HEBER CITY — It may seem that cousins Sage and Shaylee Thacker didn't have a choice when it came to whether or not they'd compete in high school rodeo.
They are, after all, the last two cowgirls in four generations of very successful rodeo cowboys and cowgirls. Anyone who has been around Utah's high school rodeo scene knows that the Thackers illustrate the way rodeo involves and inspires an entire family.
"Rodeo is like a way of life," said Merilee Thacker, who is Sage's mom and the Double D rodeo club's secretary for the past 12 years. "It is how you live every day."
For example, when asked who their best friends are, both Thacker girls don't hesitate.
"My dad," said Sage with a grin.
But despite her family's passion for rodeo, she didn't feel pressured into the sport.
"I just love it," said Sage, who is also a cheerleader at Bountiful High. "That's all we've know. It's in our blood."
They said their extended family continues to support them long after they've finished competing.
"All our cousins came and watched us today and cheered us on," said Sage.
And in addition to learning how to win pole bending, cow cutting and breakaway roping competitions, the girls are learning a lot of skills they may need to help their families in the future.
"My girls know how to drive a tractor and haul hay as good as any of my boys," said Merilee Thacker.
Both seniors, this is the last year the Thackers will be fixtures at the Utah High School State Finals Rodeo. In fact, Merilee Thacker said she's retiring from her duties as secretary as soon as Sage finishes this year — hopefully after July's National High School Finals Rodeo.
Both girls are in positions to make one final trip to the national competition where Utah routinely competes for the championship. Shaylee Thacker, a Riverton High senior who competes with the Lehi Rodeo Club, finished second in breakaway roping in the first round of the state finals with a time of 3.43 seconds.
Sage Thacker finished 10th in pole bending with a time of 21.294 seconds and she is fifth overall in the cow cutting competition.
"Not bad for coming back from an injury," said Sage, who tore all the ligaments in her knee before last year's State Finals Rodeo. It was the first state finals rodeo performance her parents had missed in 13 years.
Shaylee's dad, Kevin, said he only had one reservation when it came to allowing his children to participate in rodeo.
"It's expensive," he said. "That's the biggest hesitation I had. … It's a real time commitment."
Adds Sage, "If you want to be good, you have to put in the time."
Traveling to rodeos with your family might seem like punishment to some teenagers, but not the Thackers.
"I love hanging out with my family," said Sage.
Her father said the "quality time with each other" is what he values most about the experience.
"And it teaches you how to lose," Kevin Thacker said. (To which his daughter retorts, "Thanks a lot, Dad!") "You lose a lot more than you ever win in life."
Shaylee said there is some pressure to live up to the reputation of success that accompanies being a Thacker.
"I feel pressure just to live up to past years expectations," said Shaylee. And then she adds that it's not always a negative pressure.
Shaylee and Shane Thacker have an agreement that when they're training for rodeo he is her coach, not her dad.
But Sage and Kevin said they just deal with the familiarity of being coached by a parent.
"After the fourth child, I realize when I need to let up," he said. "It's all got to be about fun. … There shouldn't be any pressure to be something specific."
Shane said he loves what rodeo teaches people — regardless of their last name.
"I don't care if you're a Thacker or not," he said. "It teaches you that no matter what, you do your best."
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