I can’t explain why I love the rodeo, but I can’t seem to get enough of it, particularly saddle bronc riding. Maybe it’s all those cowboys at one time in one place. In any event, even though it started with the Spanish vaqueros, rodeo has a firm place in America’s history.
Rodeo started when cowboys from different ranches engaged in friendly, and not so friendly, cowboy competitions of skill after long cattle drives in the late 1800s. Such a cowboy gathering was a good place to blow off steam and a form of needed entertainment. When the Homestead Act and barbed wire fences brought an end to the open range and cattle drives, cowboys would gather at stock shows to compete just like they do today at Denver, Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and many others.
Where and when was the first rodeo held? This is a hotly contested subject.
Payson, Arizona, claims it has the oldest continuous rodeo (1884). But when the game Trivial Pursuits upheld Prescott, Arizona’s, documented claim as the oldest organized rodeo (1888) it was Pecos, Texas, that threatened to sue based on recorded eye-witness accounts of a rodeo that took place there in 1883.
At that first Prescott rodeo on July 4th, Juan Leivas cinched the title and was awarded a trophy for all-around cowboy having won both the steer roping and bronc riding contests at the “cowboy tournament” as it was then called. Leivas was a Date Creek Ranch cowhand, and Date Creek is still a working ranch raising grass-fed beef and still employing descendants of Juan Leivas, according to his grandnephew, David Leivas Chavez, who worked there when he was fifteen.
The Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner recorded Juan’s steer roping win as follows: “His steer turned toward the herd at breakneck speed…Libas (sic) made a beautiful throw with his rope, bringing his steer to earth so suddenly that he spilled his horse over, also throwing him to the ground, but quick as a flash of lightning he was again in the saddle.” His winning time was one minute, seventeen seconds.
However, all three towns cited above might have lost out in their claim as the first ever rodeo by over a decade, according to the New York Times and ProRodeo.com. It appears Deer Trail, Colorado may hold those bragging rights. They held their event also on July 4th but in 1869 when two ranches got together to compete. An Englishman, Emilinie Gardenshire, successfully rode a horse named Montana Blizzard and took home a new set of clothes for his troubles.
After 140 years, rodeo is still going strong in big cities and small towns, not only out west but throughout the United States. Some say it’s now the fastest growing sport in America with pro bull riding and shows such as America’s Toughest Cowboy (Spike TV) leading the way. My own eastern town throws a rodeo the first weekend of June every year. Even New York City hosts an annual rodeo event at Madison Square Garden.
Unlike most sports athletes, however, rodeo cowboys, despite the danger, still don’t make a whole heck of a lot of money. First off, they have to pay an entrance fee to even compete. Before national sponsors, the cowboys would actually compete for a part of the entrance fee purse and nothing more. At some of the smaller rodeos, that is still the way it works. If that cowboy gets bucked off or doesn’t place, he not only doesn’t get any money, but he’s out his entrance fee. Then there are the travel expenses, which given the price of gas and the expanse of the west, can be formidable. Rodeo cowboys tend to “buddy up” in order to save on those expenses. It used to be two or three traveling together, now it is more like four or five cowboys spending 200 days of the year on the road with each other.
And then there’s the gear. Outfitting cowboy style isn’t cheap. They need a quality hat, a good pair of chaps, leather boots with spurs and protective vests, all with price tags to rival merchandise on New York City’s Fifth Avenue. If you’re in timed events, you’re also saddled with the expenses of your partner, the horse.
Trevor Brazile has been the top earning rodeo cowboy for the last two years, earning about half-a-million a year. He reported his annual expenses in 2007 to the New York Times as follows: event fees $65,000, fuel cost $31,000 (and rising) and horse feed another $15,000. And that doesn’t include room and board for him and his wife and young son who travel with him. You can just imagine where that leaves cowboys lower on the winnings ladder.
Rodeo cowboys clearly do it for the love of it.
In my new book, Re-ride at the Rodeo, available now at The Wild Rose Press, rodeo is the element that brings the couple together and threatens to tear them apart. The hero, Clay Tanner is a saddle bronc rider and rancher looking to make some quick money and have a good time. He spies a pretty little blonde who looks like she could use some fun. Trouble is, she turns him down. Dusty Morgan wants nothing to do with rodeo riders. Her late father rode broncs and he was never there for her—until he learned he was going to die. Now she’s looking for happily ever after, and despite her attraction to the strapping cowboy, she’s not interested in a hit and run with a footloose rodeo man.
In the story, Dusty grills Clay on why he does it.
He shrugged. He knew she couldn’t appreciate it. But he sensed she was trying to understand because it was important to her. He gave it another shot. “There’s also knowing that you’ve faced a difficult challenge. A challenge a lot of other people wouldn’t be able to meet. And you’ve succeeded. Against pretty significant odds. Done what most people in the stands wouldn’t even attempt, much less pull off.”
“Why not team roping or tie-down?”
He smiled. Those were safer sports in many respects, though they took a lot of skill. “I’ve competed in those events during ranch rodeos. But besides the money, rough stock is more of a challenge for me.”
She cocked her head. “It is about guts then.” She tossed in two pennies.
“Some, but I think there are other factors. Hell, sitting on a bull or bronc is nothing compared to facing down the enemy in a place like Iraq, or saving people from a burning building. There’s an element of courage involved, sure, but it’s more like you’re testing yourself. Most rough stock riders aren’t really competing against each other. Rodeo riders are a pretty tight bunch even though we play for each other’s entrance fees when the purses aren’t supplemented like here in Wayback. You try to better your own score, increase your standing. It’s a way, I guess, to measure yourself against the rest of the world. And if you measure up, you can take home some serious money. Does that make sense?”
Having been bucked off both a burro and a horse, it certainly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
My burro incident came when my sister convinced me to ride our neighbor’s burro in the town’s Fourth of July parade. She was always talking me into something. She clapped a sombrero on my head, gave me a colorful shawl and there I was riding a reluctant burro with the marching band providing the beat. Unfortunately a bystander’s dog decided he’d like to play with that burro and dashed out into the street and started barking. Well, you can guess the rest. Next thing I knew I was down on the hard pavement, scraped, bruised and bloody. My mother burst from the crowd, scooped me up and took me home—ending my parade career. Along with a sprained ankle, I was sore for days.
Of course, that didn’t deter me in the least from riding, particularly since my oldest sister had just gotten a horse. Dusty (yes, I named my heroine after our palomino) had been a wild mustang when our neighbor got her. Unfortunately, wild seemed to be in her nature since no one, no man that is, could get near her. My sister could. The neighbor told her if she could break that horse, he’d give her a good deal. My sister spent every day for weeks working with the palomino, until she was finally able to ride her. Well, one day my sister announced it was time I rode Dusty. She didn’t have to convince me on this one; I’d been yammering at her for weeks to let me on. My mother hadn’t yet agreed to it, however, since I was many years younger than my teenage sister. But Mom wasn’t around that day so up I went on Dusty. We pranced around that corral and I felt like I could conquer the world.
But Dusty was easily spooked and something–we never did know what–spooked her and up she went on her hind legs and off I went—landing with a thump on the hard packed earth. It was the first time I had ever had the wind knocked out of me and I remember panicking for breath as my sister stood over me yelling, “Don’t tell Mom. Promise you won’t tell Mom.” Tell Mom? Couldn’t she see I wasn’t even breathing?
Even though I tasted blood in my mouth and had bruises all over my back and legs, I never told my mother. I was too worried she would insist we get rid of the horse. Dusty eventually calmed down—some. Enough to compete with my sister in barrel racing anyway.
Those two experiences, however, have convinced me that riding animals born to buck doesn’t make much sense—but I still love to watch those cowboys do it.
What about you? Any horse encounters you care to relate? Any rodeo memories you’d like to share? What do you think of the sanity of rodeo riders? And if you have any questions regarding the rodeo, I’ll do my best to answer them.
Leave a comment and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a free e-copy of Re-ride at the Rodeo.
Click on Anne’s book cover to go to The Wild Rose Press: