With Rapid City’s recent urban renaissance, it’s easy to overlook the ever-more-cosmopolitan town’s long-standing agricultural underpinnings. An afternoon spent watching a Little Britches Rodeo at the Central States Fairgrounds is a fitting reminder that Rapid City is the shopping and cultural hub for a vital ranching region with a radius of more than 400 miles.
It is a curious feeling to walk among the more than 150 horses tied up to dozens of trailers only blocks away from downtown Rapid City, where a city crowd is celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with all the trimmings – a parade, numerous pub specials, entertainment and green beer.
It’s all country back at the fairgrounds – and with close to 200 competitors and their families attending the two-day event – strong proof of the vibrant western lifestyle practiced by a good swath of the population that call the surrounding Northern Plains home.
For all those folks, and for many visitors, rodeo is the entertainment of choice, and Little Britches Rodeos is the family-oriented sport that brings them to the various arenas and rodeo grounds located throughout the Black Hills and Badlands area.
“The base interest is interest in horses,” rodeo organizer Tami Pfleger said, adding that kids who participate come from a cross-section of backgrounds. “We get lots of ranch kids, but we have city kids as well.”
Founded in 1952, Little Britches Rodeo currently oversees about 275 rodeos in 16 states. It is organized so that any youngster aged 5 through 18 with basic riding skills can easily take part. There are three age categories, each with an age-appropriate event list, ranging from flag races for the littlest kids, to mutton busting, breakaway roping, barrel racing, steer wrestling and more. Boys and girls compete in equal numbers at most rodeos, according to Tami. Rodeos are also organized so that even children on limited budgets can participate.
“We rodeo year round,” Tami said. “Kids can go anywhere and compete. You can start when you are 16 and still compete, and you can go to any rodeo in any state.”
Open competition is only one of the benefits Little Britches events provide. Along with buckles and saddles, top competitors can earn quite a bit of scholarship money for college. And, of course, with its emphasis on building character and strengthening family ties, “It makes good kids.”
It all adds up to a strong field of competitors at most Rapid City rodeos, according to Tami. “We draw very strongly from South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska,” she said. “Rapid City is a competitive rodeo. You have to be on your game when you are in the older ranks. It keeps you on your edge.”
That level of competition makes Rapid City an important stepping stone for competing in the national finals Little Britches Rodeo, held annually in Pueblo, Colo. “Usually, South Dakota takes close to 100 kids to the nationals. We are one of the bigger groups there.”
When you consider South Dakota’s rodeo heritage, starting with the legendary bronc rider Casey Tibbs, and including top hands such as bareback riding brothers Marvin and Mark Garrett of Belle Fourche, calf roper Paul Tierney of Hermosa, and barrel racer Lisa Lockhart of Oelrichs, it’s easy to understand why the state is a rodeo powerhouse. In turn, pro rodeo’s biggest names are often found bucking, wrestling and roping at standout events like the Black Hills Roundup, Days of 76 Rodeo, Black Hills Stock Show Rodeo and the Crazy Horse Stampede.
So whether you are a first-time attendee or a long-time rodeo fan, South Dakota is home to the cowboys and the rodeos that allow everyone to experience the Old West horse-based culture at its most exciting.