Outside the Curry County Events Center, a teenage boy and his sister have a parking lot talk over which horse each person gets to ride, according to Mom.
On the inside floor, former competitors reminisce — one noted how she’d had to miss the ACT test multiple times, but she never missed a rodeo.
Throughout the night, the New Mexico High School Rodeo State Finals is like a family reunion, both biological and extended.
“It’s just a giant rodeo family,” said Karly Johnson, a recent graduate of Dora High School. “They always support you. They’re your competitors, but your friends too.”
When the dozens of high schoolers weren’t competing — many in multiple events — they were talking about their school years, their summers and the rodeos coming later this summer.
The one they’re working for this weekend, though, is the National High School Finals Rodeo, held July 17-23 in Gillette, Wyo.
The top four finishers in each event earn the right to go there, with points earned throughout the year.
“It’s not my year,” said Tierra Gray, who just finished her sophomore year at Tatum High School. Gray isn’t planning on making the nationals in any event, but she’s doing five events in the finals, “just to get my confidence up.”
For Johnson, she needs a solid performance today in breakaway roping to advance to the national finals. That would be her second event, as she’s already clinched a berth NHSFR in barrel racing.
She had an impressive fourth-place finish in Thursday’s first round of the state rodeo, despite some trouble from her horse Pita.
“She’s still really young,” said Johnson, who plans to attend New Mexico State University. “She’s kind of hot and cold sometimes. But she gives 100 percent effort.”
Pita hesitated coming into the arena, but once she stepped in, she and Johnson finished a barrel run in 18.032 seconds, just behind Alissa Burson (18.030) for fourth.
Gray, who is still considering following her sister Tiada to Eastern New Mexico University in two years, followed Johnson and finished eighth with a time of 18.443.
The first go-round resumes 9 a.m. today at the events center, with the second go-round beginning at 7:30 p.m.