Battling the beast

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By Scotty McDaniel

He's got his hat and chaps, and he's ready to ride. He can't wait for Derby weekend, when he'll get to compete against other riders. He sums up his favorite part of riding with a single word - "adrenaline."

As thousands head to Louisville next weekend for the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby, nine-year-old Ethan Young is excited to do some riding of his own at the Kentucky Junior Rodeo Association event at the Shelby County Fairgrounds.

It'll be Ethan's first rodeo in Kentucky, but the young bull rider has been traveling across the southern states and competing for three years already.

"When he was two, he told us he wanted to be a bull rider," his mother Chrissy Young said. "But unlike most kids who say they want to be an astronaut and change their minds, he hasn't grown out of rodeo."

Ethan is a part of five different rodeo associations in three different states.

He participates in the chute dogging (steer wrestling) and, his favorite, steer-riding competitions.

In his young career, Ethan has received many awards and honors, cherishing five belt buckles that mark his accomplishments.

But his rewards are not without cost. Riding 500 to 1500 pound beasts is a physically rough sport, especially for a nine-year-old, and Ethan has the bruises to prove it. He's had a double concussion, smashed shin and more bumps and bruises than he can remember.

Chrissy said she and her husband, Brad, have been criticized for letting their son ride in such a dangerous activity, but Ethan is fully aware of the possibilities.

"He knows that chance of injury," Chrissy said. "He was brought up in an environment, knowing to respect animals and what they're capable of."

Once, while talking to his grandmother about the risk of getting injured while riding, he told her it's not a matter of when, but how bad.

"I stopped worrying about it (the risk)," Ethan said.

But where other kids would run to their moms and never ride again after a nasty spill, Chrissy said Ethan wipes off the blood and wants to hop on again.

"It's good that he has such a strong passion for something," She said.

And passion is the right word. Ethan takes his training seriously.

He has a practice barrel in the front yard, as well as two horses and steers to train on. He has studied videos of professional riders discussing the equipment and techniques involved in bull riding.

He runs the treadmill and lifts weights. Instead of chugging sodas like other kids his age, he'd rather down a glass of water.

He's mature for his age. When he arrives at the rodeo, he has to follow the KJRA dress code; cowboy hat, long sleeve shirt, jeans, boots and number tag worn on his back.

His parents turn him loose and he signs in, finds the beast he'll be riding, and gets ready to compete - all by himself. He's a respectful "yes, sir" child with the adults in the back, yet tough as nails when the gate opens and the animal beneath him blasts off.

Ethan's maturity for his age is one of the gifts that Chrissy said a rodeo gives a child.

"A rodeo is a wonderful thing for them (children) to get involved in," she said. "It makes them very well-rounded and gives them something to work towards. They learn discipline, responsibility and respect. It's just amazing."

The KJRA has also established grade requirements for all their young riders.

"That puts some responsibility on the kids, because they know they can't participate if their grades aren't up to par," Chrissy said.

KJRA accepts kids who live in the state, attend kindergarten through 8th grade, with ages ranging from 5 to 15.

Each child is required to have at least one sponsor donating a minimum of $100. Having moved to Waddy just two months ago from Western Kentucky, finding Ethan a sponsor in a timely manner could have been difficult. Luckily Chrissy's employer, Pegasus Industries and Packaging, took a strong interest in Ethan and his riding and offered to sponsor him.

It appears their money is well vested. Ethan was voted youngest cowboy in Tennessee both of the last two years. Out of 10 riders competing in the Tennessee state finals last year, he placed 4th. And he said his proudest achievement was winning a championship buckle at the First Annual Dodge Junior Rodeo Chute-out in Arkansas.

"I'm very proud of his accomplishments," Chrissy said. "There's nothing like watching him and my husband and looking at my son and seeing the love and passion for the sport, and my husband's proud face."

When asked if he's going to ride bulls forever, Ethan suddenly acts his age, lets out a childish grin and answers once again with a single word that says it all - "Probably."