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The High School Rodeo Association championship continues on Saturday at RES-LES FARMS south of Conway off Gilbert Road. The event includes bronco riding, goat roping, barrel racing, team calf roping and bull riding. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Fans flocked the stands Friday night for barrel racing, bull riding and more events as teens competed in this year’s high School rodeo event in Horry County.

Riders saddled up for the first night of the 5th annual event at RES-LES Farms near Conway that featured competitors from near and far. Contestants there recalled how they first got into the pastime, some being introduced by family, and spoke of their passion for the adrenaline and fellowship the sport brings.

Before the rodeo began, organizer and RES-LES Farms owner Stacy Smith acknowledged the coronavirus, which has led to event cancellations and local organizations taking different measures amid concerns, as she addressed competitors. The president of the South Carolina High School Rodeo Association encouraged them to take all necessary precautions.

“Just be careful,” she told contestants.

Friday’s events kicked off with some patriotism and prayer. Entrants sported blue to honor regular rodeo contestant Ross Price, who suffered injuries when bull riding, with a flag flown by a young rider reading his name.

Competitors like Conway resident Emma Kay Branham, who plans to compete in more rodeos at the collegiate level, have grown up riding horses and transitioned to entering rodeos.

“My family has always rode horses,” the Texas native said. “It’s like a generational thing.”

The SCHSRA sponsors competitions throughout the state, such as this weekend’s event in Conway, for boys and girls. The top four contestants in all categories at the state competition in Clemson qualify for the nationals.

For many families with high school rodeo contestants who compete routinely, the events take them across the state. Friendships and bonds are often forged along the way, with some choosing to travel together.

Marie McClain perched on a lawn chair as she prepared to watched her son Eli compete in bull riding and talked about how high school rodeo events improve participants’ character.

“They teach them integrity,” she said, “which is going to prepare them as an adult.”

There’s no time for horsing around for contestants, as participants must keep their grades up and stay out of trouble.

“Every kid around here is well-behaved,” Branham said, “and I think it’s because of high school rodeo.”

Bull rider Kade Stokes of Landrum, who attends Blue Ridge High School, said part of what separates the high school rodeo from other sporting events like a Friday night football game, is the camaraderie between competitors, who cheer each other on, maybe even more so than spectators.

Like Branham, he’s suffered his fair share of injuries. But that hasn’t discouraged either competitor, nor kept them from participating.

“It’s just part of it,” Stokes said.

The rodeo continues Saturday night at 8 p.m. at RES-LES Farms, 1208 Gilbert Road in Conway. Admission is $10; kids ages 6 and under get in free. Students who quote a Bible verse are admitted for $5.

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