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Ride your horse, rope the calf

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | November 15, 2023 12:00 AM

If you were to see him riding one of his roping horses on the hills behind the Majestic Valley Arena with several of his trained cow dogs, you might think you’ve seen another ordinary cowboy. But…

Ordinary is not among the adjectives used to describe the roping coach of the Northwest Montana Rodeo Team. Minutes after meeting Bradley Chance (the Big Show from Bristow) Hays, words like authentic, generous and composed are better suited for this cowboy.

Hays is a Renaissance man, excelling in three difficult fields simultaneously. He is an accomplished tie-down roper on the professional rodeo circuit, a successful artist, painting and selling modern western watercolors, and the esteemed roping coach for the Northwest Montana Rodeo Team which just completed its spring season.

Hays not only finds time for these three, seemingly disparate careers, he gives his all to each. He makes his living in the rodeo world and the art world and volunteers his time to coach young ropers.

“This isn’t really about  money,” Hays said. “What I'm doing here is how I give back. I feel I'm giving back to our community by watching them win and giving them success.”

While Hays helps the kids learn to ride and rope, some have approached him for a hand training their cattle dogs. Hays has yet to turn down such a request because he sees the bigger picture.

“What does that have to do with roping? Nothing. It has to do with their life though,” Hays said. “If they know how to handle their dog and they can handle their horse, they can handle their life. They're doing something that’s bigger than themselves and they have responsibility. That’s what this is all about.

“What we’re doing is giving them a place to go, a place to compete, a place that’s safe that they can rope, ride their horse and practice,” he added. “And be a kid and be with other kids from other communities.”

The kids appreciate Hays’ focus and his genuine nature. He walks the walk; they are able to watch and learn as he competes at the highest level.

“He’s not just talking about how he can do it, he’s actually doing it,” said Jada Sexton, member of the Northwest Montana Rodeo Team. “We watch him all the time. Watching him helps us. Whether it's the way you ride your horse or the way you swing your rope, because he does it the right way.”

Sexton and her sister, Brylie, recently moved to the Flathead Valley from Georgia, and although she hadn’t been involved with rodeo before, she joined the team and won a buckle in the breakaway roping event at a recent Jackpot held in Kalispell. 

While both girls have horses, Jada’s was not ready for the competition. Since she was about to graduate from Flathead High School, she was running out of time to participate in high school rodeos. She said Hays saw potential in her and loaned her one of his horses for the event.

“Chance lets me ride his mare. It’s pretty cool, honestly,” she said. “There’s a lot of us that wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for Chance. He helps us a lot. He works with every kid individually.”

The team currently has 95 members. About half are junior high and high school students while the other half are younger riders who enjoy youth rodeos. The team welcomes new members, regardless of experience.

“Our Northwest Montana Rodeo Team has kids that don’t even have horses,” Sexton said. “They want to get into the rodeo but they have to make sure that’s what they want first, so you just let them borrow a horse and teach them how to swing a rope and take it from there.”

Other team members have more experience. Ali Ray said her daughter, Ruby, has been rodeoing since she was a baby. Ruby is a sophomore at Whitefish High School who made it to nationals as a junior high school student.

Ray’s family has hosted rodeos for high schoolers and junior high schoolers as well as some youth rodeos for the younger kids. She said the team is a great place for kids to learn rodeo.

“There are kids who are just learning to ride and getting to know people,” Ray said. “Some of the girls just started roping and they’re doing really well.”

Kristi Bruyer is the social media director for the Northwest Montana Rodeo Team and her daughter, Zoey, competes. She said the cost to join the team last year was $20 and that included a shirt. 

“We practice two or three times a week and it doesn't cost the kids anything for practice,” Bruyer said. “Chance tells them to just show up.”

She said if students show up and put in the dedication, Hays will be there for them. His expertise and willingness to share his knowledge with young riders are key to the success of the team.

“I think we’re lucky to have somebody that’s not only a national competitor but an international competitor and that has the dedication to be working with our kids and can talk to them on their level and advance them,” Bruyer said. “We went from having kids that couldn’t rope five, six second runs, that are now two, three second runs consistently. He gives them that competitive edge. It’s just phenomenal to have someone like that.”

Bruyer said the rodeo team is about the community coming together and rallying around the kids. This year, the group is bringing in two major high school rodeos and the high school rodeo final will be hosted in Kalispell, at the Majestic Valley Arena, next spring.

“(These) kids aren’t sitting around playing video games. They’ve got chores and responsibilities and with rodeo, you get what you put into it,” Bruyer said. “Chance … he’ll follow up with the kids. ‘How did it go? Send me the video. Get to practice.’ That’s his answer.”

Hays’ experience in the rodeo world and in the art world, along with his charisma, make him a respected coach. He speaks glowingly about his parents and grandparents who provided him with positivity, support and encouragement. Now, he leads by example and believes the kids, the parents and even his dogs and horses can sense his authenticity. 

“He’s a hard worker and overachiever and he’s great,” said Sexton. “He’ll do anything he can to help you. He’s been a huge help to our rodeo team and to me and my sister.”

His approach to life inspires the kids to put in the work needed to be successful. The ropers on the team are turning in excellent times, and for that, Bruyer credits the quality of the coaching. With a nod to a young roper busting out of the box at practice, she added, “You can’t YouTube this.”

Hays teaches more than riding and roping to the kids in the arena. They appreciate him and the lessons he offers.

“Honestly, I feel like you could learn more life skills out at the rope pen with Chance than you would in school,” Sexton said. “(A horse is) a living, breathing animal that you have to take care of that depends on you every single day, no matter if it's cold, no matter if it’s raining. They don’t teach you that at school.”

    Zoey Bruyer takes a turn as Chance Hays watches at a recent Northwest Montana Rodeo Team practice. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)
 
 
    Zoey Bruyer's horse hits the brakes at roping practice. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)
 
 
Coach, cowboy and artist Bradley Chance Hays with two of his cattle dogs. (Julie Engler/Whitefish Pilot)
    Members of the Northwest Montana Rodeo Team. (Photo provided)
    The Northwest Montana Rodeo Team.. (Photo by Danny Nestor)