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Ridin', ropin' and hopin' to go pro in rodeo

Oxford resident Stephen Stiteler shows respect as the National Anthem plays during the opening ceremonies of a rodeo. Photo provided. (click for larger version)
May 07, 2014 - By C.J. Carnacchio

Leader Editor

It takes a lot more than wearing a 10-gallon hat and a pair of leather boots to be a real cowboy.

Just ask Stephen Stiteler when has a free moment between roping steers on the amateur rodeo circuit.

Over the weekend, the 28-year-old Oxford resident competed in the Super Kicker Production 2013 "Light Em Up" Championship Finals in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

He ended up finishing third overall in the state standings.

Last year, Stiteler earned just over $20,000 in prize money, which made him third in the state standings going into the finals and a contender for the championship.

"First, second and me were all separated by $13 going in (to the competition)," he said.

Stiteler participates in an event known as team roping.

It involves two people on horseback who work together to catch a running steer.

The first is called the "header" and it's this person's job to rope the front of the steer, usually around the horns, and use his horse to turn the beast to the left.

This is what Stiteler does.

The other person is called the "heeler" and it's this person's job to rope the steer by its hind feet after the header has roped and turned it.

Stiteler's heeler in the state finals was Bill Tucker, of Indiana. "He's intense," Stiteler said. "He's really one of the better heelers on the circuit."

Unfortunately, Tucker missed roping two steers, which cost he and Stiteler their chance to win the finals.

"It's all part of it being a team thing," Stiteler explained. "It was a very, very, very small arena. My partner didn't have a whole lot of time to get there and do his part before we ran into the fence."

"It was a tough setup," he noted. "There were not very many catches all weekend long. Out of 60 runs, there were only about 12 catches."

Stiteler noted the heeler he used the most last year was Dustin Link, a Metamora resident.

"I've travelled all over the country with him and most of Michigan," Stiteler said.

Stiteler is beginning his sixth season in the sport and next year, he's hoping to compete on the professional circuit.

That's why he spent the entire winter in Texas honing his skills and competing in rodeos there.

"I try to do whatever it takes to win and be the best that I can be," Stiteler said. "I constantly work on it, in and out of the arena. Every day I ride horses, I rope, I practice."

As a result, back in January, he scored his fastest time ever.

Stiteler and his heeler had a steer roped in 4.8 seconds, "which is very fast." It happened at the historic Fort Worth Stockyards in Fort Worth, Texas.

"The world record for the pros right now in Las Vegas is 3.4 seconds," he said.

The keys to becoming successful at team roping are excellent hand-eye coordination, "being able to quickly analyze a situation," and having "more than one good horse," according to Stiteler.

"You're horse is so much of it," he said. "People don't realize how much a good horse can help you or a bad horse can hurt you. The horse is so important."

Stiteler said it's also extremely important for a header to constantly work on improving his or her horsemanship.

"That's what I've done over the last few years," he said. "Until six years ago, I had never even been on a pony ride. I had never touched a horse."

A girl he was dating got him involved in the sport.

She competed in barrel racing, a rodeo event that involves a horse and rider trying to complete a cloverleaf pattern around an arrangement of barrels in the fastest time.

Stiteler decided to try team roping.

"I took to it pretty quick," he said. "I just got on a horse, they put a rope in my hand the same day, told me what to do and I instantly loved it."

He did pretty good when he first started, which he attributed to "dumb luck."

But soon this lark turned into a "dream" that he's been chasing ever since.

That dream has taken him across Michigan and across the nation.

During a given year, he competes in anywhere from 80 to 100 rodeos.

His 2012 truck has got 160,000 miles on it.

"It's pretty much always hooked to a trailer and driving," Stiteler said.

Although all that traveling sometimes wears on him, he wouldn't trade the experiences he's had for anything.

"We get to meet a lot of cool people and see a lot of the country," Stiteler said. "Even in Michigan, there's a lot of parts that I didn't know existed until I started rodeoing. That's all part of the fun of doing it."

During his five years of competing, Stiteler's won about $80,000 in prize money.

While that may sound like a lot of money, he noted that in order to earn it, he had to spend close to $200,000 on fuel, lodging, horse feed, veterinary bills, entry fees, etc.

The sport requires a huge investment and offers no guarantees. But Stiteler, a former high school athlete, thoroughly enjoys the risk and loves the fiercely competitive nature of it.

"Without a doubt, it's an enormous gamble," he said. "A night (of competition) could cost $400 and we could walk away with nothing."

Like any competitive sport, rodeoing has its "ups and downs," according to Stiteler.

"You'll go on a streak where maybe you might not win a penny for a month," he said.

Fortunately, Stiteler has a number of sponsors who help cover his expenses and support his needs.

His biggest sponsor is Yoder Brothers Log Furniture in Boyd, Texas. "They support me quite a bit and help me stay on the road," he said.

Other sponsors include Beaver Creek Farms in Metamora, Misty Meadow Ranch in Linden and FlipTech Camouflage in Brighton.

"I'm able to be on the road all year long because of the help I get from the sponsors," he said.

Stiteler noted he's also had "a lot of help and support from my family."

"When the spotlight's on me, I don't generally take most of the credit," Stiteler noted. "I give the credit to people that have helped me out along the way."

Grateful for the life he's living, Stiteler gives back by participating in rodeo events that benefit Running to Bring Our Children Home. It's a pending nonprofit organization that deals with issues related to missing and sexually-exploited children.

The death of his 21-year-old brother in February of this year – something he attributed to "being around the wrong crowd" – has motivated Stiteler to do all that he can for the group.

"That's driven me to help out with that charity a lot more," he said. "I've raised a couple thousand dollars for them just since then. I realized once he was gone how important family structure is. I don't want to see anybody else in that type of position after seeing how hard it hit my family."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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