SEBRING - How far would you go to chase your dreams? Four Heartland teens are gearing up for the trip of a lifetime: a 4,400 mile trek from here to Rock Springs, Wyo., to compete in the National High School Finals Rodeo competition. And all four have the same goal, to bring back a national championship.
"It's everything I've worked for," said Blake Vickers, 16, a junior at Sebring High School. "It'd be awesome to win one."
Also making the trip with Vickers, will be his cousin, 16-year-old Aldyn Ashton, a fellow junior at Sebring, 17-year-old Loni Damboise, a senior at Sebring, and 17-year-old Mattie Bass, a senior at Moore Haven High School.
The dream of winning a national title seems to be a shared family trait between Ashton and Vickers.
"Rodeo is my life. I love it," Ashton said. "I've been around it since I was little. It's in my blood. Both my parents have been riding all their lives, too. They've always been very supportive and to win in Wyoming would just be amazing."
"I've been on a horse pretty much since the day I was born, so a national championship, that's my top goal," she added.
To make it to nationals, competitors had to finish in the top four of 13 different statewide events. They ranged from barrel racing and goat-tying to cutting and calf-roping. In Rock Springs, Ahston and Damboise will be competing in goat tying, while Vickers will focus on team-roping, and Bass will be in the cutting event.
However, for Damboise and Bass, there's more at stake than just brining home the top prize,- they're looking towards life after high school.
"It'd be nice to have a national title to help colleges notice me," Damboise said. "I've already got three schools I'm looking at, one in Texas, one in Oklahoma, and even one in Tennessee."
A Florida girl, Damboise said she's ready to move away from the Florida sand and onto greener pastures.
"I'm ready to go. My goal is to get at least west of Mississippi," she said with a laugh. "Definitely west of Mississippi."
Like nearly all riders on the rodeo circuit, Vickers, Ahston, Bass, and Damboise all have strong bonds with their horses. They're treated like family, because in this sport, the connection between a horse and its rider is crucial. Timing is everything, and the horse needs to know exactly what the rider is thinking, not only to ensure the safety of both, but to complete the event as quickly and perfectly as possible.
"We have a great old paint horse - Blue Eyes - who my dad got by trading a bucking bull for him," Ashton said. "It was either an old paint horse that nobody wanted or a set of bleachers. And he got Blue Eyes for my mom."
Aldyn explained that her dad and uncle used Blue Eyes to team rope before passing him along to her.
"He pretty much raised me," she said. "We don't have any papers on him or anything like that. He's just a backyard horse that nobody wanted, and he's maybe like 28 years old, but he belongs to all of us."
"It was amazing to grow up with him. He was like a baby sitter. He's faithful, reliable - you know what he's going to do everytime - he's just good as gold."
And hauling the horses through eight states will be a challenge in itself.
"I've never hauled a horse before," Bass said. "But I'm looking forward to it."
The group plans on hooking up the usual trailers they use to transport their horses around Florida, but this time they'll be ensuring that the horse is equipped with what it needs for a longer journey. Extra food will be key, and so will blinders for the horses eyes, so they don't get disturbed by the other cars on the trip.
"Caring for them is like caring for a family member, you really care about them," Aldyn said. "It's great, as long as you don't mind a little extra fertalizer around. I wouldn't want to ever give it up."
But despite the intense competition of Nationals, the trip into America's Great Plains comes with a few benefits. Along with seeing some of the country's most beautiful landscape, a trip to Yellowstone National Park might be in the mix, and as Bass explained, the chance to meet new people adds more excitement.
"I can't wait to compete," she said. "But I'm also looking forward to seeing all the other riders. A trip like this means a chance to meet new friends, and I'm really looking forward to that."