Rio Rico’s Damian Padilla has been riding horses almost since he could walk.

“My grandfather worked on ranches around the area and my father loved ranching,” Padilla said. “So I’ve been around them since I was a kid and started riding when I was five.”

He has turned that love of horses and ranching into a nice hobby, riding and competing in rodeos in Southern Arizona, New Mexico and beyond.

He’s well known on the local circuit and regularly competes in some of the areas biggest rodeos, like the Tucson Rodeo and most recently the Sonoita Rodeo.

He began hitting local rodeos as a kid and eventually ended up competing in high school.

“I went to my first junior rodeo when I was 10, competing in calf roping and ribbon roping,” he said. “I got to where I liked it, so I’ve been competing since then.”

The “team” in high school consisted of himself and one other cowboy, a good friend from Sonoita.

“We sent in the forms and joined the high school rodeo circuit,” Padilla said. “Just like any other sport, we had to have the grades to compete.

“We competed to qualify for nationals. He made high school nationals every year and put a fire into me to make it, which I did my junior and senior years.”

They competed in about 15 rodeos statewide to qualify for nationals.

“I didn’t place at nationals but it was a great experience,” he said. “You saw the talent. It let you know how much harder you had to work, because there were kids that had great talent, great horses. It let you know how much better you could get.”

After a brief stint in college, Padilla decided to try the professional circuit.

“I left school to work with my dad’s company and the times that I could get free I rodeoed.”

He competed in circuit rodeos throughout the southwest, doing well enough to get noticed by some of the top competitors, including a national champion, whom he traveled with for a couple of years.

But life on the road wasn’t allowing enough time with the family, so he returned home and decided to make the sport a hobby.

He’s working now at a ranch outside of Rio Rico, running cattle and giving riding lessons.

“I teach kids how to ride a horse, how to rope and steer wrestling,” Padilla said.

But he’s still competing, riding in the Turquoise Circuit rodeos around the state and in New Mexico.

“The rodeos are closer, more affordable, and I’m winning the circuit this year,” he said. “I’ve competed in 14 rodeos this year and have won about $9,000, so it’s not enough to make a living. It’s a hobby.”

He’s qualified for the circuit finals in Las Cruces, N.M. in October, having won the most money in steer wrestling for the season. The winner there will qualify for the Dodge National Circuit finals in Oklahoma City.

As with all horsemen, he’s come to love not only the competition, but the animals themselves.

“A horse is a big strong animal, so just being able to control a horse when your chasing after a steer or calf ... it’s just a lot of fun,” Padilla said. “It’s fun running them, taking care of them, grooming and shining them, getting them show ready. It’s just being around them and how they will respect you if you respect them.”

(Duke can be reached at (520) 547-9747.)