At 5:30 a.m. every summer day, when most high school students are catching up on sleep lost during the school year, Austin Weinreich is already up and dressed in his plaid shirt, blue jeans, cowboy hat and a belt buckle so big that it wouldn't seem out of place on a Texas ranch.
Weinreich, 17, starts his days earlier than his mother at Amazing Grace Equestrian Center, a horse-boarding-and-training center in Parkton. By 10 a.m. most days, with much of his work at the center done, Weinreich is on his horse, Slick, practicing. As soon as Weinreich and Slick approach his practice area, several cows file in a line down to a metal gate at one end of a fenced-in area. Weinreich's mother, Sandy, joins him to practice and critiques him each time he tries to lasso one of the cows.
So while he does everything from cleaning horses' stalls to mowing the grass on the 77-acre farm, owned and operated by his parents, Weinreich is better known around the facility for being one of Maryland's biggest high school rodeo stars.
As part of the startup Maryland High School Rodeo Association, Weinreich, who recently graduated from Harford Tech, and his teammates have competed in five events around the region and will take part in the National High School Finals Rodeo in Rock Springs, Wyo., from July 13 to July 19.
At the end of the Maryland state rodeo competition at the end of May, the last state competition of the year, Weinreich was named top All-Around Cowboy in Maryland and the state champion in tie-down roping, in which a horse rider must chase down a calf, catch it with a lasso, run to the calf, jump off his horse and restrain the calf by tying three of its legs together. Points are awarded based on how quickly the rider completes the roping.
Weinreich became interested in rodeo long before the MHSRA was established, in January. Sensing their son's interest in the sport, Weinreich's parents bought him Slick at an auction two years ago, and Weinreich soon began to save his money for his own truck and horse trailer. Now he drives to each MHSRA competition on his own.
Because the MHSRA didn't compete in-state until May, Weinreich had to take some Fridays off during the school year to travel to his next competition — some trips taking as long as 16 hours round-trip — then stay up late during the next week to make up any homework he couldn't do on the weekend.
The everyday sacrifices he makes to train with horses, Weinreich said, are no less time-consuming. But he knows his early-hour work pays off with how well Slick is taken care of. By then, he said, "You've already won half the battle" in tie-down roping.
"It's been glorified and worrisome at the same time," Sandy Weinreich said of her son's struggles to balance schoolwork and rodeo competitions. "It's hard to watch a 17-year-old stay up late at night and then wake up early to hitch a trailer up and make an eight-hour drive for a 30-second ride. Not only is he hardworking, but he's a great scholar and an all-around cowboy."
Despite the time constraints Weinreich faces, he still was a member of the National Honor Society at Harford Tech.
Weinreich is emerging in rodeo at a time when the sport is still in its infancy in Maryland. Although the size of the team varies from competition to competition, Weinreich said there are about 30 competitors on Maryland's team, while Virginia's high school team has 60 members and Texas' has 1,200.
In her role as Maryland High School Rodeo Queen, MHSRA team member Madison Iager has become the face of the sport among younger competitors, promoting involvement at various events across the state in an effort to grow membership through tabling and visits to various schools.
"The reason why I wanted to get into [rodeo] is because of how fun it is," Iager said. "It was something I had never tried before, and we're all a big family. It's so much fun."
Like Weinreich, Iager trains at Amazing Grace, where most of the center's riders compete in English riding, a traditional, timed event in which riders must guide their horses through a course featuring a series of obstacles and jumps.
But with Weinreich's success and the MHSRA's rise, Sandy Weinreich said at least two of the English riders have expressed interest in learning more about rodeo.
"We're still 95 percent English, but the English [riders] have supported him and embraced him, and some of them have become his sponsors," she said.
Weinreich's high school career will end at this month's national competition, but he wants to continue with the sport. He has looked into competing in an under-18 circuit in Pennsylvania, with dreams of eventually going pro. Until then, it's more work at Amazing Grace.
"College is going to be huge, but I plan on making it work," Weinreich, who plans to study agricultural business management at Maryland in the fall, said of continuing to compete in rodeo. "I'll start working more here and build myself up, but I want to keep doing it because it's what I love to do."