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Mix of Grit and Cool Spurs Faith Academy Junior to No. 1 in Bareback Riding

Faith Academy of Marble Falls student Payton Lackey holds for a full eight seconds to get a score while competing in bareback riding at a rodeo. Lackey recently clinched the 2017 bareback riding title at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Wyoming on July 16-22. Courtesy photo

GILLETTE, Wyoming — Eight seconds. That’s the time it took for bareback rider Payton Lackey to win a national championship.

But working up to that ride? That took much longer.

The Faith Academy of Marble Falls junior clinched the 2017 bareback riding title at the National High School Finals Rodeo in Wyoming on July 16-22 with a total score of 228, just three points ahead of second place. The championship means Lackey is the nation’s No. 1 high school bareback rider.

In bareback competition, the horse is doing everything it can to throw the rider, who has a tight grip on a rawhide rigging, much like a suitcase handle, that is strapped to the horse and between the rider's legs.

“We have to wedge our hands in it,” Lackey said. “When you’re in the chute, there’s no other feeling. You have so many emotions going through your head. There’s the touch of fear, anxiety, and nerves, and then there’s a calmness about everything. It’s only you and the horse. You nod your head and come out.”

Once the horse is out of the chute, riders spur it for a better performance. Scores range from zero to 50 for the rider and zero to 50 for the horse, but only athletes who ride the full eight seconds receive a score.

“It can go really good or really bad,” Lackey said. “When it feels good, it feels perfect and in time; you’re the perfect team. When it goes bad, it feels like you stuck your hand in a paint shaker where it’s jerking you in all sorts of ways.”

Lackey began as a bull rider at 14, following in the boot steps of his father — and first coach — Wes. His mother is Shannon Lackey.

However, the younger Lackey changed direction when he attended a free bareback riding school in Hamilton.

“I fell in love with it,” he said. “It just seemed more of a cowboy event. It takes a lot of grit and a lot of strength. You have to work to make a good ride.”

Bulls have less movement, he said, though both events require guts.

“You’re trying not to spur,” Lackey said of bull riding. “You’re sitting there holding a rope. You’re counter-reacting to what the animal is doing.”

Lackey showed a ton of potential at the Hamilton clinic, enough to get the attention of coach Bobby Mote, a four-time world champion in the event.

“After I started doing well, he got interested,” Lackey joked.

To compete at the highest level, Lackey must be in shape. He runs 3 miles a day, and his workout includes riding a spur board — a horse simulator on stilts — as well as core exercises and a lot of upper body workouts with weights.

“There’s a lot pressure on your upper body,” he said. “I’m a one hundred and fifty-pound guy going up against an (eleven hundred-) to twelve hundred-pound horse. You have to be in top condition.”

He also credits J&J Rodeo Co. for providing him with a practice horse when he first started and fellow Texan Leighton Berry, one of the top high school bareback riders nationally, who pressed Lackey to the limits.

“He was talented and extremely good,” Lackey said. “You’re only as good as your competition.”

Lackey said the number of bareback riders is dropping, and the reason for that isn't clear. Perhaps it’s because of the training, especially during the first three months, when athletes are tested physically like never before.

“The beginning stages are very rough. To get through that, you have to be mentally, physically, and emotionally tough,” he said.

To qualify for the National High School Finals Rodeo, Lackey had to first perform well in his home state. Texas has 10 regions, so riders must finish in the top 10 to advance to the state rodeo. There, a rider has to make the top four to advance to nationals.

At nationals, Lackey had to beat out 79 other riders. All 80 competed in the first two rounds, but the top 20 advanced to a third short round. Lackey was in first place, three points ahead of reigning national champion Jesse Pope of Kansas, when the final round began.

Lackey’s advantage was that he would ride last, which proved to be invaluable because Pope had a great ride.

Lackey knew what he had to do to win, committing to riding his best for a full eight seconds, no matter what the horse, Chochise from Summit Pro Rodeo, did.

“As soon as I hit the ground, they said my score (77), and I knew (I’d won),” Lackey said. “I had to ride to win. A lot of ‘what ifs’ went through my head, but every time I ever even thought of double grabbing or jumping off, the national championship hits you and you grit it out, no matter what’s going on.”

His bareback abilities have caught the attention of several colleges, including Sam Houston State University, Odessa College, Panola College, and Western Texas College, all of which have rodeo programs.

The potential for a full scholarship to college is there.

“I have a bunch of friends, and they have full rides,” Lackey said.

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