For Kyle Roberts, speed is all that matters. And he's fast.Roberts won the Southwest Regional Intercollegiate Team Roping title in Stephanville, Texas, in May for the chance to defend his National College Rodeo team roping title at the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyo., from June 15-20 with partner Jake Cobb of Texas.
The road to the big stage started early for Kyle, whose father, Chip, competed in rodeos for 12 years as a bareback rider.
"We went and showed it to him, and he loved it," Chip Roberts said. "He won his first horse trailer at 12. At 10, he won his first saddle."
Roberts, who graduated from Durango High School in 2005, said he began roping two years earlier, at 8, when his family moved to the country and bought horses.
From there on, he's known nothing but success, winning at the junior level, high school level (placing runner-up as Reserve National High School Team Roping Champion) and college level (finishing in the top 10 all three years).
Now, he's hoping to reach the heights of his biggest influence, Jake Barnes, a seven-time world champion team roper from Bloomfield, N.M.
"He gets that from his mother," Chip Roberts said of his son's ambition. "He definitely has the right competitive genes."
Team roping involves a "header," Roberts' position, and a "heeler," who tries to bring down a steer - always a Mexican Corriente - as fast as they can.
They stand in boxes around the steer while the steer is let out a specified length, depending on the arena.
First the header will rope the steer by its head - either around its neck, by half its head, or around its horns - and turn the animal so the heeler can nab its hind legs, preferably both.
Roberts has done this as fast as three seconds. Four to six is a general target range. Penalties occur when ropers leave early or rope just one leg.
Injuries can occur, also, although team roping is safer than some rodeo disciplines, like bull riding.
"That's in every sport," Chip Roberts said. "For a team roper, probably the most common injury is to cut off a finger or a thumb. You can lose your thumb so fast, it's unbelievable."
Team ropers use a style of roping called "dally," in which they use a half hitch of rope around the saddle horn after a catch is made. The roper holds the loose end in their hands to either shorten it or let it slip if something goes wrong. Occasionally, a finger will get caught between the rope and the saddle horn.
That's bad news, but it hasn't resulted in any major injuries for Roberts yet, although he has also been bucked off his horse and knocked out when a horse fell down with him.
A good horse means a lot to ropers, and Roberts is thankful his father found him one on a trip to Aztec, where an owner complained it was too powerful for him.
"You're always on a mission to find good horses," Chip Roberts said. "I rode him, and I knew he would be phenomenal if we broke some of his bad habits."
Roberts said his dad called him up excited: "'I think I got the perfect horse for you.' One year later, I won college nationals."
Gino wasn't the first horse to take Roberts to a new level. Another, Shorts, led him to his runner-up finish in the high school ranks.
"My horse is the athlete," Roberts said. "I've got to keep him in shape as well as myself."
Before riding Gino in the Rose Bowl of college rodeo, Roberts had to be top three in his region, no easy task when the region in question is the Southwest, where as many as 150 ropers compete for those spots.
Now, in Casper, he'll need to catch all three of his steers in good times just to make the top 15 and have a chance to defend his title.
"One steer comes out and stumbles or stops ... anything can go wrong," Kyle's mother, Beverly, said.
And pride isn't the only thing on the line, with scholarships, boots, hats and cash to be gained by the winners.
After all it takes to get there, a little payoff is nice.
"It's hard for people to understand what it takes for these kids," Beverly Roberts said. "Everybody's poor in college, but these kids have to really want to do it."
Beverly Roberts said her son was lucky to have a full-ride scholarship all four years at Eastern New Mexico University, but he still had to keep four horses at all times and pay for their feed and travel.
"The responsibility is tremendous," she said.
It doesn't make matters easier at school, either, where Roberts has to make up for weeks at a time on the road for qualifying rodeos.
Still, he is taking his final two courses this summer.
The pro career is a similar grind, where good ropers can hope to make about $50,000 a year.
"It's more of a lifestyle," Roberts said. "You're constantly driving trucks and trailers across the country. I've already been from California to Florida."
"Sponsors are the key thing," he said. "We don't get paid on salary. We compete on our talent."
His parents, however, think he will be able to overcome the challenges of that lifestyle, too.
"Kyle has that spark," Beverly Roberts said. "He has the attitude and the heart."