COLUMBIA FALLS — The Blue Moon Arena has nurtured generations of cowboys and cowgirls who have gone on to succeed in regional and national rodeo competitions.
A few of the latest rising stars were on full display at last week’s Brash Rodeo Summer Series event off U.S. Highway 2.
McKinnon Little, a standout competitor in breakaway roping from Essex, and Dalton May, a bareback rider who recently graduated from Glacier High School, shined as they have all spring and summer.
Little and May are among four local rodeo stars who recently qualified for the National High School Rodeo Finals in Gillette, Wyoming. Tyrell Toren, a soon-to-be senior at Glacier High School, qualified in both bull riding and saddle bronc riding. He recently finished fourth in both events at the high school state finals in Baker. He is returning to the national finals for the first time since he was a freshman.
“I felt real confident going in,” he said. “It’s 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.”
Brooke Wilson, a soon-to-be senior from Bigfork, qualified in barrel racing. She won the high school state championship in the event with a time of 15.46 and ended her state season with 150 total points, 28 points ahead of the runner-up.
May qualified for nationals in bareback riding after finishing the season in second place in Montana. His total of 144 points was only four behind the leader.
May grew up in a rodeo family and learned to ride bareback from his uncle.
“I like the wildness of it,” he said.
He started when he was 14 and quickly learned to battle his nerves before sitting atop a wild bronc. It ended up coming naturally, and his confidence — as well as bravery — blossomed as he shined at rodeos at the Blue Moon and other arenas. He didn’t compete in the high school season until this year, which turned out to be quite successful.
“I like the adrenaline rush and the people you meet — lots of good people,” he said. “It’s just all-around fun.”
Little has been around horses her whole life, growing up in a family of outfitters who live in Essex. She began competing at rodeos when she was only 6, learning from her father, who competed in national rodeo events and qualified for the circuit finals.
“I’ve been around it my whole life,” she said. “I’ve been going to rodeos since before I could walk.”
She started out by competing in barrel racing until she recently developed a passion for breakaway roping. The event is a variation of calf roping, in which riders wielding a single-loaded rope chase a newly released calf and try to lasso the animal around the neck as quickly as possible.
“I just started roping a couple years ago and it’s really clicked for me,” she said. “Now it’s my favorite.”
Little has become one of Montana’s best by relying on determination and discipline, which have helped her succeed academically as well. Living in Essex, Little attends high school in a unique way: by sitting and studying at her computer. Due to Columbia Falls’ distance, she enrolled in online school. Over the last four years, she has spent 5-6 hours a day at her computer taking online courses and studying. This spring she graduated with a high school degree and is now enrolled at the University of Great Falls, where she will also compete on the rodeo team.
“It was a really great experience,” she said of her online education. “You really have to be self-driven and want to get it done.”
“There were times when it wasn’t fun,” she added. “But everyone wants to get an education. I definitely wanted to go to college and rodeo, and you have to have the grades to do that. I couldn’t slack off.”
Now she’s traveling to Wyoming to compete against the best high school rodeo stars in America. The NHSFR is the world’s largest rodeo and features more than 1,750 competitors from 43 states, five Canadian provinces and Australia. Competitors are vying for national honors as well as $200,000 in prizes and $350,000 in college scholarship funds. This year’s 69th annual event is July 16-22. It will be streamed online at NHSRATV.com.