Blake Toliver refers to the family home located about a mile and a half east of Ridgeley, Mo. as a ranch. He’s a cowboy to the core at this point.
“It feels more like a ranch,” the North Platte senior said. “Where I came from in Kansas, it’s ranches; it’s cattle country. Everything here is row crops. I would consider it a ranch because we don’t have row crops. We raise hay and raise performance horses and rope cattle.”
Toliver plays a prominent role on North Platte’s struggling baseball team, but his true athletic ability shows in a different arena. Yet, few at school know what goes on back at the ranch, much less show an interest in joining him for practice.
Keeping up with family tradition, Toliver’s true passion resides with rodeo, and he plans to stick with the sport. He recently signed with Kansas State to continue his career — the first scholarship given out under Casy Wynn, the program’s first full-time coach — with eyes on turning pro.
The pursuit involves so much more than practicing his tie-down and team roping skills. There’s also caring for and training his six horses and strenuous travel.
“I grew up with the cowboy, Western life,” Toliver said. “I started living that, and I didn’t really know any better. It’s different because it’s hard fitting in places where it’s not common.
“It’s not the average sport. I still don’t think anyone understands the commitment. A lot of people think you just hop on a horse and do what you do.”
Bryan Toliver, Blake’s father, can be blamed for cultivating the family’s cowboy lifestyle.
Still actively competing in amateur rodeos at the age of 46, Bryan Toliver participated in the sport for the currently defunct program at Northwest Missouri State in Maryville, Mo. Blake participated in his first horse show at the age of two and immediately fell in love.
“Horses is just a part of our life, so everywhere I was, he was right there with me,” Bryan said.
However, one particularly scary incident nearly ended Blake’s rodeo pursuits.
At the age of about eight, a horse ran off with Blake on its back, and as Bryan tells the story, his son was neither old enough nor confident enough to stop the animal. Dad rode to the rescue that day, but the event scared Blake enough that he stopped participating for several years.
A friend in Paola, Kan. convinced Blake to give it another go, and since the age of 12, rodeo took over as Blake’s primary activity, slowly phasing out other sports from his life.
That didn’t change when the family moved from east central Kansas into Platte County and the North Platte School District three years ago after Bryan took an office job at the Boehringer Ingelheim location in St. Joseph, Mo. Blake joined the Panthers’ baseball team, which only adds to an already full schedule.
The Tolivers participate in rodeos most of the weekends fall through spring, and that can increase during the summer — known as “Cowboy Christmas” due to the competition opportunities.
“I’m pretty much hauling four or five rodeos a week, trying to bring home money to go to the next one and stay on the road,” Blake Toliver said of his summers.
The competitions tell only part of the story.
The Tolivers own six competition horses, expensive purchases Bryan compares to buying a car — only the animals require daily maintenance and extensive training to perform in the desired fashion.
Practice can be strenuous, and Blake utilizes his old man as a frequent practice partner. Brock Toliver, who just turned 11 with plans to make his rodeo debut this summer, serves as a cattle pusher while running the gates and chutes in the family’s outdoor rodeo arena.
Blake practices and works with his horses up to 12 hours a day during the summer, when he’s done with baseball season and out of school.
Yet, Blake sticks with baseball, and this season, he again anchors the Panthers’ pitching staff after posting a 3.30 ERA as a junior, earning second team All-Class 2 District 16 honors. On the mound, he performs in front of a local crowd with his teammates.
For rodeo, Blake practices at home with his family and horses, and maybe the occasional curious friend from school — there as an observer and not active participant.
“I don’t think (my classmates) really understand,” Blake said. “It’s not just working on myself like baseball or a team sport. I’ve got to make sure my horse is in shape. I’ve got to make sure they’re doing their job correct. When I go ropin’, I don’t think about working with my horse. They know what to do at that point.
“When I go out, my horses have to be prepared mentally and physically, just like I do.”
Blake has become a respected competitor in the high school and adult rodeo circuits, competing in tie-down roping and team roping.
Tie-down roping features a calf and a rider mounted on a horse. The goal of the timed event is for the rider to catch the calf around its neck with a rope, dismount from the horse, run to the calf and restrain it by tying three legs together in the shortest amount of time.
Team roping involves two riders on separate horses and a steer. The first roper, or the header, lassos the front of the steer, usually around the horns. Once the steer is caught, the second rider, or the heeler ropes the steer by its hind feet with a five second penalty assessed to the end time if only one leg is caught.
Bryan said his son has always been handy with the rope but finding the balance with horsemanship remains a big key.
“It’s just like coming to baseball practice: you have to have a goal in mind and what you want to accomplish during your practice session,” Bryan said. “Some days you’re working on your skills, and some days you are working on your horse’s skills.”
That work will continue for Blake starting later this year after choosing Kansas State out of numerous rodeo scholarship offers. Relocating the operation to Manhattan, Kan. will be part of the unique challenge of competing in this particular collegiate sport.
Blake will have to provide his own truck and trailer, while housing Cody, Uno, Little Miss Dirty Bad and Slider on campus. Those are his main four horses right now, and they go with him to school and become a part of the team, too — just as you keep the name of a competition horse you purchase so as not to tempt the superstition of bad luck for making a change.
The National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association governs the sport, and because it’s not NCAA sanctioned, competitors can continue to earn money through local rodeos, professional rodeos and even the collegiate rodeos. Blake soon plans to seek out a permit for the Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association — the highest level for the sport — with hopes of impressing enough to find a path onto the circuit.
“It’s almost like probation,” Toliver said of the permit. “They watch you, and if they think you are winning enough and that you will be good for the association to push the sport, they’re going to accept you.”
Fittingly, Blake Toliver continues to seek acceptance for his unique endeavor. He wants to remain a cowboy for as long as he can.
Rodeo remains a novel sport in this part of the country, especially for those in northwest Missouri. The family ranch resides on the foundation Bryan built with his love for rodeo. Now his son carries on his tradition, seeking out the professional path his father opted not to pursue.
“I never took the time and didn’t feel I had the skillset to do that,” Bryan said. “I was more focused on a career where Blake feels this might be his career. The best thing about it is the amount of dedication and commitment that it takes and the type of person that it’s made him.
“To me as a father, that’s the best thing, to see him grow up and be a good young man, but to see him compete at a pretty high level is pretty cool, too.”