By Dahl Erickson
Star Valley Independent
Via Wyoming News Exchange
AFTON — Star Valley is obviously linked to the growth of the American West. Tough people who met difficult terrain and challenges head-on and carved out a location for future generations.
Based in agriculture and farming, the sport of rodeo is also linked with the area, but it wasn’t until recently that student-athletes going through Star Valley High School were able to earn a varsity letter for the sport. Gabby and Bryan Ray changed that.
“I guess my sophomore year, the Jackson kids that I rodeoed with had jackets with letters and I didn’t know that you could do that,” said Gabby. “So I asked them about that. I’d always wanted a letterman jacket and so I started to inquire about how that could happen. I worked with Rob Erickson and he helped me through the process.”
What followed was a series of steps that might have deterred some, but these are a set of twins who love what they do and SVHS Activities Director Rob Erickson didn’t want it to be a one-time situation.
“What he didn’t want was to have it get taken away, so it was a process where we were following the rules and how it worked,” Gabby continued. “In Jackson you just have to participate in rodeo. Here, Rob and I discussed how it should be done. A varsity letter on a varsity team should mean something.”
So, the pair worked with Erickson where rodeo athletes had to compile top-ten finishes in most events and top-20 for Pole Bending and Barrel Racing and there needed to also be a structured practice schedule.
“Rob really helped us,” said Bryan who also played football and wrestled. “It took a lot of work and Gabby put a lot of work into it.”
“I thought it was a valuable thing,” Erickson said. “I think kids who participate in extra activities benefit from it greatly. They’ve invested a lot of time on this. They were driven and followed up with me multiple times and they jumped through the hoops and found the answers that needed to be found. It was actually quite enjoyable and it was a fun process.”
According to Erickson, there are now ten student athletes competing in the rodeo realm.
“I like helping kids do what they really love and that’s what these two did. A lot of the rodeo kids have touched base with me and have done the preliminary stuff that needs to take place for them to get their letters as well.”
The pair have earned varsity letters that they themselves have helped create a process for other rodeo athletes to follow which includes 26 hours of practice.
“We felt that was a good benchmark,” said Gabby. “ “A lot of people start practicing in February and then you had to have a letter from your coach saying you deserve to letter. It took a while. We had to talk to some national advisers. We finally got it by the end of the year of my junior year. We started it in October and got it squared away by February. So me and Bryan got our [varsity letter] and to be the first ones to be able to do that is pretty cool.”
Part of the process meant deciding where to compete. Wyoming is a big state and it made little sense for athletes in Star Valley to haul horses and spend literally days on the road to compete in events in far-flung towns like Wheatland or Newcastle.
“It’s a little expensive to haul horses everywhere, so we went over in the Rigby area and we teamed up with the kids from Big Piney and Jackson and rodeo,” said Bryan. He went on to explain that much like track and field, there is a points system where the winner of an event earns ten points and second earns eight and so on.
“They take the top six to the state finals,” he added. “If you are are top four in your event then you go to the National Finals.”
The team in the area is comprised of students from Star Valley, Jackson, Pinedale and Big Piney who compete in District 7. Other area rodeo athletes such as Haze Child, A.J. Nield and Kaylee Hale compete in District 8.
The Rays do multiple events but for Gabby, her main passion is Team Roping.
“I am a Heeler and it’s just my favorite,” she said. “The feeling of catching two feet; dally [that] rope on the saddle horn is just a great feeling because most people in this country can’t do that. It’s team roping too. It’s hard because sometimes your partner misses and the relationship you have with your partner is one of a kind.”
Gabby also competes in breakaway roping on her horse, Chopper.
“It’s super fast and fun,” she continued. “It’s complicated and I think that’s why I like team roping a little bit better.
Chopper, who belongs to Gabby’s dad, won’t be following her to Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) in the city of Portales where her skills have produced a rodeo scholarship. But her horse Whiskey will join her.
“I just applied there as kind of a joke,” she stated. “I just wanted to see if I could get into another school. I was going to go to [University of Wyoming]. Then I saw they had a rodeo team so I contacted them and I sent them a video and he was very interested so they offered me a scholarship in January. I just kept talking to him and we decided during Spring Break and we made a visit and I just loved it. I talked to some of the team members and had a great time. One of the assistants with the team is from Torrington so I totally fell in love with the place.”
Gabby isn’t the only twin with a rodeo scholarship as Bryan will be heading to Cochise College where his life-long infatuation with rodeo will be on display.
“I think I was about 10 or 12 when I started learning to Team Rope,” he replied. “I had a dummy and had always done it but then I started learning more about horses and winning my first buckle and started loving it.”
Bryan also had aspirations to head to Laramie and rodeo for UW but fate had other plans.
“I [had] talked to UW since last June and it just didn’t end up working out. We took a trip to Spearfish, South Dakota during Spring Break at Black Hills State. I didn’t get an offer but I really appreciated the trip.”
Bryan thought he might even stick with his sister and end up at ENMU.
“We were down in Eastern New Mexico and he wanted to see me rope so he liked what he saw and offered,” Bryan continued. “Then we went to Cochise College.”
Cochise College is located in Douglas, Arizona which is just a stones throw from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The reason I chose them is I really wanted to get better over the next two years,” Bryan added “Get better at horsemanship and be a better competitor.”
The goals for the pair are still ambitious where they are gunning to qualify for the State Finals and maybe even the Silver State Finals in Reno, Nevada.
Whatever direction rodeo takes them now, Gabby and Bryan Ray know that they have left a bit of a legacy behind them. Gabby summed up their experiences thus far in establishing the varsity letter program at SVHS.
“I want to encourage other kids to take part in this so they can continue this accomplishment as well and give everyone that chance.”