Aspiring cowboys and cowgirls from around the state will gather Sept. 24 and 25 at the Payson Event Center to showcase their skills in the Arizona High School Rodeo Association season opener.
The 10-rodeo campaign wraps up June 9 to 11 at the AHSRA finals slated for the Apache Gold Casino rodeo grounds in San Carlos.
Along the prep trail, competitions will also be held in Buckeye, Yuma, Gilbert, Parker, Tucson, Wickenburg and Prescott.
High school rodeos include most of the same competitions held during Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association events, including bareback riding, barrel racing, bull riding, calf roping, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling and team roping.
Prep rodeos also feature contests in cutting horse for both boys and girls, goat tying and pole bending.
Although Payson High School doesn't sponsor an official rodeo team, a loose-knit band of student athletes travel the prep circuit competing in a variety of events.
Among those expected to participate in the Payson rodeo are Sheyla Hall (barrel racing), Candace Bullard (goat tying, pole bending and barrel racing), Amanda Hayworth (barrel racing and pole bending ), Patty Goble (barrel racing and pole bending), Amanda Howard (pole bending and barrel racing), Jason Lister (bareback riding), Logan Ferkol (bareback riding), Trevor Haught (bareback riding), and Laci Riggins (goat tying, barrel racing).
For the 17-year-old Riggins, rodeos and competition are a way of life.
"I've rode in gymkhanas since I was about 5 years old and this is my third year competition in high school rodeo," she said. "I'd like to continue barrel (racing) and riding after high school."
In preparing for the upcoming season, the PHS senior has spent months training a horse for barrel racing. "Sometimes it is frustrating and time consuming until you find the right horse," she said.
Riggins also keeps goats at her home to practice her goat tying skills.
"Last year was my first goat tying, and I did well, finishing in the top 10 at the state finals," she said. "I hope to do even better this year and finish in the top four (at state), so I can go to the national finals in Springfield, Ill."
Riggins says she's a big fan of high school rodeo because "It's enjoyable, you get to meet new people and hang out with your friends."
Last year, the local rodeo team featured talented Seth Barkley, who won -- as a senior at Payson High School -- the saddle bronc events at every AHSRA rodeo except one. At the Payson competition, he scored a 65, to claim the winner's buckle.
Barkley eventually won the state championship and earned a berth into the high school national finals.
Last summer, Barkley accepted a rodeo scholarship to Cochise College, where he is now a student.
Town Recreation Specialist Charlene Hunt, a former Payson Rodeo queen and longtime Rim Country equestrian, predicts the Payson Rodeo should attract statewide attention.
"It's the first rodeo of the season and will be huge," she said. "It is by far the largest ‘contestant' rodeo we host in Payson."
Among the most popular events will be the barrel racing that has already drawn a whopping 72 entries, Hunt said. The large number of entries has created a need for slack time, which will begin each day at 8 a.m.
In slack time, events are conducted consecutively without breaks. The rodeo performances kick off at 2 p.m. Admission is free of charge.
The Payson Optimists club will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner at their food booth.