The Littlest Cowboy
By Jodi Helmer
A pint-sized rodeo champion is earning big awards for his skill in the ring
In the moments after a calf darts out of a chute, bucking and racing across the rodeo ring with 8-year-old Cash Smith on its back, Leslie Smith holds her breath.
“It’s the longest six seconds of my life,” she says.
Cash started riding in the rodeo when he was 6. Although participation in rodeo is dwindling, the sport remains popular in the rural Missouri town the Smiths call home and Cash was an instant fan.
“The first time we put Cash on a sheep, he never wanted to get off,” Leslie, his mother, recalls. “He was born to ride.”
Over the past two years, Cash has gone from being a novice rider to an award-winning cowboy. He’s won multiple belt buckles and saddles—the rodeo equivalent of trophies—while riding on the Missouri Junior Rodeo circuit.
Cash won Reserved Champion for two consecutive rodeo seasons. Last year, after winning the Rough Stock Rodeo, Cash traveled to Amarillo, Texas, to ride in the National Junior Bull Riding Finals, where he earned the title 2017 National Champion. In 2018, his first year riding calves, Cash won the Missouri Junior Rodeo Association 2018 Calf Riding Championship.
Tyler Smith believes his son has a rare commitment to the sport. “I see more kids that do it one time and never come back than kids who stick with it. All Cash wants to do is ride,” Tyler says.
Born To Ride
On the rodeo circuit, age determines which animal the pint-sized cowboys and cowgirls ride. Children under 6 ride sheep, also called mutton busting. Once riders turn 7, they can start riding calves. Although the goal is the same—riders earn points for maintaining their balance, remaining seated, and keeping their free hand in the air, and they’re disqualified for hitting the ground or losing their grip on the rope—Cash says there is a big difference between the two animals.
“Sheep run fast but calves run and do these little jumps so it’s harder to stay on,” he explains.
The goal is to remain on a sheep for four seconds; the time for a perfect calf ride is six seconds. For adults, eight seconds is the gold standard.
To perfect his technique, Cash spends a lot of time practicing.
Tyler built a spring-loaded “bucking barrel” attached to a rope. Cash straddles the barrel and Tyler pulls the rope to mimic the bucking motion. A neighboring farm has calves and a small round pen where Cash can practice on live animals.
At a rodeo, Cash watches the other riders to get a feel for how each animal behaves in the ring. He prefers larger animals; Leslie says he’s ridden a few calves with horns as wide as her son is tall.
“The bigger animals are weaker and don’t buck as hard,” Cash says.
Tyler stays behind the chute with Cash. The little boy applies rosin to his rope to make it sticky and easier to hold. His dad helps him onto the calf and waits for his son to give him the sign —a quick nod of his head —that he’s ready to ride. The moment the chute opens, Cash lets his training take over.
“Cash doesn’t show a lot of emotion. He gets really quiet [before an event],” Tyler says. “He’s very focused in the ring.”
Cash knows the stakes are high. “The longer you stay on, the more better the points,” he says.
At some of the events, riders are awarded cash prizes in addition to saddles and belt buckles. Cash has used some of his winnings to purchase his own stock. So far, he has two calves and plans to allocate future winnings to purchasing another calf. He prefers heifers, which is what he rides in the rodeo.
“The boy [calves] are bigger and they don’t want the little kids riding the big calves,” he says.
The Road To Rodeo King
Dressed in boots, spurs, chaps, and a riding vest, Cash looks just like the professional rodeo riders. As he gets older, he hopes to continue roping and riding, earning more buckles and saddles.
While Leslie thinks Cash has the passion and skill to build a long career on the rodeo circuit, she isn’t focused on whether her son will grow up to be a professional cowboy. Instead, she is grateful for what the sport is teaching her son now.
“When he falls down, he bounces right back up and gets back on,” she explains. “Rodeo gives him so much courage and so much pride. It takes practice and skill and passion, and I think that’s what makes it a great sport.”
Cash might be too young to understand an adrenaline rush, but he is certain of one thing about calf riding: “It’s super fun and when I win, I feel like I’m awesome.”
Is your child interested in learning more about bull riding? Visit the National Junior Bull Riders Association’s website: NJBRAnow.org
Jodi Helmer writes about food, farming, and the environment from her homestead in rural North Carolina.