OAKDALE — One hand on the reins and the other whipping his lasso in the air, David Iverson's riding high as he emerges from the chute atop his 8-year-old mare, Minnie.
Iverson has only seconds to trap a steer that is already trying to slip the rope around his horns. Iverson's job is to get a rope around the steer's hind legs, timing his toss to catch the animal's legs in the air.
"The steer usually kicks his back feet as he runs, so I have to slip my rope under his feet and make sure I've got both feet before I tie him up," Iverson said. "He's not too happy about being roped around the horns, and then here I come."
Welcome to team roping.
Professional cowboys call it "the fastest four seconds in rodeo," and it requires cooperation between two cowboys and their horses — uncommon in a sport often based on an individual's performance.
"I wrestle steers, cut cattle and rope calves, but those are individual events and it's on me whether I succeed or fail," said Iverson, heading into his senior year at Enochs High. "Team roping, you must have faith in your partner and he must have faith in you. If one of you fails, you both lose."
That trust has earned Iverson and Walt Hoyt, his roping partner from Valley Springs, a trip to the National High School Finals Rodeo, July 19-25 in Farmington, N.M.
Cowboys from District 5, which covers the Northern San Joaquin Valley and foothill counties, won six national titles in the last four years.
This is Iverson's first trip to the national rodeo and he carries the hopes of two towns: He goes to school in Modesto — his father is a chemistry teacher at Enochs — but he lives on a ranch in Oakdale.
The townsfolk call Oakdale the "Cowboy Capital of the World" and Iverson has been able to tap into that legacy by riding with legendary ropers at the Oakdale Saddle Club.
"This was the first year I really focused on nationals," he said. "I put a lot of work into this year and I'm on a horse that can make a difference."
Minnie, a 1,200-pound Sorrell quarterhorse Iverson purchased in May for a few grand, responds faster and is more agile than his previous horse.
"I went as far as I could on my old horse. Taking the next step can require a new horse capable of different things," he said.
But Minnie was only part of the winning combination. He also got a new roping partner — actually, it was an old one.
"Walt and I roped together last year, but we got new partners," Iverson said. "Halfway through this season, we started talking and realized that we made a pretty good team."
While the top pro teams can tie a steer in less than five seconds, high school kids typically do it in 8 to 10 seconds.
A late-season run by Iverson and Hoyt led to a berth in the state rodeo, and a second-place finish in Bishop earned the pair a trip to Farmington.
It's an opportunity they had to discuss with their parents, because it means a 2,000-mile round-trip with their horses.
"It will cost a few thousand, between diesel for the truck, hotel and expenses," Iverson said. "We're on a high school rodeo team, but we're picking up the costs. It's not like football, where the school is paying for equipment and trips."
Iverson said he spent $3,000 to ride in 10 high school rodeos, and that doesn't include feed, veterinarian bills and steers that cost $400 a head.
Despite costs, Iverson's parents never wavered.
"All our kids have been in rodeo, and it's been a great experience for our family," said Dan Iverson, a father of four. "We always find a way to make it work. Rodeo is a great opportunity for kids.
"You have a lot of great kids who maybe aren't football or baseball players. Rodeo is their chance to represent the school and to have success."
David Iverson is searching for sponsors to cover the cost of his trip to Farmington. If you're interested in making a contribution, contact the Iversons at 209-404-3044 or 6149 Eleanor Road, Oakdale 95361.