When Colten Jensen was 12, he got on top of a steer for the first time.
Out of the chute, he was hooked.
"I just really love the whole feeling about it," said the Soldotna native of riding. "It just kept eating at me that I wanted to do it again."
Now, about a decade later, the 21-year-old Jensen has been through his share of steers and upgraded to bulls, along with a little fiercer competition as a bull rider on the Montana State University rodeo team and in amateur and professional riding circuits.
But, those old feelings of excitement and anticipation he developed as young rodeo competitor on the Peninsula still hold weight, he said.
"We used to joke about it, but they say eight seconds lasts an eternity," he said. "I would be like, 'Oh, yeah, one time I tried counting and by the time I got to eight the gate was still opening.'"
Jensen, who graduated from Soldotna High School in 2008 and will graduate from Montana State in the fall of 2012, started riding bulls at 15 years old.
His freshman year in high school marked the first time Alaska offered competition through the high school rodeo association, he said.
He was gifted from the start -- winning rookie of the year as a freshman and winning the all-around cowboy award each subsequent year, along with annual bull riding titles to match.
Now, after his third year at Montana State, Jensen will compete in his first national collegiate finals in bull riding starting June 12 in Casper, Wyo. He will go up against more than 30 competitors for a shot at glory.
He's confident about his chances.
"I'm riding good right now so as long as I keep my head straight, everything should go as planned," he said with a smile.
However, what's got Jensen most excited is the work he is doing today, he said.
From 6 to 9 p.m., Jensen will host a junior bull riding clinic during the Monday Night Buckout at the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds for riders ages 10 to 15. Jensen will talk to the youths about several aspects of the sport, including working on their form and its various mental aspects.
"You only have one competitor and that's the bull," he said.
At the same age, Jensen didn't have access to many of the same techniques and tips he now hopes to pass on.
"It's a little bit of a way for me to give back from when I started," he said. "There wasn't anybody around that knew a whole lot about it -- you'd get some information here and you'd get some there.
"If I can kind of pool all of that together and give it to these kids at one point in time then maybe they can learn it a little faster or start excelling quicker so they don't have to learn it themselves and go through their own speed bumps."
Jensen said his love for the sport, 10 years studying karate under Mike Hancock at Peninsula Martial Arts, along with encouragement from his parents -- Soldotna residents Randy and Karen Jensen -- all helped him get over his speed bumps.
Even though he competed in other rodeo events during high school like cutting, roping and team roping, bull riding was always at the center of his attention.
"You get the knack for it and you think, 'Hey, I think I want to do this a little bit more,'" he said. "It just kind of builds up and now it is just like, 'Well, I'm doing it -- I might as well go for the top then.'"
Recently, Jensen started riding amateur circuits in the Northern Rodeo Association and was last year's rookie of the year. Most recently, he started riding in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and went to the Montana circuit finals.
"I want to be a professional bull rider -- that's where I'm headed," he said. "I guess the reason that I am going to school to be an engineer, well, that's like my backup plan."
On the cusp of becoming a professional bull rider, Jensen is realizing more and more the sport is more mental than physical.
"You can't dwell on the 'what ifs,'" he said. "As soon as you start dwelling on a 'what if' or a 'should have' or a 'could of,' then that's when you start getting in a slump and not riding well."
The earlier young riders can realize the same, the better off they'll be, he said.
"Now that I've gotten older, it is my turn to teach the younger guys again, to keep that cycle going -- the knowledge has to be passed somewhere," he said.
As in bull riding, Jensen said he knows he needs to keep a clear head progressing into his professional career. As he put it, "You can't screw up for too long or you'll got broke at it."
"The slumps can be pretty rough -- they'll take a toll on you," he said. "But, as soon as you start climbing back up, I just really don't think there is anything better, not a better feeling out there.
"That's what I keep striving toward, keep reaching for and it seems like it gets better all the time."
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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