can help him with. I know Cooper’s younger and Cade’s had a few more injuries but watching them ride, it’s crazy. People can’t tell them apart.”
As for farther down the road, Cooper is chasing big dreams. Casey said Cooper would watch his NFR DVD collection when he was younger than 8. By age 13, he was vocal about someday going pro and reaching the NFR. Casey said he doesn’t believe Cooper’s dream of reaching the NFR is unrealistic, and he has examples of eastern Idaho cowboys like Smith and Victor native Tyler Nelson who have shown how far one can go in the sport.
“I think all of this lets him know, yeah, this is possible,” Casey said. “I know that’s one of his goals and I hope he does it. Without giving him the opportunity, he never would’ve been able to do it. I gave him the opportunity and it’s up to him what he does with it.”