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Big Valley rodeo family inspires each other to greatness

Young rodeo champ rides 'Lunatic from Hell' in Houston and comes out on top

There was surprise and delight on the Canadian rodeo scene, when young bronc rider Zeke Thurston rode all the way to the championship and the $50,000 bonus at RodeoHouston last month.

Likely one of the least surprised about the whole deal, though, was Zeke’s mother Lynda.

“I had a good feeling in my gut the whole day,” said Thurston. “I knew it was a great opportunity for him, he’d been riding well all winter and he’d put on a good show regardless of what happened.”

It was a tall order — competing against the world’s best cowboys and some of the toughest horses on the trail in a huge football stadium filled with 75,000 fans and big money on the line.

But the 20-year-old rookie kept his cool in his first appearance at Houston and focused on the job at hand — making the whistle on an outlaw with the menacing name of Lunatic from Hell.

“You always get nervous a little bit, but I was maybe a little more nervous than usual,” Zeke admitted. “But I had to tell myself, ‘Hey, no matter how this plays out, you’re just blessed to get the opportunity.’”

Thurston was a last-minute replacement at the $1.7-million, invitation-only rodeo when some bronc riders didn’t show up for their first horse.

“I told myself just let it all hang out, and it’ll happen,” he said.

Despite being one ride behind, Thurston garnered 89 points on his first horse, known to be difficult to handle in the chutes, and continued to do well in the qualifying rounds.

Then came the Final Four Showdown and a date with Lunatic from Hell.

The two duelled it out jump for jump, and when the dust settled, Thurston’s “heavenly” score was the best of the bunch, another 89. That earned him a trophy buckle, a total of $54,900 in cash, and a championship saddle.

Thurston was especially happy to get the saddle. He had long admired the one in the living room, which his father Skeeter won in Houston in 1986.

“That was pretty cool,” he said.

While he was excited recalling details of his win, he was just as eager to talk about his 10-year-old sister Tess, who had been in provincial hockey playoffs at the same time he was riding in Houston.

Performing well in the spotlight is nothing new to any members of the talented family, based in the rolling prairie hills near the cowboy community of Big Valley.

Skeeter and Lynda, who will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary this summer, met on the rodeo circuit. Skeeter, who was ranch raised in Nebraska, qualified for six trips to the National Finals Rodeo as a saddle bronc rider, and also competed at the Canadian Finals Rodeo five times. Lynda grew up in a rodeo family, and also reported on the sport.

When Zeke was just eight, he and brothers Wyatt and Sam earned renown as the Thurston Gang, doing trick riding and roping at some 250 rodeos across the country before ‘retiring’ in 2008.

And they’ve amassed a big collection of buckles and championships, initially in steer riding and then bronc riding. Wyatt, 23, and Zeke are now full-fledged professional cowboys while Sam, 19, competes on the amateur circuits and Tess has started barrel racing and goat tying.

Each Thurston family achievement is celebrated, whether Houston size, or Atom hockey size.

“We really look at it as a whole team,” said Lynda. “It’s inspiring if one can do something because that makes it seem more attainable for the rest.”

The kids have also learned to be “at home” in front of big crowds.

“The bigger the crowds, it seems the more they know how to calm themselves and get focused,” said Lynda. “You have to have belief in yourself, and that’s a choice we make every day — to believe in our abilities. It’s something we’ve talked about with our kids ever since they were little.”

And Mom adheres to that philosophy, too.

She writes songs and performs with Genuine Cowgirls, a musical trio, and is working towards her certification as Raw Foods instructor and coach, focusing on the benefits of growing and eating your own healthy foods.

“Wyatt is on his way home from being on the road, and says he can’t wait to get home and have some good food,” she said with a laugh.

About the author

Contributor

Dianne Finstad is a Red Deer based reporter and broadcaster who specializes in agriculture and rodeo coverage. She has over thirty years of experience bringing stories to light through television, radio, and print; and has a real passion for all things farm and western.

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