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Sunset on Young Horses

Originally published as "Folsom's Rodeo draws top bronc riders chasing the dream" in The Folsom Telegraph on July 9, 2013


Kory Kiser sits on the bull chutes, listening to the
national anthem. 

           The chewed, red dirt behind the iron chutes is a cowboy combat zone, with loose piles of saddles, boots, bags and lassos scattered across its dusty expanse. Twelve men wait on a metal deck above, holding onto rails as their worn Stetson hats block the bright, falling sunlight. These wranglers have traveled from all over the west to hunker down on unsaddled broncs tonight — and the prestige of the Folsom Pro Rodeo has even brought a few serious contenders with sights set on the bareback championship.

            It’s Friday night at the Dan Russell Rodeo Arena. The capacity crowd is watching a graceful, silver-studded riding display by Folsom’s Painted Ladies, but behind the scenes the only noises that can be heard are those of spooked, nervous horses batting their hooves on the sides of the gates. One of the men waiting to try these nervous combatants is Kory Kiser of Carson City, Nevada. In 2011, Kiser was one of the top-ranked bareback riders in the Western All American National College Rodeo standings. He’s since been scoring high on the California circuit of Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
            Kiser leans against the bottom of the chute with his faded shirt half pulled off, his muscular forearm wrapped to the elbow with white medical tape. As the first run of horses is secured in their chutes Kiser uses his good hand to mummify most of his bicep with the same cotton-colored wrappings.

            A few feet away, bronc-rider Landon Mecham of Tropic, Utah is glancing down at a wrist that’s also heavily bandaged. Mecham is a tall, lean, 8-year veteran of bronc busting. He is a consistently high scorer: Last year he took top honors for bareback riding at the Silver State Stampede in Elko, Nevada. Both Mecham and Kiser are hoping to score enough points in Folsom to build an overall total that will get them invited to compete in the upcoming Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.

Bronc rider Landon Mecham jumps away from an
angry adversary.

            Kiser reaches through the rails and gently pets the tense, wide-eyed animal he’s about to ride. Its name is Levi Jeans. After sitting perched over the chute for the national anthem, Kiser has two rodeo hands help him onto the horse. There’s still five minutes to go before the gate gets pulled. Kiser and the other riders are waiting quietly when — all at once — Levi Jeans goes catastrophically wild inside his 3-by-8-foot chute. He neighs like a bomb siren, rising up, beating his front hooves against the rails, slamming his hindquarters into the iron panels. Kiser tries to calm the horse, but it surges frantically upward, lifting high off the ground, pitching the cowboy hard over the side of the chute. Kiser drops six feet down to crash into the arena floor. Mecham jumps over to help two rodeo hands desperately fighting to keep the horse from getting its entire body onto the back planking. The animal responds by swinging his front hooves in the air like fists, knocking the cowboys back. One rodeo man’s face is bleeding as he and Mecham manage to push the horse down.

            Kiser pulls himself up the railing, swinging over the chute line. Levi Jeans is taking desperate breathes and standing completely still. Kiser rams his knuckles into the fist of a fellow bronc rider before lowering himself back onto the horse. The rodeo announcer draws the crowd’s attention to their gate. As the sound of his name echoes through the stadium, Kiser leans far back, tucks his chin down and tightens his face. His teeth clench. There’s scarlet on his temples. He nods to the chute man.

            The metal explosion of the gate goes ringing.

            After successfully making his first 8-second run for a score of 76, Kiser reflects a little on the fight Levi Jeans mustered back in the chute.

            “Most of them won’t do that,” he says, shaking his head. “But these are really young horses we have here tonight, so it does happen sometimes.”

            Down the way, Mecham is tapping the mane of the horse for his first-go-around. Like Kiser, he makes a solid 8-second ride.

Kory Kiser lowers himself onto a hard-hitting
bronc named Levi Jeans. 

            Both cowboys are scheduled for a second ride as the sun vanishes on the horizon. Kiser climbs onto the next bronc he’s matched against. When he hears the tinny boom of the chute door, he muscles down tight. Kiser takes nine long, lunging bucks across the center of the arena. Just as the audience breaks into a fevered pitch, Kiser’s horse suddenly corkscrews into the air, turning off the dirt and then crashing down on its side. Kiser is hurled against the ground with his opponent partly landing on him. The cowboy rolls away as the horse jumps back onto its hooves and gallops out of the rising dust.

            There is a roar of applause overhead as Kiser slowly walks back to the chutes.

            “It didn’t hurt that bad,” Kiser utters with a smile. “That’s pretty soft ground in there. Those horses are so incredibly strong — they move like you’re not even on them.”

            This second ride lands Kiser 79 points.

            Mecham braces for his next go-around. The chute men pull the gate fast, launching him forward on the horse’s manic spree of high-kicked jumps. Mecham holds on. The horse hits him with punching charges and whipping twists. He springs downward. He rocks up. He surges with all its intensity. Mecham keeps a tight hold, absorbing each movement until he runs the animal past the buzzer and completely out of gas. The horse comes to a standstill.  

            “The judges say that’s going to be 80 points, folks!” the announcer calls out. “California, how about making a Utah boy feel at home here in Folsom?”

            Mecham hears the wall of applause. He has no way to know that in 24 hours his fellow bronc rider Casey Meroshnekoff will come out of the same iron chute on another of the Flying U’s young horses and quickly find himself being rushed out on a crash cart. At 19, Meroshnekoff is the two-time National High School Bareback Riding Champion: He’ll make a clean show out of the gate as he spanks the buzzer for a solid 74 points. And then the mood of the summer night, with its scorched red color burning from the walls of Old Folsom Prison down the American River, will suddenly turn on both man and beast. Meroshenkoff’s horse will spook on the last jump. He will buck madly to the side, jackknifing its own spine up at the last glowing light, side-firing his frantic hooves at the breathless crowd, launching his trunk and tendons over his shiny shoulders, driving all of itself and all of Meroshenkoff into the rock bottom of the arena floor. They go down together like a cavalryman and his steed hit by a cannon ball on the field. Meroshenkoff’s skull bats earth, wallops the grit.

            The horse pulls himself up again. The cowboy does not. The high school rodeo champ is rushed by ambulance to a Sacramento hospital, passing in and out of consciousness with bleeding in his brain.        

            But Mecham can envision none of it tonight. All he knows is the risk and that he made it again. And he knows his cards are still on the table. “That was a pretty good ride that time,” the cowboy admits quietly behind the scenes. “It’s got me second place tonight, and it keeps me in the running.”