The Rodeo Cowboy
To spectators in the grandstands, the rodeo cowboy might seem to be the embodiment of a fading American dream, a rugged individual with no bosses to answer to, no time clocks to punch, no rigid workday schedules to follow.
All that may be true. But rodeo life is also tough, a long shot at fame and fortune and a better shot at broken bones and long roads.
Events sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association comprise one of the fastest-growing sports in America. But, to the cowboys and cowgirls who compete, rodeo is more than a sport – it’s a lifestyle that offers heartbreak and reward in equal measures. The cowboy doesn’t compete at rodeo as much as he lives it.
The most successful cowboys – those who finish in the Top 15 and qualify for the National Finals Rodeo – might travel to as many as 125 rodeos per year, covering perhaps 100,000 miles.
Ask a cowboy why he competes, and he might shrug and answer, “Why not?”
Rodeo encompasses the attributes America covets in its sports – explosive action, danger, extraordinary skill, and refined talent – and the cowboys who ride are some of the most rugged individualists in athletics.
Cowboys still drive pickups, still work cattle, still say “ma’am” and “sir,” and still wear jeans and boots. But today’s cowboy is a businessman as well as an athlete, as likely to have refined his skills at a rodeo school as on a ranch.
They pursue glory in the dust and mud of rodeo arenas across North America. But, unlike other professional athletes, the rodeo cowboy must pay to compete. Every rodeo requires an entry fee, which guarantees only a promise to compete for prize money. One missed throw, one slipped grip and the cowboy doesn’t even recoup his entry fee.
While many traditions of rodeo remain intact, some innovations by today’s rodeo cowboy have improved competition conditions and the cowboys’ opportunity to make a living in the arena. One of those changes is the PRCA’s buddy system, a concept that allows rodeo partners to travel together and to compete at rodeos during the same performance.
Rodeo is demanding, but the life of the American cowboy has never been easy.
Professional rodeo is the only American sport that evolved from skills required in a work situation, and it’s one of the most punishing sports in the world. The events of professional rodeo were drawn directly from the tasks of the range cowboy – primarily roping calves and riding broncs. The typical cowboy of the 19th century worked 18-hour days, seven days per week. And on any given day, he might be thrown from a horse or charged by a wild steer.
The demands faced by today’s rodeo cowboy are different, but no less daunting. Behind every eight-second ride and every cheering crowd are countless hours of traveling and competing.
But the cowboy’s life is a special one, envied by many and experienced by few.
Nearly 600 contestants enter the Red Bluff Round-Up each year, competing for over $250,000 in prize money. The largest 3 day rodeo in the country attracts 30,000 spectators to get a glimpse of a fading American dream.
Professional rodeo action consists of two types of events: roughstock events and timed events.
In the roughstock events - bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding - a contestant's score is equally dependent upon his performance and the animal's performance.
In order to earn a qualified score, the cowboy, while using only one hand, must stay aboard a bucking horse or bull for eight seconds. If the rider touches the animal with his free hand, he is disqualified. In saddle bronc and bareback riding, cowboys must "mark out" their horses; that is, they must exit the chute with their spurs set above the horse's shoulders and hold them there until the horse's front feet hit the ground after its first jump. Failing to do so results in disqualification.
During the regular season, two judges each score a cowboy's qualified ride by awarding 0 to 25 points for the animal's performance and 0 to 25 points for the rider's performance. The judges' scores are combined to determine the contestant's score. A perfect score is 100 points.
In the timed events - tie-down roping, steer wrestling, team roping and steer roping - a contestant's goal is to post the fastest time in his event.
In these events, calves and steers are allowed a head start. The competitor, on horseback, starts in a three-sided fenced area called a box.
The fourth side opens into the arena. A rope barrier is stretched across that opening and tied to the calf or steer. Once the calf or steer reaches the head start point- predetermined by the size of the arena - the barrier is automatically released. If a cowboy breaks that barrier before it is release, he is assessed a 10-second penalty.
The Red Bluff Round-Up hosts six of the seven PRCA-sanctioned events, including the three roughstock events and tie-down roping, steer wrestling and team roping.
Behind the Scenes
The cowboys and the animals are the stars, the obvious centers of attention.
But the stars of rodeo would never shine if it were not for the work of a large supporting cast, a cast that includes announcers, stock contractors, rodeo secretaries, timers, pickup men, chute laborers, specialty-act personnel, and rodeo producers.
The announcers inform and entertain the audience, provide contestant background and scores and generally lend atmosphere to the event.
Stock contractors supply the animals and often serve as producers. The producer is responsible for every aspect of the event, from hiring laborers to promoting the rodeo to producing opening ceremonies. Timers keep the official time of the timed events and sound the buzzer after eight seconds in the roughstock events. The rodeo secretary records the times, figures the payoff and pays the winning cowboys.
Specialty acts entertain the audience with vaudeville routines, animal acts and trick riding. Pickup men assist the saddle bronc and bareback riders to dismount after their rides, and to help free cowboys who get hung up in their rigging.
Chute laborers aid the cowboys in mounting and adjusting their equipment, and open the chute gate when the cowboy indicates he is ready to ride.
Behind the scenes at the Red Bluff Round-Up, you'll find announcers Bob Tallman & Wayne Brooks and calling the action in the arena and on the track, while top PRCA stock contractors buck out their world-class stock in the arena.