Cutter Kluser was one of the last students at Elton Gregory Middle School to find out that he had qualified for the Junior National Finals Rodeo.
When his parents learned the Redmond 13-year-old was one of 35 boys from the U.S. and Canada who would be competing in the senior division of the Mini Bareback World Championship in Las Vegas, Cutter’s mother, Tamy, immediately called the school, and the office staff agreed to announce the news over the intercom. But Cutter was in the locker room, where the announcement was drowned out by kids yelling and locker doors being slammed. So when his classmates started walking up to congratulate him, he had no idea why.
“I had no clue,” Kluser replied when asked last week if he even suspected that he had qualified for the Junior NFR, which is held in conjunction with the professional National Finals Rodeo.
“I guess he didn’t think it was coming,” his mother added.
Kluser had competed in a qualifying rodeo, the Northern States regional finals in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in late October. He had been bucked off on his second ride of the weekend and did not get to ride in the final round. But as organizers put together the final list of qualifiers, an open spot remained. Of all the kids bucked off on their second ride, Kluser had stayed on for the longest, so the spot was offered to him. (In the youth ranks, unlike the pros, rides that do not last for a full eight seconds are still recorded for such circumstances.)
Adriene Steffen, a 12-year-old from Sisters, was just as surprised when she learned she would be competing at the Junior NFR.
With five qualifying spots for each age group on the line at the qualifier in Moses Lake, Washington, Steffen was the 72nd of 73 barrel racers to compete, and the run was far from her best on her 12-year-old mare Koa. Steffen said Koa nearly stopped as she rounded the first barrel, and the pair tapped the second barrel and made a “lollipop” — her preferred term for a too-wide turn — around the final barrel in the clover pattern.
“I ran 15.4 (seconds), and there were six other 15.4s,” Steffen recounted on Saturday. “But they ran both age groups together, so I didn’t know how I placed. I’m like, I’ll be happy if I place ninth or 10th because of how many 15.4s there were. That was a pretty good run for us.”
Steffen said she was with her friend and fellow rider Alyson Terry when it was announced that Steffen had finished fifth, the last spot to earn a trip to Las Vegas. Terry, who is from Hermiston, won her age group, so the girls would be going to the Junior NFR together.
“Alyson was sitting right next to me, and she was pretty much jumping up and down in her seat, she had won,” Steffen said. “And then I hear my name called out, and I turn around to look at her with my jaw dropped, and I’m like, what? I asked her, did they seriously just call my name? Are you sure they didn’t call it for sixth place?”
Both Kluser and Steffen compete in the Central Oregon Pee Wee Rodeo Association (Kluser won the intermediate division buckle in 2014 and 2015 and placed third in the senior division this year), but they do most of their training on their own. Kluser practices riding on a mechanical bucking horse in his family’s barn, and his father, Dan, who rode bareback horses through high school and for a few years afterward, coaches him on proper grip, leg movement and safe dismounts. (Cutter fractured an elbow while landing at a rodeo earlier this season.)
Steffen said she gets a lot of pointers from other competitors and their parents, but she did need a few lessons to help her adjust to riding Koa when she got the mare last fall.
“She loves attention, loves people. She’s an easy horse to get along with,” Steffen said. “The issue is she’s really fast — I was a little behind on things, and then she’s pretty strong. I think what helped me click with her this summer is we went to a rodeo every single weekend this summer. And so, that repetitiveness helped me improve faster, because we did it so much.”
The mini bareback event starts in Las Vegas on Dec. 6, and the junior NFR barrel racing will be held Dec. 12 through 16.
For Kluser, at least, any pre-competition jitters have yet to set in. Cutter is typically a quiet kid, especially before a ride — his mother says it is nearly impossible to get a word out of him right before a bareback ride — but his parents say he also thrives on adrenaline. They have spotted him jumping around the house and the yard, parkour-style, and doing backflips off their horses.
“You wouldn’t do (rodeo) if you didn’t like the adrenaline, and anything will do it,” Dan Kluser said.
Steffen admitted she is already a bit concerned about the event in Las Vegas, but mostly because of the logistics of leading Koa to the competition arena, which is on the second level of the convention center where the event is being held, and making sure they are fully warmed up on a tight schedule.
“I watched it last year, so I kind of know what it’s going to be like,” said Steffen, who attended the NFR last year with her father, Randy, who is on the board of directors for the St. Paul Rodeo in Oregon.
She also noted that the barrels will be much closer together than usual.
“This arena, it’s 55 feet between the first and the second, so if anything goes wrong on the first barrel, it’s going to be interesting trying to get her to turn the second,” Steffen explained.
But mostly, the Junior NFR is a thrilling opportunity for a girl who has grown up surrounded by rodeo.
“She was born the 23rd of June, July third she was at the St. Paul Rodeo, and she’s been there every year since,” Randy Steffen said. “She came out a little more competitive than we expected.”
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