Backed into a box, lanky 18-year-old Laekyn Reust is intently focused on controlling the pent-up energy of her palomino Quarter Horse, Marco. When a moment of equilibrium is reached, she gives a single nod to the man who now pulls a steel lever that releases a black calf whose own energy, if possible, has been even more pent-up than Marco’s.
Reust spurs her horse and the two explode into the arena, the young woman’s violently whirling lariat almost taking out a photographer perched on the rail as she exits the box. The calf bursts forward but isn’t halfway down the arena before it runs itself straight into the loop thrown ahead of it. The animal’s terrified sprint tightens the loop around its own neck as Reust pulls Marco to a halt and releases the rope. The clock stops.
Sierra Grande gently rises 2000 feet from the tiny village of Des Moines in the northeastern corner of New Mexico. From the mountain’s 8600’ summit you can see Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Down below, over lunch at the Sierra Grande Restaurant, a truck stop on Highway 87 between Clayton and Raton, you might pass your time counting worn spurs on the other diners, then count the horse trailers lined up outside.
This is classic cattle country. Many of the big pickup trucks display red bumper stickers reminding you to EAT BEEF. Ranches and pastures are measured in sections, not acres. Kids don’t join Scouts or play Little League; they grow up on horseback.
Seneca cattleman Mark Reust is almost apologetic for his daughter Laekyn’s fixation on horses. “It’s our fault. We put her on a horse when she was four. It was just me and her mom. We couldn’t leave her in the pickup, so we left her on a horse by the windmill while we gathered cattle.” But Laekyn’s raising was the norm around here, not the exception.
In 2001, seven sets of parents got together in the Des Moines School cafeteria and formed the Sierra Grande Horse Association (SGHA) to give their kids “a good place to be able to do something they love,” says Sue Vincent, one of those parents. They created an annual series of four summer rodeos, or “play days”, for kids from the age of 3 on up to 18. The parents volunteer to prepare the old village arena, recruit sponsors, organize and run the events, and tabulate the results: in the fall, they throw an awards ceremony in Des Moines Village Hall where prizes are given for the best season point totals.
High scorers earn cash awards provided by sponsors. The young cowboy, or cowgirl – boys and girls compete against each other equally in all events – with the highest point total, on any combination of horses, wins a coveted belt buckle. So does the youngster who wins the “All-Around” versatility award, for the highest point total on a single horse.
At 17, Paul Grice is a veteran working cowboy, having earned pay for “day work” on horseback since he was eight-years-old – checking and moving cows, feeding, roping, branding, shipping. Riding Bueno, the Quarter Horse he bought with his own wages five years ago, Grice is hungry to win this year’s SGHA “All-Around” belt buckle. “Two years ago I was third,” he says. “Last year I was first runner-up – I won $406, but no buckle. I’m shooting for the buckle this year.” He has a good shot at it, though local cowgirl Riata Rivale is giving him a good run for it.
Until his family’s move to Roy, NM, this year, Grice grew up in Kenton, Oklahoma, a short ride from the Colorado and New Mexico state lines. Paul and Laekyn have grown up together competing in 4-H and open rodeos. Both are planning lives built around horses. Paul will continue working cattle on ranches, though if he can swing it he’d like to take time out to attend ranch management school at a north Texas college. He knows that even in ranching, “A lot of people nowadays want someone with some education. It’s a step to a bigger job.”
Laekyn plans to earn certification in equine massage and acupressure at the Tallgrass Animal Acupressure Institute in Larkspur, Colorado. Inspired by her mother, Robyn, she first glimpsed her future when her mom coached her to help Marco with massage and acupressure. “He was tightly wound and crazy stubborn,” Laekyn recalls. “He’d run like mad and wouldn’t stop.” With skills her mom taught her, Laekyn discovered she has a gift for helping a horse. With massage and acupressure, she says, “There was a dramatic change in Marco. He became manageable, and a good competitor.”
Raised on six ranches in her eighteen years, from Boise City in the Oklahoma panhandle down to Logan, New Mexico, Laekyn comes from a long line of ranchers. “I’m a horse person,” she states simply. Her mom adds, “There’s no boy in her life, just a horse.” An active and vivacious young woman, Laekyn says, “I’m a people person. I’m not afraid to try new things, or even stupid things.” She’s a ham, the one to start a conga line at a dance. She loves photography, and she’s the 4-H reporter for the local newspaper, the Union County Leader.
Laekyn has entered 4-H competitions all her life, mostly in livestock judging and hippology – the study of the horse. Last year she won 4th place in New Mexico for individual hippology and 3rd at nationals for team horse judging. Her rodeo events are goat tying and breakaway; she hopes to move on to team roping after this final year in the youth rodeo at Des Moines. She also fancies a stint at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, where she’d like to ride on the school’s Western Pleasure team while earning an Equine Associates Degree.
The SGHA rodeo has launched some kids to the junior high and high school rodeo circuits. Laekyn, who will work her way through college, says, “We don’t have enough money, and I don’t have enough talent, for that.” Two gals who have made that leap to the highly competitive – and not inexpensive – high school rodeo circuit are Des Moines 17-year-olds Ann Vincent and Rhodi Martin.
Nine years ago, Ann and her younger brother Austin were featured in Gene Peach’s book, Making a Hand: Growing Up Cowboy in New Mexico. Ann entered her first rodeo at age 4, at the Bill Cody Arena in Amarillo, and was disqualified for going too fast in the barrels: she loped instead of trotted, not allowed at that age. She spent five years competing in the Des Moines SGHA rodeos before graduating to junior high, and now high school, rodeo. For Ann, “SGHA is a place that helps you advance to the next level. It’s a learning experience. I improved my skills every time I went. It gave me lots of opportunities to practice, close to home.”
Ann is in her final year on the Texas high school rodeo circuit, where she was Miss Tri-State Rodeo 2008-2009. She’s still a barrel racer, though she wants to get into roping, too. She made it to the state finals in Abilene last summer. After focusing on studies in her first year of college, she plans to enter college rodeo in her sophomore year. “And if I have a competitive horse,” she says, “I’d like to enter pro rodeo.”
Ann’s classmate Rhodi Martin also fancies a pro rodeo career after years of gaining invaluable experience at the SGHA rodeo. Since 2007, Rhodi has competed in barrels and poles on the New Mexico high school rodeo circuit, traveling to rodeos in Gallup, Farmington, Truth or Consequences – all over the state – along with open contests such as the XIT Rodeo in Dalhart, Texas. She qualified for the state high school rodeo championships in both 2008 and 2009. This year she’s hell-bent, not only to make it to nationals, but to win the national barrels competition. “I want to rodeo hard,” she says, “and qualify for the NFR. That’s my big dream, winning that national title.”
Rhodi and her sister Shayla have recently joined Ann and Austin Vincent in forming a rodeo club at Des Moines School. They’re the only students in the club, but then there are only 90 students in the whole school, K through 12, largely gathered from the big ranches in the 2500-square-mile region between Clayton and Raton. There are more cows in the area, and perhaps more horses, than there are people.
Laekyn Reust lives sixty miles away, on a ranch outside Seneca, which itself is only a name on a map and a few old ruins on the ground, seventeen miles north of Clayton. She’s trailered her horse over to Des Moines four times for her final summer of competition in the Sierra Grande youth rodeo. Absent dreams of any national championship, Laekyn knows that, as she pursues other dreams, chasing down and roping a black calf will provide her a rich lifetime of memories, an important step in a life she plans to spend with horses.