WORDS Dwain Hebda
IMAGES Dwain Hebda and courtesy Hayden Leavell
The American cowboy is one of those legendary titles that many aspire to, yet few can legitimately claim. Plenty of candidates can dress the part, but all hat and no cattle get you only so far. For most would-be ‘pokes, the too-new boots, the hat with the wrong crease, and the overly shiny buckle are as close as they are ever going to get to a share of this sacred heritage.
Hayden Leavell has no such concerns.
Hayden is as authentic as they come, well-schooled in the cowboy ethos and culture. Meeting him for the first time, the lean lad from Ozark looks like something out of central casting, right down to his molasses drawl and horizon-scanning squint. But he more than looks the part; Hayden is country to the bone, broken-in at seventeen with more rodeo and ranch cred than most people earn their entire lives.
“We’ve got a big cattle ranch and poultry operation. We’ve got five houses of chickens and a bunch of cattle. Then we’ve got horses,” he says. “Before I got hot and heavy into rodeo, I was showing livestock, and then I kind of swapped direction there. I guess it was about when I started rodeoing in 2018.”
Hayden’s made the most of four short years in official rodeo competitions, but truth be told, his love for the sport – and the ranch skills it honors – goes back to before he could walk. His family was involved in rodeo and his earliest memories are on horseback or at the arena, watching and waiting for his turn to get in there and compete. By age ten he was perfecting his team roping skills; in junior high school, he found bareback riding and last year, added steer wrestling to his repertoire.
“People are just like, ‘Why would you do bulldogging?’ You have no idea how many times people have asked me that,” he says. “I told them, ‘Well, you know me. I kind of like to have the roughest event of all.’ Be known as the macho guy or whatever. I saw other people do it and I’m like dang, I want to learn how to do that. It’s a rough man’s event.”
Today, Hayden is one of the top-ranked high school rodeo competitors in the nation in all three events, making him a serious contender for the all-around title at any rodeo he enters.
“This past year, I qualified for the national high school finals, and I was reserve state champion for Arkansas in the bareback riding,” he says. “Then in September, I went to Texas, and I won second place in the Texas Region and qualified for Las Vegas for the Junior Roughstock Association.
“I’m sitting fourth in the bulldogging in the whole state. We’re sitting sixth in the team roping. I am second in all-around for the whole state. I’m first in the bareback this year.”
Bareback riding is one of the oldest and most fundamental of rodeo events. Like everything else in the sport, it traces its lineage directly to ranch work where cowboys who could break horses were prized for their skills. Unlike other events, it is also the most physically demanding and among the most dangerous, accounting for a quarter of rodeo injuries, second only to bull riding.
In the bareback event, the cowboy must ride a Roughstock bucking horse for eight seconds without use of a saddle or rein. The cowboy can only hold on with one hand, inserted into a rigging that looks like a leather cinch with a suitcase handle attached to it. Other rules dictate the placement of the cowboy’s feet and spurs coming out of the chute, out and over the break of the horse’s shoulders, with additional style points for the movement of said feet during the ride.
It’s a fast, violent, and ultimately elegant event showcasing the power of the animal and the skill of the rider. Only the difference is when the rider wins, he generally walks away; when the horse wins, such is not always the case. Hayden has only suffered a major injury once, but it was enough to get his attention.
“It was 2020. I broke my collarbone riding bareback horses,” he says. “I was on a horse, and I got thrown off and I hit the pipe fence just good enough to hit my collarbone right on the fence and it snapped it. I mean I’ve had other broken bones and other crazy stuff, but a broken collarbone? That’ll take the breath out of you.”
A sly grin and a shrug follow. “That’s about it on major injuries.”
Hayden discovered his gift for riding bareback a few years ago while visiting friends, PRCA stock contractors, who threw a church rodeo every year in Colorado.
“At that time, I was just team roping and I told them I kind of wanted to do something else other than just team roping,” he says. “They were like, ‘Well, you can try bareback riding,’ and I was like, all right. It just started from there. That was in 2018.”
He won that event, the Morgan Ministries Rodeo, and was hooked. He started riding in junior rodeos, ultimately qualifying as a junior for the Cowboy Regional Rodeo Association finals. With each successful ride – and, it should be noted, with each faceful of dirt – he learned something useful about his chosen craft.
“I’m one of them guys that if I can’t do it, I’m going to keep trying until I get it done. I was like, I’m going to get this down,” he said. “After maybe twenty or thirty horses, it started coming together and I covered a horse and just gradually I got better and better.
“Each horse is different. When you draw a horse at a rodeo, if you’ve got a really good, straight, down-the-pen, honest bucker, I mean, that’s one to win it on. Sure enough, he’ll blow up and buck. And you’ve got some that come right outside the chute gate and just sit there and spin and blow up and stuff like that. Each horse has its own preference on how they want to buck.”
It goes without saying that rodeo isn’t for everyone; heck, it’s not for anyone else in Ozark High School, where Hayden is the only competitive cowboy. He’s the only one of his siblings to take it as far as he has, too.
“My brother, he’s more into being intelligent. He works for a lumber company. He didn’t really have much to do with any of the agriculture or rodeoing,” Hayden says with a chuckle. “My sister, she lives in San Antonio and she’s like a CEO of an electric company. They’re all into office jobs.”
But for Hayden, the squeal of the gate, the smell of rope and leather, and the duel with a beast trying to knock him loose and stomp him cold are intoxicating beyond description. He even dropped off his high school football team in favor of his true passion. As his training routine attests, there’s just not enough hours in the day to be the best without total commitment.
“Rodeo definitely teaches you integrity and responsibility,” he says. “It’s just like any other sport; you’ve got to practice for it. Heck, I practice almost every night. Having three events takes it to another level, trying to be competitive in all three. I’ll practice team roping two or three nights a week and then steer wrestling two or three nights a week. Then on the bareback riding, that’s mostly just being in shape. I go to the gym five days a week. I work out seven days a week.”
Such effort is an investment in his future in the sport, something he knows can’t last forever. Hayden plans to compete in college while pursuing a degree in ag business. He’d like to ride professionally, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be just as happy to come back to the life and land he loves most.
“It’ll definitely be something I do for my whole life. Far as going pro, I’ll possibly join the PRCA and go pro for a couple years,” he says, casually. “But we’ve got a farm and I kind of want to be more of an entrepreneur than rodeoing my entire life.”
Hayden will go for rodeo glory during the 2021 Junior World Finals, December 2-6 in Las Vegas, Nevada. For more information on the event, visit nfrexperience.com/juniorworldfinals.