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Mississippi Rodeo Stars

More than a few rodeo pros call north Mississippi home.


Written by Eugene Stockstill | Photographed by Joe Worthem


For those of you who are rodeo newbies, you need to get a few things straight from the get-go. If you didn’t book tickets early for the ultra-popular National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas this month, you are probably too late. The jam-packed event takes place every December at UNLV’s 19,522-seat Thomas and Mack Center, draws participants from Australia, Canada, France and Mexico, and banks a $10-million purse split between seven different events that stretch out over a 10-day period.


You also should recognize the world of rodeo includes a cache of events that require as much craft and commitment as Olympic sports. And things like body-slamming a wild steer to the earth after dismounting a stallion in full gallop demands (at least) a hockey-player degree of toughness.


It may surprise you, but the Magnolia State cannot lay claim to the appellation “rodeo state.” That honor belongs to such states as Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, along with Florida, of all places, especially South Florida, which is covered in cattle ranches. And the truest fans of rodeo, oddly enough, don’t live in Jackson, Mississippi, or Memphis, Tennessee, or Little Rock, Arkansas, but in places like Attica, New York, and upstate Maine, rodeo clown Dusty Myers said.


“The crowds are bigger, because we’re a show up there,” the Jumpertown native said. “It’s a spectacle.”


But Mississippi does boast more than a few rodeo professionals who not only participate but also have excelled at the top levels of competition. There’s Will Lummus from Byhalia, No. 2 last year in the world in steer wrestling for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, whose Facebook profile photo shows him maneuvering from horse to steer like Indiana Jones. And there’s Tony Sharp, who lives in the Starkville/Columbus area and was one of the pioneers of the PRCA.


The following are the stories of a few north Mississippi standouts who call rodeo much more than a hobby or a career.


“We’re a family,” saddle bronc rider Kody Rinehart said.


AT THE TOP

Skydivers and NASCAR pros report that the thrill and adrenaline of their chosen sports far outweigh the dangers. Will Lummus says the same goes for his profession.


“It’s unlike any other sport,” Lummus, 30, said. “When you quit getting butterflies, it’s time to quit. You’re riding an animal that can do anything he wants to, and you’re trying to catch a wild steer and tackle him. There are so many variables that go into it. There’s always going to be adrenaline in it. I played football, and I loved it. But there’s nothing like this. It definitely beats you up.”


A native of West Point, Lummus wrestled his first steer as a sophomore in high school, inspired by his father and his uncle. “It came pretty natural to me, and I had a great teacher,” he said. “It was always my dream to rodeo for a living, more or less to prove to myself that I could do it.”


The licensed physical therapist has since proven that he can more than do it at the most competitive levels.


“It’s a marathon (at the PRCA finals in Vegas),” said Lummus, who earned $285,000 last year for steer wrestling. “There are songs written about it. They’re just sitting on top of you. There’s so much energy in that building. It’s loud. It’s everything you’d want the nationals to be.”


At 6-2, 250 pounds, Lummus said he was too big to ride bulls. His brawn and strength (“I can bench press 285 pounds all day, but when they put 300 on there, I could only do it once,” he said) serve him well when he’s trying to outdo a cow on the loose. To stay in shape, the trained welder lugs around huge pieces of steel during his off time. “I’m what they call country strong,” he said.


Lummus said he’s been fortunate to have gone injury-free in his career and doubly fortunate to find himself surrounded by family and friends who support his work.


“Luke Combs has a song, ‘Without You,’” Lummus said. “He’s talking about singing, of course, that it’s everybody else that made it happen. I’m the one bulldogging, but there are a lot of people getting me through.”

Comic Relief

The big turning point for Dusty Myers came not long after he had stopped toddling across the yard and started walking across it. That’s when he first saw Lecile Harris (from Collierville, Tennessee) and Rudy Burns (from Smithdale, Mississippi), two of the most famous clowns in the history of rodeo.


“You see something and you say, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do,’” he said. “My mom has pictures of me, three or four years old, dressing up like a rodeo clown.”


That epiphany transformed into a vocation when Myers’ father, a former rodeo man, started to introduce his son to all his friends and experiences in the cowboy realm. As he grew up, Myers did his fair share of bullfighting, but his first love is and always has been clowning.


A student of everything from the acting of Robert Duvall — “Watch how he uses his hands,” Myers said, — to the moves and mannerisms of the late Red Skelton and the old vaudevillians, Myers gathers his material from all quarters. He pays close attention to the best ways to grab and hold the attention of a crowd and tickle the collective funny bone. A shotgun the size of Elmer Fudd’s and a belt buckle five times too big help.


“I’m filling in gaps in the show,” he said. “I’m having to do my comedy while there’s a 2,000-pound animal running around. I’ve only got about 10 seconds to do something.”


And in this day of instantaneous social-media entertainment, that’s a tough gig. “When you make fun of yourself, when you make yourself the butt of the joke, everyone can laugh,” Myers said.


Myers has chalked up his share of awards along the way doing what he loves. He will be the open barrelman (the man who jumps in a barrel that a bull smashes into) in Las Vegas this December, and he’s been the rodeo clown of the year for the International Professional Rodeo Association nine times. Three years ago, he helped with the first-ever rodeo in Saudi Arabia before Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmen and the U.S. embassy in Riyadh.


Traveling the world with his horse Knucklehead to make people laugh can be grueling work, Myers said, and when he’s done performing, he transforms once more.


“I’m quick-witted but not a natural comedian,” he said. “It’s acting. When I’m outside my costume, people crack up at my wife. She’s the funny one. I’m a shy person by nature.”


Up & Coming

At 29 years old, Kody Rinehart has already accomplished more than men who are twice his age. The Rienzi native was a finalist two years running in the collegiate rodeo finals in Casper, Wyoming. He has qualified four times for the International Finals Rodeo in Guthrie, Oklahoma. And he is the two-time world champion in saddle bronc riding for the IPRA.


Where do you go from there?


“I’d like to make the NFR (in Vegas) one day,” he said.


Rinehart is well on his way, as he sits at the No. 1 slot in saddle bronc in the PRCA’s southeastern circuit. Saddle bronc refers to a rider who endeavors to stay for a few seconds on a saddled, buck-crazy horse who’d rather not have anyone on top of him. It is a pretty neat trick, to put it mildly. For someone who hasn’t seen it: The rider, holding onto a rein with one hand, looks as though he might go flying through the air like a cannon ball at any second.


“It just depends on how bad you want it,” Rinehart said. “You’ve got to have grit, attitude and keep trying. It’s the hardest event to learn.”


So where did all that fortitude originate? “I kind of learned my toughness from my father,” Rinehart said of the man who raised him and who has battled heart problems for years. “That no-quit attitude.”


The 5-7, 185-pound Rinehart doesn’t look as big as you might expect an already-famous broncobuster to look, but in fact, saddle bronc riding responds to flexibility and total-body strength, not size. To achieve the high-level of conditioning he needs, Rinehart trains with a program called Champion Living Fitness, which involves cardio, weightlifting and body-weight work. That training helped him when a horse threw him and he broke his neck in 2018 and had to wear a neck brace for six weeks.


“It is more important to control your body,” Rinehart said. “You don’t want to be super bulky.”

For the former college youth leader and graduate of Blue Mountain College (degree in Christian ministry) and East Mississippi Community College in Scooba (degree in welding and fabrication), the focus remains the same every day.


“Ride for God; live for God,” he said.


All in the Family

In 2019, Savannah Watson of Batesville won a first-place ribbon and a cash prize for barrel racing in a statewide rodeo competition in Jackson. But her real claim to fame happened when few people were watching her.


“There was a horse no one could catch,” said Watson, whose nickname is “The Horse Whisperer.” In 10 minutes, she said, she was riding the horse bareback. “That started the rumor.”


Watson, 21, her three brothers and her sister (Noah, 19; Lewis, 18; Elijah, 12; Hannah, 11) have been participating in local and state rodeos for four years, including barrel racing, pole bending and arena, all of which are timed horse-riding events. She and her brothers also enjoy roping calves.


Savannah, 21, was the first one to catch the rodeo spirit, and her siblings soon fell in line behind her. For Savannah, working with the horses sits at the top of her list of favorite things to do. She has trained every horse she has ridden in competition, and she calls three her own: Dutchess, a white mare; Heno, a gelding; and Petty’s Wild Cat, another mare.


“I call her Cat,” she said.


For the young woman who has a horse named Cat, competition is only a part of the story. The bigger part, she said, is learning how to think like a horse. It takes her about 30 days to break and train a horse.


“You have to make them respect your space,” she said. “If they turn their head toward you, they respect you. If they’re being disrespectful, they’ll turn their back end to you.”


Horse signs you should pay attention to if you’re a newbie? If a horse “follows you around like a puppy dog,” lets you rub her eyes or nibbles you for food, she likes you.


“I’m working with a horse right now that loves to hug me,” Savannah said. But if a horse pins back his ears or bears his teeth? “It’s a bad thing.”


For Batesville’s Horse Whisperer, this work is not a job but a labor of love. “I love being patient with them,” she said.

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