Nebraska couple mentors, shares horses with high school rodeo cowboys |

Nebraska couple mentors, shares horses with high school rodeo cowboys

Ruth Nicolaus
for the Adams County Ag Society
Dalton Kunkee rides one of Bill and Marj Manning’s horses, Jesse, while steer wrestling in Nebraska high school rodeo. The Mannings lend their steer wrestling horses to high school and college athletes.
Photo by Jill Saults

Bassett, Neb. – There’s a blond at the Nebraska high school rodeos who has made Gus Franzen’s rodeo go well.

It’s not a buckle bunny, and she doesn’t speak. But in Franzen’s opinion, she’s the best around.

It’s Sis, a 19-year-old palomino mare owned by Gus Franzen and purchased from Bill Manning.

Franzen is a steer wrestler in the Nebraska High School Rodeo Association who leads the standings in his event.

Franzen, who graduated from Kearney High School this month, bought the horse from Bill and Marj Manning.

The Mannings have trained steer wrestling horses, and lent them to high school rodeo kids since 2000.

A former steer wrestler himself, Bill knew a neighbor kid, who, in 2000, needed a steer wrestling horse but whose parents couldn’t afford one. So he and Marj bought a horse, trained it, and lent it to the youth.

Then they bought another one, and another one, and more, training them and hauling them to high school rodeos for steer wrestlers to compete on.

One of the biggest investments in rodeo is a cowboy’s equine partner, and the Mannings have made it possible for Nebraska high school steer wrestlers to compete on a good horse. Good horses can make the difference between average competition and winning, and that’s what Manning horses bring to the high school kids.

Franzen started steer wrestling his sophomore year, borrowing a horse from a friend. But it wasn’t working well. The next year, Manning talked to him. “He offered to take me under his wing, practice with me, and I could ride his horses,” Franzen said. He took Bill up on his offer, and Franzen’s skills grew.

His sophomore year, Franzen began riding Sis, the palomino mare. The mare and Gus “began clicking,” he said. “I’ve ridden her since then.” A few weeks ago, Franzen bought Sis from Manning and will ride her on a rodeo scholarship for collegiate competition at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant this fall.


Getting help from Bill and Marj made all the difference for Franzen’s rodeo career, he said, enabling him to travel to other states for rodeo and earning him a college rodeo scholarship.

“He’s helped my steer wrestling so much. I can say with confidence I would not be anywhere close to where I am today without them.” In addition to supplying horses, the Mannings keep steers at their place to practice with and host the boys at their ranch, also for practice. Manning attends many of the high school rodeos as well, hauling horses and hazing for the youth.

Sis carried Franzen to a second place finish at the 2018 Nebraska High School Finals Rodeo in Hastings last year, and Marshall Still, of Oconto, to a championship at the finals the same year.

Dalton Kunkee and his brother Weston Kunkee, of Callaway, also ride a horse trained and owned by Manning.

Jesse, a sorrel gelding, is their mount in the steer wrestling.

Dalton, who will be a junior at Callaway High School this fall, began competing on Manning’s horse in eighth grade.

Currently ranked 15th in the state standings, Kunkee had a rough start to his rodeo competition this year. “I was having a rocky start,” he said, “and that’s why I came to Bill’s to practice.” Bill put Dalton on Jesse, and it made a difference. “Just getting on Jesse the first time, it fixed everything. I was starting to catch my steers again, and it went together perfectly.”

Kunkee realizes the value of having a well-trained, excellent horse to ride. “You’re not going to be successful till you have the right tools, and these horses are excellent. Just to be able to get on a good steer wrestling horse like Jesse, I will be grateful for. I can’t thank Bill and Marj enough.”

The Mannings help college kids as well. One of their horses, Skip, is being ridden by Still, who competes for Mid-Plains Community College in McCook. Still has qualified for the College National Finals Rodeo in Casper, Wyo., this month. “Our main thing is,” Manning said, “we help mostly high school kids and first year college kids, to help them transition to college.” Out of eight consecutive runs at college rodeos, Skip never placed lower than third.

The Mannings love to help kids and are known for their generosity. “They’re generous,” Kunkee said. “We all know they don’t have to do this.”

They do it to give back, Bill said. He never owned a steer wrestling horse till he was 21 years old. “A lot of people helped me,” he said.

The Mannings’ horses, plus about 150 high school youth competitors, will compete at the Nebraska High School Finals Rodeo in Hastings June 13-15. The rodeo, held at the Adams County Fairgrounds, takes place at 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on June 13-14 with the finals at 1 p.m. on June 15. Tickets are $7 for everyone ages 6 and older. For more information, visit or, or call (402) 462.3247.


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