A single pickup and horse trailer were parked at the Ray Rodeo Arena on a late mid-week morning. Three pups rested in the shade of the truck while Sidney Sandstrom and her horse Benny worked in the dusty, warm sun of the arena.
Sidney, an 18-year-old from Ray, N.D., has been practicing here, often twice a day, for many weeks this summer with big goals in mind. At the State High School Rodeo in June, she won first place in the events of reined cow horse and cutting, earning herself a seat at nationals. She and her horses are busy at work as they prepare for the 2023 National High School Finals Rodeo that will be held in Gillette, W.Y., on July 16-22.
“I had a bad start to the year, so I needed a perfect state to be able to go (to nationals),” Sidney said. And with a shy smile, continued, "It went as planned.”
This definitely is not Sidney’s first rodeo, as she has a family with a history of successful junior high and high school rodeo careers. Her siblings Makenna, Hunter and Parker Sandstrom have all made their way to nationals in the past.
Sidney will travel with her parents Jake and Summer Sandstrom on their final participating pilgrimage to nationals later this month, making this the 12th family trip to the NHSFR in their 15 years of North Dakota high school and junior high rodeo.
“I’ve learned a lot from my siblings,” Sidney said. “My mom helps a lot and my future brother-in-law (Tucker Harmon) comes down to the arena and works colts every day. I’ve learned a lot from him, sportsmanship-wise.”
The Sandstrom family are members of the Grain Palace Rodeo Association in Ray. The GPRA has been a group for about 40 years and has members from Crosby, Williston, Tioga, Stanley and Ray. For a small membership fee, members can use the arena.
“(The Sandstrom’s) are an extremely humble and giving family,” said Jessica Grove, GPRA president. “The reason my daughter could even start rodeoing was because they allowed her to use their horses. They are always the first to help and teach anyone who needs it at the rodeo.”
Grove’s daughter, Bailey, who has had her own notable high school rodeo career, grew up in the arena with Sidney where they started in youth rodeos around the age of three.
“I feel like most kids, including myself, just stole their dad’s rope horses and that’s how most of them got started,” Sidney said.
She and her older brother switched to online homeschooling when she was in seventh grade to have the freedom to travel. In the winter, they would go to Texas to rodeo. Throughout the years, reined cow horse and cutting have been Sidney’s favored events. With the help of her coaches Spencer Ingalls and John Hovde, she has done well.
“Cow horse and cutting are everything that would be done on a day-to-day ranch, just with an audience,” Sidney explained. Reined cow horse is a test in the abilities of rein, herd and cow work while cutting requires the horse-rider team to sort one cow out of a herd and keep it out.
“You cannot pick up a rein on the horse,” she said about the cutting event. “It’s all up to the horse. You drop everything and ride with your feet and your horse locks on to the cow.”
This is Sidney’s fourth year qualifying for nationals. Working her two horses for an hour each day in preparation, she has big goals in sight for this final year. North Dakota has never had a participant place in the top five of the reined cow horse or cutting events and she is set on making that happen. A competitive nudge from her sister and brothers’ placings at nationals is also a driving force.
“My siblings have had top 15 championships, but never top five. So, just kind of beating the siblings,” Sidney said, laughing.
After nationals, Sidney is heading to Texas to get settled before starting college. She plans to continue with the events she enjoys with the National Reined Cow Horse Association and National Cutting Horse Association. Her brother, Parker, will go with her as he pursues the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Pro Rodeo.