Student Heads to Rodeo Nationals

Student Heads to Rodeo Nationals
Robert Oakleaf performs in a regional competition in 2006.

Rob Oakleaf chose a cowboy hat and spurs over a cap and gown.

Oakleaf, an animal science major and senior at Cal Poly Pomona, will be in Casper, Wyoming, over graduation weekend, competing in the bareback horse-riding competition at the College National Finals Rodeo. The weeklong event, which starts June 12, will be the culmination of a college riding career that has included injuries and more thrills than he can recall.

“It's a controlled adrenalin rush,” Oakleaf says of the seconds spent on the back of a horse that's trying its best to dislodge him. “You can't wait for it. You crave it.”

Unlike many of his 32 rivals at the upcoming “Rose Bowl of rodeo” who grew up on farms or ranches, Oakleaf spent his childhood in Martinez, a suburban community near Oakland more accustomed to soccer than saddles. Had it not been for the Boy Scouts, he might not have ever gotten on a horse, at least competitively. After high school, his love of animals attracted him to Cal Poly Pomona, and his interest in horses drew him to the Rodeo Club.

Joining the club was an easy sell to his dad, but convincing his mom was another story.

“My mom said I couldn't ride bulls, so I kind of went behind her back and chose bareback — and when she found out, she was just happy it wasn't bulls,” Oakleaf recalls.

Cal Poly Pomona's history is steeped in equestrians, but Arabians are a far cry from bareback horses, which are far more inclined to resist a rider's instructions. Unlike bareback riders who train in arenas with an entire herd at their disposal, Oakleaf and his teammates have had to look for rides off campus or improvise with “Mighty Broncy,” a hand-operated training simulator. The key, Oakleaf says, is to build up muscle memory — an almost instinctive response during competition — because when a horse is bucking, a rider doesn't have time to think what to do next.

The Rodeo Club's adviser, Broc Sandelin, says Oakleaf's accomplishments are impressive, especially given the challenges he's faced, including recovering from a broken hand that kept him out of action last year. “He's determined and tough,” says Sandelin, a professor in the College of Agriculture.

Oakleaf will battle the odds at the national championships, having finished third in the regional qualifying competition. A lot will depend on “the draw.” Judges select horses' names at random and assign them in no particular order to riders. The horse is both teammate and foe, since its performance factors into the rider's score. Both can receive up to 50 points for their form –but if the horse performs too well and the rider ends up on the ground, the result is zero points.

Oakleaf, who hopes to enter law enforcement and ride on the pro circuit after leaving Cal Poly Pomona, says his experience in Caspar will be worth it, even if he finishes far down the leader board.

“It's like graduating rodeo,” he says. “It's almost like walking, but I guess I'll ride down the aisle.”