He made it; it's amazing. He wouldn't have graduated, I believe, if it hadn't been for the rodeo to keep him going. He's had to not only do well and keep his grades up, but he had to make up credits that he had missed when he was struggling. So he's been amazing. – Eulale Dixon, on her son Ian Dixon

HEBER CITY — Four years ago, Ian Dixon was sinking into a deep, dark hole.

His grades in school were suffering and, what's worse, he didn't care. Heck, back then, he really didn't seem to care about anything.

And his mom, Eulale, was deeply worried about her son.

"He was falling apart because he hated his life, basically," she said, hesitating to call her son's symptoms depression — deep-seated feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and despondency that affect around 9 percent of adult Americans, and an illness that health officials now consider a worldwide epidemic. "I think it was depression ... he had serious depression. He was just giving up.

"He was a pretty happy kid up until then, but very, very shy. He didn't have many friends, very few friends. ... And it got to the point where he hated life, he hated school, he wasn't doing well in school, and he was struggling in everything.

"It weighed on me all the time, and that became my focus in life was, 'How can I help Ian?' because he was so unhappy," she said. "School was a disaster; his grades plummeted, and we talked to the school and they just weren't really willing to help with anything. They actually told me that his problem was he was a lazy kid and I was just a tired mom. I thought, 'You people don't get it.' It was terrible."

Eulale Dixon and her husband, Dave, had already raised seven other children — four boys, three girls, and Ian was "the caboose" — so she had plenty of parenting skill and experience. But she didn't know what to do.

"He's the youngest of eight kids, so I recognize when kids are struggling and having problems," she said. "I knew there was something, and I just wanted to find a passion for him. He needed a passion, something he loved, but he was interested in nothing. He'd come home from school and go in his room and that was it."

And then, what she considers nothing short of a miracle happened in their lives.

"Our neighbor (Le Grand Lamb) asked him to feed his horse for a week while he was out of town," she said. "Ian came back after the second day of feeding and said, 'I think we should get a horse,' and the light bulb just went on in my head.

"I had always wanted horses anyway, but I said, 'Oh, that's a good idea!' It was May and school was almost out, so I said, 'Well, you take care of the horse for the whole summer for free — don't ask him to pay you for it — and see how you do taking care of it.'

"And it was great," she said with a happy sigh of relief. "He was so good. He loved that horse and took care of her. Horses can really connect with people, and it's been amazing. I told him, 'If you do a really good job all summer, then we'll get riding lessons.' So we did and we both just loved it so much. And our trainer said, 'You guys should try (cow) cutting,' and Ian did it one time and he was hooked."

Hooked, in this case, being a very good thing.

Ian did what was asked of him and, four years later, he has become one of the state's best competitors in cow cutting. He qualified for the National High School Rodeo Finals in the event last year and, after a couple of strong performances at this year's Utah high school rodeo, he sits in second place in the state standings entering Saturday's final go-round. A top-four finish will send him to nationals for the second-straight year.

Indeed, it's been a life-changing turnaround for a young man who, four years ago, seemed headed nowhere.

"I just liked horses," Ian said, matter of factly. "I hadn't really paid much attention to 'em before. I thought, 'Well, I like this, so I have to get good grades to keep doing it.' So that's what I did.

"It's fun," he said of cow cutting, which requires tons of practice and a kinship between horse and rider as they strive to "cut" calves away from the herd in a pre-prescribed amount of time while judges watch and calculate their scores. "I'm not nervous right now, but I was about five minutes before I competed and then I was OK."

Ian, who lives in Farmington and recently graduated from Viewmont High, is a big, husky 18-year-old kid who certainly looks like a cowboy — "I am the real deal," he said with a wry smile.

And in typical cowboy fashion, he's a soft-spoken young man of few words who only offers a lot of "yep" and "nope" answers.

He doesn't participate in other sports, but he enjoys playing video games and is so bright that he can actually write the programs for them. He's thinking about going to college at Weber State University and majoring in computer technology.

He certainly knows what he's doing in the rodeo arena, and he's all business as he competes. He placed second in Thursday's go-round of the state finals and third on Friday. He hopes to continue competing in cow-cutting shows for years to come.

The trick that turned things around for him four years ago was finding a passion for this rather unique rodeo event and realizing that, if his grades slipped below a 3.0 grade-point average, he would not be allowed to compete.

"That was his incentive," his mom said. "He actually did (become ineligible) for a while. He missed half of a year because of his grades, but he learned, 'I've got to work hard,' and that became his passion. He loved it and he learned to work hard and he learned that in life, you can't just focus on one thing — you have to focus on everything or your whole life suffers. He learned a lot from this.

"It gave him something to work for. A lot of times, he'll not do well at a show, and he has learned to just pick himself up and go on. He gets over it and he moves on and he tries harder and he learns from what he did, how he messed up, and he tries to not do it again.

"He loves his horse, Phillip, and he's the perfect horse for Ian," she said. "That horse was exactly what he needed to do well. ... That horse is his best buddy in the whole world."

Ian was also blessed to have a trio of trainers — Andy Christensen, Kenny Birdsall and Randy White — over the years who have helped him tremendously.

"Each one of them was just what Ian needed at the time," Eulale said. "We've been so fortunate to have such great trainers."

And so fortunate, too, to see the terrific turnaround in her son's life.

"He made it; it's amazing," she said of getting him through high school. "He wouldn't have graduated, I believe, if it hadn't been for the rodeo to keep him going. He's had to not only do well and keep his grades up, but he had to make up credits that he had missed when he was struggling. So he's been amazing.

"He's really, really shy and he doesn't talk much, but he's made a lot of friends through rodeo. He's a different person now; the transformation has been amazing. He's a much happier person. It's changed his life, it really has.

"I honestly don't know what we would've done if he hadn't found his horse and done high school rodeo," she said. "I don't know what we would've done. He needed it; it was an answer to prayers. It saved him, it saved his life. It gave him something to look forward to and something to work towards."

And rather than putting her son on medication or sending him to some form of therapy, cow cutting became the medication and the therapy he so desperately needed.

"It was absolutely what he needed to give him his passion for life," Ian's mother said. "Maybe he wants to go to college now. He's a genius kid; he writes computer programs. He's really brilliant. I think that's why he struggled so much in school was because he was bored. Now he wants to go to college and have a good job, but he wants to always keep working with the horses, too.

"Life is hard, life is so hard. He knows he has to work hard, because if he doesn't get out and work he's not going to do very well and his horse isn't going to do well, either. We're very proud of what he's accomplished.

"It's given me a great opportunity to spend time with him, too," she said. "I've asked myself, 'What should a mom do to spend time with her 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kid?' They don't want to spend time with Mom. But it's been a good thing. It's given us a lot of bonding time and we've been all over the state and to nationals together."

Who knew that this special kind of "horsing around" could turn a young man's life around and help him climb out of that deep, dark hole?

His mom is pretty sure that at least one very special "person" knew.

"He was miserable; he really was miserable. He hated life, he really hated life," she said. "He's a different kid now. It's given him a lot of confidence.

"I just thank Heavenly Father every day. I do. It was an answer to prayers, it literally was. I didn't know where to turn, I didn't know what to do for him. And this was what he needed.

"That was it — what can I do for him?," she recalled wondering. "I was at a loss, I didn't know what to do. But that was the answer. It was just the perfect thing. God knew that's what he needed."

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com