To spectators in the
grandstands, the rodeo cowboy might seem 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
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
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.