The Rodeo Cowboy
Professional rodeo is a sport, perhaps the fastest growing sport in the nation, but to the cowboys and cowgirls who compete, it is a lifestyle. The cowboy doesn't compete at rodeo as much as he lives it.
The best cowboys, those within reach of a top-15 finish and an invitation to the lucrative National Finals Rodeo, will travel to as many as 125 rodeos per year, covering perhaps 100,000 miles. Of course, cowboys still drive pickups, punch cattle on their ranches and wear jeans and boots. But cowboys today are businessmen and athletes, as likely to have refined their skills at rodeo schools as on ranches.
They pursue glory in the dust and rain of rodeo arenas across North America. But unlike other professional athletes, the rodeo cowboy pays for the privilege to compete. Every rodeo requires an entry fee and promises nothing in return.
The cowboy doesn't get paid unless he produces. One missed throw, one lost grip and the cowboy doesn't even recoup his entry fee.
That's why cowboys often use the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's buddy system, which allows up to five cowboys to request to compete during the same performance. By ensuring they will compete on the same day, they can travel together and share expenses. Traveling great distances so often without a guaranteed paycheck would be financially impossible for most cowboys.
The life is demanding, but then the life of a cowboy always has been. Rodeo is the only sport in America that evolved from the skills required in a work situation. And today, the sport retains the fierce independence of the ranch hands of the 1900s who turned work into sport.
Nearly 1,000 contestants enter the California Rodeo each year, vying for more than $300,000 in prize money. The largest rodeo in California, Salinas attracts 50,000 spectators annually who come to catch 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 California Rodeo 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 California Rodeo, you'll find announcers Wayne Brooks and Will Rasmussen calling the action in the arena and on the track, while top PRCA stock contractors Western Rodeos and Russell Rodeos buck out their world-class stock in the arena.