BILLINGS – On his ranch just outside of Hobson, team roping instructor Shawn ‘Tater’ Erickson and his star pupil Carson Patten are preparing for Sunday’s Roy Open Rodeo.

“You ready to do this?” asked Erickson, the heeler, to his header. “Are we going to get fired up and rope good?”

Steers are loaded. The gate opens. And the duo takes off on run after run after run.

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Not every ride is successful, in fact most end without a catch. But there’s no place either of them would rather be.

“Everybody knows I’m a very good grand champion rider,” explained Patten, a 20-year-old graduate of Fergus High School. “This is a big part of my life.”

Carson Patten was born with Down syndrome. Nevertheless, he dreams of being a world champion roper, something that seemed impossible years ago. He started riding while competing in Special Olympics equestrian events and it was there that he first met Tater and his wife Erlonna.

“(Our relationship) really started with my wife (coaching) in the Special Olympics and that being a gift that we like to give and to work with,” Tater said. “Carson started to really rise to the top. And he liked being with us and being around us and started to come out to our 4-H events and he started coming out to our roping events. And every challenge we put in front of Carson, he was able to overcome.”

“I love cowboys,” Carson said simply. “I get along with everybody. Everybody gets along with me.”

Carson took to roping quickly. When he fell, he got back up. When he failed, he tried again.

And after graduating from roping hay bales on the ground to catching a Hot Heels dummy behind an ATV, Carson looped his first live steer last week. And you can bet he let everyone know about it.

“I was proud of myself, I caught one,” he beamed. “It got everybody happy and my family and my friends.”

Tears welled in Erickson’s eyes as he recalled the moment.

“And when he caught it, and it was finally a real live steer, it was really emotional at that time,” he said. “And then when he hollered at my father-in-law, clear across the arena, he said ‘Mr. Mickelson, Mr. Mickelson, I caught my first steer!’ The water works came at that time.”

Carson has always loved rodeo. He travels the state with his parents Kaylene and Carl and can list his favorite events each summer.

“Roundup, Billings, Lewistown, Belt, Harlowton, Great Falls,” he recited.

His favorite roper is three-time world champion Tuf Cooper. In fact, Carson has “Tuf” emblazoned on his saddle and on his horse trailer. And inside that trailer is a top-notch horse named Casper. When Carson graduated from high school, his parents promised him tickets to the NFR. But when he told them he wanted to be a team roper, they got him a horse instead.

“Casper and me are friends,” Carson said. “He doesn’t get in trouble with me, and he does roping, cattle and trade horse. And also he likes to lope and he loves to go after the calves.”

Watching Carson and Casper develop in the arena gave Erickson confidence that they were ready to take the next step.

“So we got this hair-brained idea, that if he kept roping and he kept working at it, me and him would enter the Roy Rodeo,” Tater said. “So we went and I said, ‘If we’re going to enter, we’re going to enter with full fees,’ and so we were able to talk to the Roy Rodeo committee and say, ‘Hey, we don’t want a whole bunch of special treatment.’”

The Roy Rodeo is an open community event. You won’t see many stars and the payouts aren’t huge. But for Carson – it might as well be the NFR.

It was a special kind of Father’s Day at the 65th annual event. Dads roped with sons, families bonded – but regulars were quick to point out that the crowd was slightly larger than normal.

As the stock crew loaded a steer named “Buttercup” into the chutes, Carson and Tater made their way to the roping boxes. Several former NFR competitors, college and high school champions and current professionals were in attendance and made their way closer to watch.

“That’s one of the things that was special,” Erickson recalled. “When I looked through the heeling box and seen all the real cowboys, every one of them had come up to see what Carson was doing. At no other event had they done that. That’s powerful.”

And just like that, it was time. Carson gave a quick nod of his head, and the gates opened.

Buttercup trotted into the arena slowly. Carson and his horse Casper shot out ahead, rope swinging in the air.

Tater shouted, “Carson, Carson! Come back!”

The header and his mount doubled back – he had Buttercup in his sights. Carson threw his rope and hit horns, but the loop fell to the ground. This ride would end without a catch.

But that’s just a footnote. Carson Patten had paid his entrant fees, stood tall in the saddle, and competed against several veterans and champions. And after the ride emotions got the best of him, Tater and the rest of the Patten family.

“I’m very proud of my horse,” Carson said with a smile. “This was awesome. I’m excited to do it again next year.”

The Roy Rodeo committee made sure Carson walked out of the arena with a shiny new belt buckle to show everyone that he’s a real champion.

His eyes lit up.

“The buckle is the coolest buckle,” Carson said. “It’s a buckle for a grand champion.”

That would have been enough to keep Carson smiling for a lifetime – so you can imagine how he felt six weeks later, when two world champions wanted to meet him. Shane Hanchey reached out to the Pattens about a possible meeting when he made the trip Great Falls for the Big Sky Pro Rodeo in early August. And after Shane ran in a section of slack, champion met champion for a quick roping clinic.

Carson has learned how to team rope and steer wrestle over the past few year, so Hanchey set out to teach him how to rope calves.

“He had told me (Thursday) when we were watching slack that he wasn’t much of a calf roper,” laughed Hanchey. “But I told him today that was going to change after today.”

Carson smiled big.

“I’ll be roping the calf that the big boys are,” he said. “And I’ll be a national champion rider. Gold buckle, national championship tie-down roper. Everybody would be so proud.”

As usual, Carson caught on quickly. Toss after toss and loop after loop he built confidence in his ability.

Hanchey encouraged Carson after every catch: “Yes, sir!”

When they were finished, Hanchey gave Carson one of the pigging strings he used in competition.

“Now you’re a real calf roper today,” Shane said to his beaming pupil.

Then came Carson’s ultimate thrill. Remember his nickname? ‘Tuf’, after favorite roper Tuf Cooper. Like Hanchey, the three-time PRCA world champion saw the story earlier in the summer and reached out to the Patten family to meet the young cowboy.

After competing in slack at the Yellowstone River Roundup rodeo in Billings, Cooper met Patten near his trailer. The two then tended to Cooper’s horses, shared some life stories, and finally, got down to roping.

Cooper had Patten show him his stuff first, roping a steer head followed by a calf head. Carson had plenty of success, and when he didn’t, Cooper stepped in to give him some pointers that have helped him become one of the best in the world.

It truly was a summer to remember for Montana’s new favorite cowboy.