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Amy Donaldson: Cutting offers senior chance to shine in rodeo sport unknown to most

HEBER CITY — The sport Daniel Schulz loves isn’t one that promises its most talented athletes million-dollar contracts, glamorous endorsement deals or even a life in the spotlight of fame.

In fact, it’s much the opposite.

The senior may find himself explaining exactly what the sport is that earned him a state title on Saturday night in Heber City.

Shulz won the boys cutting state championship at the Utah High School Rodeo Finals, a feat that means him a second straight trip to nationals next month. He also took second (reserve champion) in the reined cow horse competition, a new event in high school rodeo, but a popular event for professionals.

For the second of Zeph and Liz Schulz’s four children, the attention doesn’t really matter.

“It’s taught me a lot,” Daniel said of participating in cutting and reined cow horse competitions. “I’ve made a lot of new friends, seen new places. It takes a lot of responsibility just to take care of your horse. And it takes a little bit of dedication to stick with it because you’re not always winning. You have to stick in there, even when you’re not doing good.”

Understanding cutting is crucial to recognizing what Schulz accomplished in just two years of competing in high school rodeo. Cutting is a competition in which a rider and a highly trained horse have 2 minutes and 30 seconds to separate two to three cows (one at a time) from the herd. Basically, the horse and rider amble into a herd of about 30 cows. The cows naturally start to move away from the horse, but then the rider chooses a cow to separate from the herd.

This can be difficult as the cow’s natural instinct is to get back to its herd, and it takes a smart athletic horse to keep the cow from the group.

After that the cowboy and horse isolate a cow, it’s all up to the horse to keep the cow separated from the herd for 10 or 15 seconds (long enough to impress judges who score the event) and then walk back into the herd to do it all over again.

It is an impressive and beautiful sport to behold, but it’s something Schulz may have taken for granted until a few years ago. His father, Zeph Schulz, trains horses for a living at the family's home on Aspen Meadows Ranch, located between Coalville and Evanston, Wyoming. So not only is Daniel around a man who understands horses in a way most do not, but he’s also around horses that are extremely athletic and very intelligent.

“He didn’t have a lot of interest in horses,” Zeph said. “It was just a job for him. He had to help with the family economy so he did.”

The Schulz children are all educated at home, in part because of their rural home. But Zeph’s job also requires some travel, and he and his wife wanted their children to have those experiences as well.

One day the usual chores offered more intrigue for Daniel.

“I put him on a finished horse and told him to go cut a cow,” he said of the request that required him to separate a cow from its herd. “He really clicked. I could see a lot of timing and feel, and from there it seemed like it kind of took off. It got him excited; he got an adrenaline rush from it. The last couple years has been pretty intense. …It’s been awesome.” Daniel may have decided to find his competitive edge a little later than some kids, but the fact that he did was no surprise those who know him best.

His aunt, Kathy Weber-Bates, said she saw his competitive fire even when he was still in diapers.

“Even as a toddler, I remember Daniel displayed the kind of focus you just don’t see in every kid,” she said. “From a young age he showed a keen ability to observe all the necessary steps to win at any game.” She said the adage, “Still waters run deep” definitely applies to her nephew.

She loves the events in which he competes because they so clearly illustrate the connection to our country’s agricultural heritage. The skills can help a person make a living — not just win a competition.

Weber-Bates attributes his success these past two years to his work ethic, “along with the devotion of his family and the kindness of family friends willing to lend Daniel a horse to ride (in competition).”

His dad said he knew his son had the ability to contend for championships in both events, but the biggest question was could he find the right horses to ride.

Zeph Schulz said that one of the advantages to training horses that belong to others is that they want him to use the horses in competition.

“Because I train horses competitively, I have access to some pretty top-notch horses,” Zeph said. “And that’s a big part of it.”

Daniel rode two different horses in the two events in which he competed. Ron Horrocks owns the horse Daniel rode in the cutting finals, while Dana Russell owns the horse Daniel used in the reined cow horse competition.

Zeph said the second-place finish in the reined cow horse competition (which is new to high school rodeo this year), was that he trained the horse, Sugarrayz, seven years ago. Sugar, as they call her, was used a cutting horse most of the season, but Daniel decided to give her a try in the reined cow horse competition just this week.

“I trained her as a reined cow horse primarily, but then we switched her over to cutting,” Zeph Schulz said. “She made a great horse for Daniel when he needed some points at the end. …She went and won the short go yesterday. That was cool for us because she’s a special horse to us. She just showed her versatility; she’s a true champion.”

To those unfamiliar with the intricacies of horses, it may seem like no big deal to use the same horse in two events. But in terms of athletic skill, it is a totally different sport for the horse.

“It would be like when Michael Jordan, who was a really good basketball player, decided he wanted to play baseball,” Zeph said. “He would have been a great baseball player if that’s what he spent his time doing.”

But like Jordan, most horses could excel at one event and just be competent or maybe a bit above average in the other. To be excellent at both is extremely rare.

“The two events are kind of opposed to each other,” he said. “It takes a different type of training. You almost untrain them in one event to do the other.”

Zeph Schulz said his son set a goal to win a state title after finishing second in cutting last season.

He said he believes his son has gotten a lot more out of competing in high school rodeo than a new championship saddle.

“I think high school rodeo is a team event, no matter which one you do,” Schulz said. “Your team might be your dad, your family, the guys helping you in the pen. There are just so many good people in high school rodeo.” He points to the way the competitors rallied around a senior diagnosed with cancer, raising money for his medical bills and shaving their heads in solidarity. And then there is the special needs rodeo the high school contestants hold for children who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.

“It’s a real honor to be a part of people who care that much about other people,” Zeph Schulz said.

And then there are the direct benefits to his son.

“He’s gotten a lot of confidence out of it,” he said. “He got to go to Rock Springs last year, and that’s the biggest rodeo in the world.” Daniel said that in addition to new friends and new places, training for cutting competitions has helped him appreciate what his father does for a living. “Just realizing how much effort goes into it,” he said. “He’d out and make a run, and he might make it look pretty easy. But it’s a whole different deal when you’re trying to do it yourself. There was a lot of competition and we weren’t sure we were going to win until the very last horse went.”

He said he was grateful to his father, his family, the men who allowed him to use their horses and the men who worked his pen during the cutting — Scott Amos, Matt Porter, Shane Zaharia, Shaun Tree and his father. “It felt good because we worked really hard at it,” Daniel said. “We put that as our goal, obviously, to win state and to do good at nationals. Things can fall apart at state. You can have a good season and not make it to nationals.”

He’ll continue preparing for nationals in both events with an eye on his future, which will including helping his dad on their ranch and possibly attending college to be a welder.

And whether he ever earns the accolades that other athletes might seek, Daniel Schulz has shown his community what’s possible with hard work and the support of a great community.

“Nothing was inevitable about Daniel’s win,” Weber-Bates said. “As a home-educated high school senior with limited resources, it took the graciousness of family friends, the dedication of a father and family, and the undying spirit of a young horseman to win (the state championship).”

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