Jesse Estrada has had his share of thrills on the football field. As a star running back and linebacker for Robertson High, he played in multiple state championship games and scored a touchdown in the elite North-South contest reserved for the best of the best.
But while he enjoyed the glory of the gridiron, Estrada — soon to be a sophomore at New Mexico Highlands University — says there’s nothing more exciting than trying to ride a bucking horse for eight seconds.
Rodeo in general and bareback riding in particular are the Trementina native’s first loves, and he’ll get a chance to indulge them this coming week when he and three other NMHU rodeo team members compete in the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyo.
Estrada will compete in bareback riding. Fellow Las Vegas-area native Jose Griego will be in the bull riding competition. And Devyn Dennison of Thoreau will join Sarah Zybach of Briscoe, Texas, for the breakaway roping event.
“I got a rush with football with the bright lights and the crowd,” Estrada allows, “but there’s nothing like putting your hand through and trying to cover that horse for eight seconds. I get a bigger rush on a bucking horse. It’s the speed and strength of a horse — there’s nothing that can compare to it.”
Estrada says his particular event is “a little bit out there; it’s a little bit wild and crazy. It kind of fits my style.”
Fellow Robertson alumnus Griego can likely identify with that sentiment. As a bull rider, he regularly hops on a snorting, stomping animal that outweighs him by a couple thousand pounds or so.
Wild and crazy? You bet.
“First off,” Estrada says, “you have to have a strong mind. You can’t go in there second guessing yourself. Once you do that you might as well turn in your horse. It’s really just between you and your horse. You’ve got to focus on whatever that horse is gonna throw at you. You’ve got to be able to match it. The best way to explain it is a boxing match. If your opponent hits you, you have to come back and hit harder. Every horse is gonna be a big challenge, no matter if he’s just a little hopper or a world champion bucking horse. Go out and stick to your basics. I try not to worry about who’s gonna be there or who’s watching ... The best workout is getting on as many horses as I can. The more you get on, the more experience you get.”
Meanwhile, the discipline Dennison and Zybach have undertaken — breakaway roping — requires the ultimate in hand-eye coordination, strong technique and precise throwing, as well as ability to do it all while riding a horse.
“(I’m attracted to) the challenge, I guess,” says Zybach. “You have to do things to get faster; you have to nail the star and throw it fast. (A key is to) just practice on a variety of calves and horses, always practicing to be first.”
The unpredictability of unruly livestock is a major factor, of course.
“You never know if they’re gonna run hard or be slow or go left or go right,” she notes. Ample practice time with a variety of calves translates into “always being prepared for whatever kind of calf you have. And you try to always be consistent with the way you throw your loop.”
While the rodeo program at Highlands is just a few years old, the team members are hardly novices.
“Rodeo has been in my family for generations,” Estrada explains. “My grandfather, both my dad and brother did it. I kind of grew up around it. It’s pretty much been my dream ever since I was little. ... Kind of just being around horses my whole life I get a better understanding of how to handle them better. You kind of have a mindset of what’s going on ... Most of (my NMHU teammates) have been around horses and cattle most of their lives.”
Zybach attests to a similar background: “We’ve always lived on a ranch, my dad has rodeo’d and grew up on a ranch. He rodeo’d in high school and he still does. It’s something I started when I was 5 years old and I haven’t stopped yet.”
This will be the first time at nationals for Estrada and Griego, but Dennison and Zybach have been to the big (dirt) dance before.
“I’m basically just going in confident in my roping, ready and taking my first throw on the barrier, roping another calf,” Zybach says. “I made it last year and definitely had my jitters last year. My goal is just to go in and rope consistently.”
“People who rodeo just get into their routines,” she says. “You try and stay with that.”
Estrada: “I haven’t had much time to think about it. I’ve been branding for about a week and a half. The bright lights, big announcers, T.V. cameras, pretty girls — I’m trying not to think about all that. I want to just go out and have fun and do what I do and have my family there backing me up.”
More on the Highlands rodeo contingent headed to Casper:
Dennison is an NMHU senior-to-be majoring in media arts. She is the daughter of Karl and Deborah Dennison of Thoreau.
Zybach, a senior majoring in human performance, is from Briscoe, Texas. She is the daughter of Royce and Deedy Zybach.
Estrada, is a sophomore majoring in environmental science and the son of Dan and Lillian Estrada of Trementina.
Jose Griego, a sophomore majoring in business, is the son of Diego and Charmaine Griego of Las Vegas.
FOR MORE Las Vegas sports coverage, please see Friday's print edition of the Optic.