DENVER — For generations, rodeo riders were working cowboys who picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and limped into the sunset with a little cash in their jeans after a bruising day of bronc-riding or calf-roping.
Nowadays, they're college-educated and train like athletes for the chance to make big money.
And contrary to the Wild West image of cowboys as rugged loners, they're trying to form a union. They want more money, insurance, maybe even a retirement plan.
"If you get [hurt], you have no way to support your family after you've given it your whole life," says Tom Reeves, a saddle-bronc rider from Stephenville, Texas, who has avoided serious injury throughout his career.
Earlier this month, rodeo riders formed a task force to explore forming a union, after losing a key vote in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the world's largest rodeo-sanctioning body, with 6,500 members. The PRCA hasn't taken a formal position on the union issue.
Rodeo cowboys have been fighting for better earnings and a measure of security in a business where injuries are common.
Nearly 800 PRCA-sanctioned rodeos are held every year. There is $8 million in prize money, 50 percent from cowboys' rodeo entry fees.