Most local folks are familiar with the Isanti Firefighters Rodeo that kicks off this week, but not many know there’s a high school rodeo circuit – and a couple local young women are saddling up to head out to its national competition.     

Cambridge’s Tori Skiba and Emma Pankan, of Stacy, will compete July 14-20 at the 71st annual National High School Rodeo Association’s national finals in Rock Springs, Wyoming. 

The 17-year-old seniors – goat tying experts – finished within the top four places at last month’s Minnesota state competition, earning them the trip to nationals where more than 1,650 contestants from 43 states, five Canadian provinces, Mexico and Australia will take part in the world’s largest rodeo.

The NHSRA is not affiliated with organized high school sports, but hosts over 1,800 rodeos a year for junior high and high school students, culminating in two national events with cash prizes of more than $150,000 and scholarships worth over $375,000.  

4-H leads to national rodeo

“We started Western Heritage 4-H in fourth grade,” said Pankan, a student at Cambridge Christian School and daughter of Joe Pankan and Amanda Sundermeyer. “We became really good friends because we did 4-H together. We were always first and second for goat tying for regionals and state.”  

The two excelled at their Isanti County 4-H events – in addition to goat tying, they both competed in pen roping and animal sorting events – and found they wanted more competition than 4-H could offer. As freshmen, they took their skills to the next level on the NHSRA circuit.  

Skiba proved a natural. She qualified for nationals in her first year – but chose not to compete in the big ring. 

“It was our first year in the organization, and I was so overwhelmed,” said Skiba, a student at Cambridge-Isanti High School and daughter of Christopher and Melissa Skiba. “I didn’t feel good enough.” 

So she did an incredibly kind thing that year.  

“There was a senior that was graduating out,” Skiba said, “and she had never been to nationals. She was the fifth person (top four qualify for nationals), so I gave her my trip.” 

Skiba won’t be handing off her trip this year. She and Pankan are thrilled with the chance to prove themselves on the national stage. 

In goat tying, the contestant is timed from the moment she rides her horse into the pen toward a goat tied with a 10-foot rope in the center. The rider dismounts while the horse is still at a run, grabs the goat, flips it on its side, and with a rope from her belt, ties three of the goat’s legs together. 

Time stops when the rider throws her hands up and walks away from the goat. If the rope is still tied after 6 seconds, the run is acceptable.

The record run in last year’s national competition for girls was 6.65 seconds. 

“You just get one run a day, so there are no do-overs,” Pankan said. “If you mess up – especially since they’re timed events – it just takes a few seconds off and it’s a bummer. You can look at a video and say, ‘Oh, that’s all I did wrong?’ But it costs a lot sometimes.” 

Skiba chimed in with her secret to success.  

“You have to know your horse and know both of your limits,” she said. “Being comfortable with each other is a really big part of being a good competitor.”

A good Horse is half the battle

Talking about the rider/horse relationship brings out emotion in both girls.

“I started on my horse, Baby,” Skiba shared. “She was just a little pony. I outgrew her, which was really sad because she’s my pony. She did every event – pole bending, breakaway, roping and goats – she did everything. She was super sweet.” 

Skiba then tried competing with Susie, a horse owned by the woman who boards Baby. 

“I never connected with (Susie),” Skiba said. “There’s a certain aspect of respect between animal and rider. They’re like people – you either connect with them or you don’t.” 

She then started training with Dre, a male horse owned by her first goat-tying coach, and has found success with him. They’ll ride together at nationals.

“Me and Dre get along pretty well,” Skiba said and laughs. “He’s a pretty solid guy.” 

Pankan’s story is totally different. 

“My first horse ever was Koda,” she said. “I named him in fourth grade. We kind of rescued him. He was really beat up and scared of everything. He didn’t really know how to do anything except follow/track a calf, so we learned everything together.” 

She’s still riding Koda, and he will take her through her runs at nationals. 

What to expect in Wyoming

Even though it’ll be on a huge scale, the girls hope the national competition in Wyoming will have the same down-home charm they’ve come to love about regional and state rodeos.

“Our first rodeo we were completely terrified,” Pankan said, “because it seems like a super-threatening environment, but it’s really not. The people there are so kind, and everyone will just come up to you if you look like you’re frowning and they’ll be, ‘Do you need help?’ We’re all competitors, but everyone is so friendly and super helpful.”  

The girls and family members traveling with them will stay in camping trailers parked on the rodeo grounds – a step up from the tent they used to sleep in at events. 

“We camp together and eat together and do everything together,” Pankan said of the girls’ families.  

The families plan to solicit sponsorships from local businesses and individuals to help pay for the 10-day trip.  

Looking ahead

As seniors, the girls are nearing the end of their days with the NHSRA, and are undecided about what the future holds for their rodeo dreams. 

“I think college rodeo would be super fun and exciting, but education comes first,” Pankan said. She is considering a career in nursing, psychology or social work. She also plays soccer and basketball and said she’d have a hard time deciding between those and rodeo if given the option to play a collegiate sport. 

Skiba, who also plays basketball and runs track, doesn’t feel the same uncertainty.

“I’m way more passionate about rodeo than I am about basketball or track,” she said. “I’m interested in University of Montana in Boseman – they have a rodeo team.” 

She’d like to pursue something in the field of animal agriculture, but is still undecided on how to get there. 

No matter what the future holds, a love of all things rodeo will likely be tied up in it.   

“(Rodeo) is definitely a part of me,” she said. “I’d like to keep it going.” 

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