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Enter the thrilling, dangerous, sometimes wacky world of young cowboys and cowgirls — where kids don’t just grow up, they “Cowboy Up”.

Tylee Cooper in the goat tying competitionTylee Cooper competes in goat tying

Take a wild ride through the lives of young cowboys and cowgirls as they follow their dreams to compete in rodeo — one of the most dangerous sports in the world. Balancing on bucking horses, broken bones, steer riding school, racing at breakneck speed and working on the ranch: these are the rites of passage for kids growing up cowboy.

But the lifestyle of cowboys and cattle ranchers is increasingly under threat — from mad cow disease to rising land costs, urban sprawl and the lure of the oil patch. These pressures make the next generation of cowboys and cowgirls crucial for maintaining the “cowboy way” and parents and kids alike are keen to keep the old traditions alive.

It all starts early with rodeo championships the ultimate prize. Cowboy Up features several Canadian high school competitors as they prepare to qualify for the National High School Finals Rodeo in the USA — the largest rodeo in the world.  Victory can mean snagging college scholarships and the confidence boost to take the next step up in the ranks on the way to becoming a career rodeo cowboy. 

Cowboy Up offers an unvarnished glimpse into how rodeo cowboys are moulded. From three-year-olds mutton bustin’ (sheep riding) to young kids at a steer riding school, it’s a gruelling regime. Kids are taught how to land in the dirt and encouraged to ‘cowboy up’ after falling off. It’s a lesson Don Johansen learned himself as a boy. A former pro bull rider, Don, his four brothers and Scott Schiffner now train the next crop of rodeo competitors at their steer riding school.

But there’s a dangerous trend in youth rodeo that has Scott worried. (Scott is a celebrated professional bull rider with numerous championships under his belt.) Animals are being bred to buck higher and harder, making them more difficult and dangerous for young riders to mount — especially at rodeos where they are not chosen carefully for kids.

cowboy sitting on fenceWyatt Simpson, a saddle bronc rider wants to keep the cowboy tradition alive

The concern is justified. Between 1989-2011, twenty-one rodeo competitors died in Canada and the US, with 49 suffering catastrophic injuries.  But the young people and families featured in Cowboy Up feel that the risk is worth the reward.

Here are some of the young rodeo cowboys and cowgirls whose stories unfold:

Brothers Tyrell and Wyatt Simpson are 5th generation rodeo and ranch cowboys and have been training all year - day and night - to compete against each other at the finals in saddle bronc (often described as rodeo’s classic event).  They’re both aiming for pro. In the meantime, 18 year old Tyrell, in grade 12, is hoping rodeo can help him pay for college. 16 year old Wyatt is the youngest saddle bronc competitor in Alberta high school rodeo and keen to beat his older brother at the competition. 

Jake Burwash comes from rodeo royalty — his dad Robin Burwash garnered multiple championship titles on the pro-rodeo circuit.  Now in grade 12, 18 year old Jake wants his own piece of the action and wants to prove he’s the best in the world at the National High School Rodeo finals in the US. But there’s a catch — Jake just broke his wrist and it won’t be healed in time for competition.

Scene from the film: At the National High Schools final

Sisters Brett, Lane and McKenzie Wills are identical triplets in grade 12 who all compete in barrel racing. Barrel racing is a break-neck speed event where horse and rider race around three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern. To make it to the Nationals, all three of them have to be in the top four in the province. And if one doesn’t make it, the family may not go at all.

Sixteen-year-old Tylee Cooper is a fierce competitor.  (In the Cooper household, monopoly is considered a blood sport!) She competes in several rodeo events, including barrel racing and goat tying. Ultimately, she wants to make pro and go to college on a rodeo scholarship. Making it to the Nationals in the US could help get her on the road to achieving her dreams.

With intimate access to these young people and their families, Cowboy Up is beautifully shot and deftly recorded. The documentary captures the adrenaline steeped competition that these kids and their families live for as well as the struggle to preserve an historic Canadian tradition. Get immersed in the beauty of the land, intrigued by the uniqueness of the young cowboy lifestyle, and marvel at the danger these kids face as their parents stand at the sidelines and cheer them on.

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