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As towns across the Great Plains shrink, how can they preserve rural lifestyles?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As America's rural areas see populations decline, they're looking for ways to keep their lifestyle alive for the next generation. Some families in western Kansas think youth rodeo will help.

David Condos of the Kansas News Service reports.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: Mesa Hedland is decked out in a brown Western shirt with leather tassels dangling from leopard print shoulder patches.

MESA HEDLAND: Well, it's that...

CONDOS: She's only 5 years old, but this is far from her first rodeo.

MESA: I were here since I was 2.

CONDOS: She's waiting for her favorite event, which involves untying a ribbon from a goat's tail with help from her trusty steed named Ott.

MESA: He loves kids. That's the best special (ph) about him. And he's addicted to me. We can't spend a day without hanging out with each other.

CONDOS: This is the Young Guns Extravaganza in Dodge City, Kan.

UNIDENTIFIED RODEO ANNOUNCER: Okey-doke. Next to go is going to be Mindy Tuckshorn (ph).

CONDOS: So how do you turn kindergartners into wranglers?

MELISSA VANDER HAMM: Little bitty saddles for little bitty kids.

CONDOS: That's Melissa Vander Hamm. She started Young Guns eight years ago with a few other rodeo parents who wanted their kids to get more practice during the winter when other competitions shut down.

VANDER HAMM: They're pretty competitive little 6-year-olds.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, they are. They are.

CONDOS: She expected to get 50 kids the first year. A hundred and twenty showed up. This year, it welcomes nearly 400 little cowpokes into the arena.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Go, go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Go, go, go, go, go, go.

CONDOS: In a region where farming and ranching go back generations, rodeo is sown deep into the cultural fabric, but small-town populations have been shrinking for decades as young people leave the rural Western life for bigger cities. And parents like Vander Hamm hope that introducing kids to rodeo might spur them to fall in love with their hometown's cowboy culture. Then maybe when those kids grow up, they'll want to get back in the saddle again and take on the family farm or ranch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN")

GENE AUTRY: (Singing) I'm back in the saddle again.

CONDOS: The sport of rodeo was born from real cowboy work. Ranch hands would try to one-up each other at the end of long cattle drives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN")

AUTRY: (Singing) Where the longhorn cattle feed on the lowly gypsum weed.

CONDOS: But what started out as a pastime for tough guys on the range has become big business all over. Between the horses, the gear, the trucks, trailers and travel, being a rodeo family today takes a lot of money. A good saddle could cost $2,000. But youth rodeo keeps growing. The number of fifth grade to 12th grade kids competing in Kansas jumped more than 15% in the past few years. Gene Theodori, a rural sociologist at Sam Houston State University in Texas, isn't surprised. He says it comes back to the idea that rural America is the last remnant of a bygone, simpler, better lifestyle. He calls it the rural mystique, and rodeo is a picture of that in its purest form.

GENE THEODORI: Whether it's real or not, in our minds, it represents that wholesome, rural way of life. And we as a society - we yearn for that.

CONDOS: And while city slickers might get anxious seeing a 5-year-old ride a full-size horse, serious injuries in youth rodeo are relatively rare. Kids often wear safety helmets. And instead of clinging to a 1,500-pound bull, these kids are riding their own horses through a timed obstacle course, chasing goats or lassoing fake steer heads. Back in the arena, 9-year-old Braylin Barratt climbs onto the back of her speckled gray horse named Jesse.

BRAYLIN BARRATT: What I love about him is that...

CONDOS: She's been competing for five years, so she's been bucked off before, dragged too, but nothing that kept her out of the saddle. And that is where she wants to stay.

BRAYLIN: I never want to quit rodeoing. I just want to teach my kids how to ride and train and be, like, just like me.

CONDOS: For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Dodge City, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MY DAD VS YOURS' "TANZ MIT UNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Condos