A unique B.C.college sports team has become a galloping success.
Its top competitors are athletes in cowboy boots and horses in saddles. The team logo is a horse brand. The elite contenders bunk down at a school near a horse barn, and the team members travel to competitions across the Prairies in pickup trucks pulling heavy horse trailers.
Northern Lights College in Dawson Creek fields the only college rodeo team in B.C.
Now, the team has taken the reins at the national level, bringing home three Canadian championship belt buckles last month in pole bending, steer wrestling, and tie-down roping, from the Canadian Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Championship in Brooks, Alta.
"We're proud. We're exhilarated. There's absolute amazement," said Leanne Esau, manager of athletics and community engagement at Northern Lights College.
"These are high-level sports. These athletes have the aspiration to go pro."
Like other elite college sports teams, Northern Lights recruits talented high-school contenders to its campus with scholarships. But there's also unique student housing, complete with horse stalls.
The team's dormitory is a farmhouse with a barn and horse arena so students can be close to their equine partners. Student housing costs cover stall rental, but hay is extra.
Bryce Garcia, the intercollegiate national champion in the tie-down roping competition, bunked at the farm dorm during the school year.
"Living with my horses at the house was very convenient. I could go ride and rope every other day," said the carpentry student, who wields a lasso and jumps from horseback to the ground to tie down calves in competition.
Social work student Amber Wollen and her quarter horse, Rio, brought home the national championships in pole bending, a form of horse slalom that requires precision and speed.
"It's very high adrenalin," said Wollen, who rides almost daily and trains with the college team three times a week.
Her 16 teammates include students in early childhood education, plumbing and business management.
Like other college sports, the team focuses on strength, conditioning, nutrition and mental coaching.
But team training also includes the horses.
"The western lifestyle and ... the connection to our agricultural roots is something our college has embraced through the rodeo team," said Todd Bondaroff, the president and CEO of Northern Lights College, who lives on a farm and previously worked for the Ministry of Agriculture.
College rodeo is very popular in the United States, Saskatchewan and Alberta, which field a half dozen teams.