Skeeter -- The Little Roper

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Picture the typical all-American boy in the Old West: blonde, buzz-cut hair; clear blue eyes; a dusty pair of blue jeans tucked into his cowhide boots; sitting atop his trusty mount like he was born there.

No this is not 1903, it's 2003, and a couple hundred or so spectators and participants gathered at the "Mad As Hell" Arena on the Tonto Apache Indian Reservation in Payson for an old-fashioned Sunday roping put together by Wade Parker and Kenny Davis.

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Skeeter Hill, 8, and his father, Ray Hill, are a team in the roping arena. The youngster is the heeler and his dad is the header when they team up for local roping competitions, such as a recent event at the "Mad-As-Hell" Arena at the Tonto Apache Reservation.

The team roping attraction drew the local cowboys and their best horses from the back pastures to compete for buckles, saddles and money. Eight-year-old Skeeter Hill was not about to be left out, simply because of his age.

As other youngsters are playing in the mud left by the water truck or climbing the mounds of dirt behind the arena, Skeeter Hill's name is heard over the loudspeaker.

The sea of mounted cowboys parts in the arena as this scrawny, little boy expertly guides his steed, Mighty Mouse, into the box. A few last-minute words of coaching are shouted in his direction. The look of determination, that only the young and unafraid wear, settles upon his face.

His partner and father, Ray Hill, nods and a steer is released in a cloud of dust. Ray lassos the head and Skeeter winds up his rope and tosses for the heels -- one leg caught. It is a victory, and the smile on his face shines like a beacon. The cheers, whoops and shouts erupt for the clear favorite riding amongst the big men -- his heroes -- of timed-event rodeo.

"They sure are fun to watch," local cowboy Travis Stodghill said of this cowboy version of a "mini me." Stodghill has headed for Skeeter a time or two -- and it is obvious that this little cowpoke worships the ground these big men walk. His ears perk up to every bit of advice and encouragement they offer.

With only eight years under his belt, and only the most recent four spent learning to rope, Skeeter is already wearing the buckle of a champion.

"He is the state champion for dummy roping," Ray says with lots of fatherly pride.

Skeeter, a typical cowboy, is not much for small talk when there is a rope nearby. He practices on the dummy while offering just a few words of insight into his love.

"'Cause Dad and Grandpa do it," he answers when asked why he ropes. It's clear after seeing him nail the dummy more than a dozen times that Skeeter is a natural.

"When he gets off the school bus, he will throw his rope five to six to seven hundred times before dinner," Ray said.

Ray recounts a tale of waking up early one morning and finding Skeeter missing. After searching the house and the yard, the little fellow was found, in nothing but his underwear, throwing a rope down at the barn.

Riding his horse with the cowboys in the arena, this little guy is all about paying attention. The second a stray steer is turned out -- Skeeter and Mighty Mouse swoop in like a flash. The boy takes any opportunity to throw a practice loop at a real cow.

This is no kid's rodeo and the cowboys, serious competitors, are generous with their time. They are always willing to put him in and head for him. Lamenting if they miss a catch and ruin Skeeter's chance at a good catch.

"You didn't feel near as bad as I did when I missed that steer for Skeeter," another local cowboy, Donnie Wayne Randall said. It is evident that Skeeter has earned their respect and admiration.

Skeeter Hill is a name rodeo fans will come to hear in a few years -- think Tiger Woods with a rope.

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