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Four-year-old Billy Velarde doffed his cowboy hat before he switched to a helmet.

The Lander boy was about to ride a 600-pound bull at the Howl Mini Bull Rodeo event in Shoshoni.

With his chaps, vest and protective gear on, he weighs a mere 51 pounds. He’s been riding since he was 18 months old.

“We haven’t been able to get him off since,” said his mom, Tiffany.

On the pee-wee rodeo circuit, he’s known as Little Billy. His cheeks are still chubby from infancy. He’s barely 3 feet tall.

On April 20, Little Billy’s mother, brothers and sisters cheered for him. His father hoisted him on the mammoth animal in the bucking chute. The boy started screaming, “No, no, no.” Older riders had been bucked off smaller bulls during the day’s event. Little Billy had watched them fall hard.

“Cowboy up, Little Billy. Cowboy up,” screamed the fans who waited to watch a young child do what most grown men would avoid at all cost. The bleachers were empty but pickup beds were full of couches, lawn chairs and onlookers.

“He does this every time,” his mother said.

The young cowboy cooled down. The gate swung open. Out came Little Billy aboard Stink Bug, a roly-poly bull that’s more friendly than ferocious. Stink Bug waddled around the arena with Little Billy on its back. After 15 seconds the bullfighter grabbed Little Billy off the back of the animal and let the tiny rider climb the fence near his awaiting mother.

“Can I ride him again?” Little Billy asked.

Starting ’em young

The only way the rodeo tradition will continue is if it lassos riders at a young age, said Tim O’Neal, the traveling Howl Mini Bull Rodeo operator and owner. O’Neal and his wife, JoAnn, host one event per month in the region. They breed the bulls themselves and haul them from rodeo to rodeo. They round up the scores of the best young riders on the circuit and will take them to Helena, Mont., for the miniature bull riding finals later this year.

“We try and build confidence from day one with these kids,” O’Neal said. “It’s not just about winning. It’s about character and morals and the rodeo family.”

Families from Colorado, Utah and Wyoming brought their 4- to 14-year-old cowboys to Shoshoni. It was an easy trip for parents in a sport where 26-hour drives are common. Rodeo families spend thousands of dollars each year on the sport. They lose time together. Daughters have rodeo events in Montana while sons ride in Wyoming, for example.

The winnings seldom pay for the weekend travel expenses. But the kids don’t ride for the money.

“They just want the gold belt buckles,” said Brad Elmer, a former rider and the father of Thatch.

Kids are safer competing in rodeo than they are playing pee-wee football, Elmer said. Some parents don’t fret when their child is out in the arena. Tim O’Neal’s watchful eye, along with the help of parents, makes for a safe environment, they say.

“I wouldn’t let Little Billy ride if it wasn’t Tim out there,” his mother said.

Bulls stepped on at least two riders at the Shoshoni event. Others were slammed against the fence. Some were driven into the ground. All of the bulls bucked the junior and senior cowboys. But the young riders took their lumps with pride and continued to compete.

‘I ride bulls’

Dakota Madsen fractured his elbow in the Professional Bull Riding Mini Bull Championship at Las Vegas last year. He’s one of the few ambidextrous cowboys. He switched hands and placed third days after the injury. He performed in four other events with a cast. The modest 13-year-old told his school classmates how the injury happened.

“They didn’t believe that I ride bulls,” he said.

Madsen’s been in more than 600 events. He’s won more than 150 times. He’s sponsored by Team Pink Rodeo and Wings with Wishes, foundations that help raise money for cancer. Other corporate sponsors help pay the young cowboy’s way. Madsen and his father spend weekends on the road. They often hit the pavement on Fridays and return home in Syracuse, Utah, for school on Mondays.

Madsen’s father, Roger, rode in high school and college. He won his fair share of events but didn’t make it to the pros. He doesn’t miss anything about riding.

“Only the beer money,” he said.

When Dakota Madsen busted from the chute for his first ride, he rode rhythmically. He spurred the bull and kept his right hand high. The younger riders looked on with their eyes wide. Madsen won first place but criticized his final attempt.

“I didn’t move my hips enough,” he said.

Tucker Gately sat alone in a corner before the rodeo started. He had white headphones plugged into his ears, listening to rock n’ roll. The tall, freckled 12-year-old put resin on his cinch.

“My friends call me a wild man,” he said.

His mother, Tanya, looked at him with a maternal gaze of protection, crossing her arms and waiting for her son’s first ride.

Gately’s bull was riled while sitting in the chute. It huffed, kicked and rammed its head against the gate. O’Neal offered Gately another bull. The boy declined.

After the chute opened, the bull couldn’t throw Gately. Then it rode along the perimeter of the fence before slamming Gately into the steel. He picked himself up and climbed over the fence. His face was red. His eyes welled up but he didn’t allow tears to fall. He limped back to a chute after a talk with his mom. O’Neal offered Gately a re-ride because the bull was so peeved. Gately, tough as nails, accepted the offer, much to his mother’s chagrin. The brush with the fence took a chunk of skin off her son’s leg.

“I would prefer if he did more roping,” Tanya said.

She soon watched her son take another ride.

The bull kicked Gately loose. The force turned him in midair and drove him into the dirt. The bullfighter and O’Neal were there to pull Gately out of harm’s way.

Gately looked at the bullfighter after the bull exited the ring. “Thanks for saving my life,” he said.

Every rider left the arena covered in dust, some in blood. No one was seriously injured. Their heads were held high.

When the dirt settled and the bulls were back in the trucks, parents were at ease.

“I hate to say it, but my favorite part is when it’s over,” Gately’s mom, Tanya, said. “There’s no event that’s safe enough.”

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