This ain’t their first rodeo, but it is their first national rodeo. From July 16 to 22, Mark and Joy McGill will compete in the National High School Rodeo Finals in Gillette, Wyoming. The brother and sister pair joined the Virginia High School Rodeo Association about a year ago, and both have enjoyed a successful rookie season, earning enough points over the course of the fall-to-spring season and state finals to qualify for the national stage.
Mark, who just graduated from Western Albemarle last month, will compete in the team roping event with his partner Ethan Rowe, who hails from the Richmond area. In this event, the partners, each on horseback, work together to tie a steer, with the first partner roping his head and horns and the second his legs. In regional rodeos, Mark also competes in steer wrestling, in which he rides after a running steer, throws himself from his horse to the steer, and then pulls the steer by the horns to pull it off balance and wrestle it to the ground.
Joy, a rising senior at the Covenant School in Charlottesville, will compete in the Queen Contest as well as in goat tying. Crowned 2017 Miss Virginia High School Rodeo in May, Joy will go against the other 46 queens, from most states as well as provinces in Australia and Canada, for the title of national queen. The competition is not your average beauty pageant. Joy and the other state queens are judged in eight categories, including not merely appearance and personality, but also a prepared speech, an impromptu speech, a personal interview, a written exam on the rodeo rulebook, and horsemanship. After all that, the goat tying event almost seems easy: all Joy has to do is ride 100 feet, dismount, and tie a goat securely by three legs in less than 10 seconds.
These cowboy skills weren’t always part of the McGill family’s repertoire, though they have always been horse people. “I’ve been riding since I could walk,” Joy said. “I just kinda hopped on in the backyard,” Mark remembered. But their childhood riding English began to change when Mark decided he wanted to do something a little more extreme. “I thought I wanted to ride bulls,” he said, “but Mom tried to get me to do something safer.” That’s how he ended up roping and wrestling steers in the Virginia High School Rodeo Association. But it quickly became a whole family affair. “I always did English stuff,” Joy says. “Then I went to a rodeo with Mark and saw the barrel racers.” Soon she was competing too. Their parents, Lois and Jerry McGill, now spend weekends driving to rodeos and cheering for their cowboy and cowgirl. Many of the competitions require trips all over the state, or to North Carolina or West Virginia. “We haul all over the place,” said Lois.
Of course, the upcoming six-day haul to Wyoming will be their farthest by far. In tow will be Mark’s horse, 15-year-old Diego, and Joy’s, 13-year-old Jet, both quarterhorses. But the whole family can hardly wait for the trip. The rodeos, they say, are tons of fun. “We barbeque together; even though you’re competing, everybody knows each other. It’s like camping with everybody you know,” Mark said. His mom agreed: “Rodeo is like a big family. Everybody looks out for everyone. They have church on Sunday morning.” As the biggest of them all, the National rodeo is sure to be the most fun. When they’re not competing in their own events, Joy and Mark will watch their friends in others, attend professional clinics and workshops, and participate in friendly competitions. And there are dances almost every night. Joy will also spend her time campaigning as part of the Queen competition, advertising the Virginia rodeo. In fact, some of her campaigning began before the trip to Wyoming—in the Crozet and Free Union Parades! She also hopes to make appearances at county fairs, probably in Rockingham and Augusta.
Nationals also offers a chance to be spotted. Not only is the entire week of events televised on RFD-TV and streamed online at NHSRAtv, it’s also packed with college scouts, there to scope out the talent and recruit to their collegiate teams. Joy admits to being a little nervous, but both she and Mark are more excited than anything else. Winners in various events receive prizes like belt buckles or saddles, and sometimes sponsorships from clothing or equipment companies. Most of all they get the glory of winning in the biggest high school rodeo arena in the world, though.
Mark, who also volunteers one night a week with the Crozet Volunteer Fire Department, says he learned most of what he knows about rodeo from Jerry Brown at Bucking B Ranch in Buckingham, though since the McGills’ horses live at home, they can practice whenever they want. The siblings estimate that they spend about 15 hours a week on rodeo. Next year, it’ll probably be more for Mark: he’s taking his talents southwest, continuing his rodeo career at Cisco Junior College in Cisco, Texas. He chose the school because he liked the coach and the other guys he met from the team, and he plans to study agriculture there. Joy also hopes to do rodeo in college, and is also considering Texas schools, though she still has a year to make those decisions.
The usual powerhouse states at Nationals are Texas, Arizona, and California, but the world champion in breakaway roping is from the Winchester area, so our state is indeed producing some stellar equine athletes. Mark and Joy, as part of that proud number, hope to do their part to make Virginia rodeo proud. And they’re eager to grow the sport here, too, encouraging others to get involved. As Mark said, “It’s only my first year and I made it to Nationals, so it’s never too late!” Good luck to our Crozet cowboy and cowgirl!