Nothing compares to the rush of riding a ton or so of angry bull.
At least that's how Austin Staser, 18, sees it, and he should know. The self-described adrenaline junkie from Hopkins County has tried every sport from football to motocross to mixed martial arts.
"Bull riding is a completely different ball game," he said.
Even having his jaw broken by "a really rank bull" last year couldn't keep Staser off the circuit. About two months later, he took first place in bull riding at the Kentucky High School Rodeo Association's state finals.
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He was back for more this year. Staser was one of about 85 cowboys and cowgirls who competed at the Kentucky Invitational High School Rodeo at the Kentucky Horse Park from Friday through Sunday. Events included roping, goat tying, barrel racing, pole bending, and riding bucking broncos and bulls.
The competitors were all students or recent graduates, competing for prize money, scholarships and a spot in the state finals, which will be in Murray in two weeks, and the national finals in July in Rock Springs, Wyo.
They came from all over Kentucky, Missouri and Indiana, but most were from Western Kentucky. Many hoped to earn a spot on Murray State University's rodeo team.
At least one already had. Jessica Stewart, 18, recently graduated as valedictorian from Trigg County High School and was accepted to Murray State.
Like most of the competitors, success for its own sake drives Stewart, who competed Sunday in barrel racing, goat tying and team roping.
"It's a challenge," she said. "It's just you and the clock."
To compete in Kentucky High School Rodeo Association events, students have to maintain a passing grade-point average and have no serious disciplinary incidents at school, secretary Chasidy Chappell said, adding that isn't a problem for the sport's driven competitors.
"It's just a good bunch of kids. They're all friends," she said. "It's not like other sports, where they're trying to be better than other students or another team. ... They compete against themselves."
Even when they don't take first place, the riders walk away with a sense of accomplishment.
"All of your success is on you. It ain't about what the person on your team did," Staser said. "You drive yourself to become what you want to be."