by Paul Knight
When someone watches a professional golf event, and he wants to try out the sport, chances are he knows where to find a local golf course. Same thing with basketball: Everyone knows where to shoot some hoop.
But when someone turns out to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo — more than 2 million people did in 2010 — and they think they can tame a bull or bucking horse, it's doubtful many know where to go to give it a shot.
That's where Sankey Rodeo School comes in. Located in New Caney, about a 30-minute drive north of downtown Houston, the school teaches bull riding, bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bullfighting.
"It's the quickest acceleration into the sport," says the school's director, Lyle Sankey, who is one of only four men to qualify for the National Finals Rodeo in each of the above-mentioned events.
The school isn't just geared toward the weekend warrior looking for a quick thrill. In fact, Austin Meier, the 2006 Rookie of the Year and currently ranked fifth in the Professional Bull Riders, Inc., is a product of the Sankey schools.
Other past students, according to Sankey, have also ridden in PBR and Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association events, and they've qualified for the National Finals Rodeo, the Super Bowl of the sport.
But there are also the adrenaline junkies.
"We had one woman who was an engineer at NASA, and she was heading off on a two-week mountain-climbing adventure after she left us," Sankey says. "We've had doctors and lawyers and playwrights — people from just about every walk of life."
Sankey started the rodeo school 35 years ago, once his professional career was winding down. His school remains the only full-time one of its kind in the country.
When Sankey was getting into rodeo, there weren't really "schools." It was mainly older guys who offered a little advice, then threw their "student" on the back of a bull.
"It used to be the old-school, trial-and-error method," Sankey says. "We've adopted a modern coaching style."
The three-day sessions in New Caney consist of classroom lectures, one-on-one sessions with coaches and, of course, riding the animals. Each riding session is videotaped, then workshopped.
The structure, Sankey says, lends itself to younger riders — the average age is early twenties — but the school has taught a 65-year-old man and a 61-year-old woman.
"We offer unlimited access to the livestock, all the riding they want, and if we think someone is physically ready, we push them to get on," Sankey says. "Everyone is different, but it's important to us how much they get out of the experience."
The next session in New Caney isn't until December, but Sankey offers another course at a facility a little farther north before then. The school, which runs about $400 for three days, requires a two-week advance sign-up.
"A lot of the beginners tell us the livestock is faster than they expected, and stronger than they expected," Sankey says. "They also say it's more fun than they ever imagined."