The ‘original extreme sport’: For cowboys, Christmas comes in July

Why We Wrote This

What makes an athlete participate in something so bone-jarring that events only last for seconds? For those who love it, rodeo is equal parts extreme sport and cultural heritage.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Cole Elshere, a saddle bronc rider, competes on The Turtle at the Days of '47 rodeo on July 23, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Rodeo events descend from traditional ranch duties like horse breaking and roping sick calves, but the decline in family ranches has some concerned about the future of the sport.

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It’s Pioneer Days in Ogden, Utah, and Will Lowe could really use a win. Smoke from fireworks mixes with the dust and sweat clouding the air where the cowboys have been gearing up. Limbs have been sprayed and taped; braces and brackets tightened; and boots, buckles, and leather chaps fastened.

Rodeo events descend from ranching duties like breaking horses and roping sick calves, but as the number of family ranches has declined, fewer professionals are following the ranch-to-rodeo track. This has also prompted concerns that rodeo – the official state sport in Texas and South Dakota – could soon join the Old West as a relic of the past.

“The Western lifestyle is kinda dying, just because so many people live in town now,” says Mr. Lowe.

He is riding Promenade, son of Prom Night. “Low Rider” by War starts playing over the PA system.

“Ladies and gentlemen, next up is a man who’s been to Las Vegas 15 times,” the emcee announces. “He won Cheyenne last year. He’s a three time national champ. He’s won $2.7 million over his career. Folks, give him a big hand. Will Lowe!”

Just a few seconds later, things start to go wrong.

Bareback bronc riders usually go first.

After the star-spangled, Old West pomp and circumstance that announces the start of many rodeo competitions – prayer, parachutists, parades showing the history of Western settlement – it’s almost always been the short, stocky bareback riders who kick off the competition that is equal parts extreme sport and artifact of a fading culture.

It’s Pioneer Days in Ogden, Utah – one of the biggest rodeos of the year – and Will Lowe could really use a win tonight. It’s “Patriot Night,” and smoke from the opening ceremony fireworks mixes with the dust and sweat clouding the air around where the cowboys have been gearing up. Limbs have been sprayed and taped; braces and brackets tightened; and boots, buckles, and leather chaps fastened. Empty water bottles and Red Bull cans litter the ground.

Mr. Lowe is riding Promenade tonight, a tall brown horse who is the son of Prom Night. A few bareback riders take their turns, then the master of ceremonies leans into his mic. “Low Rider” by War starts playing over the PA system.

“Ladies and gentlemen, next up is a man who’s been to Las Vegas 15 times,” the emcee announces. “He won Cheyenne last year. He’s a three-time national champ. He’s won $2.7 million over his career. Folks, give him a big hand. Will Lowe!”

Just a few seconds later, things start to go wrong.

‘We want to preserve our heritage’

As a child, Mr. Lowe read about Steamboat, the early 20th-century bucking horse memorialized (supposedly) on the Wyoming license plate. He has been riding horses since he was 7, and rodeoing since he was 10, when he won his first belt buckle. He’s been hitting at least 40 rodeos a year ever since.

With calloused hands, brown hair, and a quick smile, Mr. Lowe has had a long, successful career. Like many rodeo cowboys these days, he doesn’t come from a ranching or rodeo family. His dad ran an underground pipeline construction company. His sister is an attorney, and his brother owns a chain of restaurants in Kansas City.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor

Rodeo events descend from traditional ranching duties like breaking horses and roping sick calves, but as the number of family ranches has declined and urbanization has increased, fewer professionals are following the ranch-to-rodeo track. This has also prompted concerns that rodeo – the official state sport in Texas and South Dakota – could soon join the Old West and small family ranches as a relic of the past.

“The Western lifestyle is kinda dying, just because so many people live in town now,” says Mr. Lowe. “It used to be that everyone could ride a horse.”

“Now there are some people who ride broncs who can’t ride saddle horses,” chimes in Steven Dent, a bareback bronc rider from Mullen, Nebraska, who has stopped by to chat.

“We have junior and high school rodeo, so I think the future is good. But you always have to keep working on it,” Mr. Lowe says. “We want to preserve our heritage.”

He used to travel the rodeo circuit with three other guys in a group nicknamed the “Wolf Pack.” Now the resident of Canyon, Texas, either travels alone in an old VW Passat or, like this week, with his wife and two young sons in a truck towing an RV.

“I need to do some winning,” he says before the Ogden rodeo. “I’ve got to hit a big lick.”

Success in pro rodeo is all about how much money you win. At the end of the year, only the 15 highest earners in each event get to compete at the national championships in Las Vegas. (Only the best performing horses and bulls are selected for the national championships as well.) Mr. Lowe, a three-time national champion and 15-time qualifier, has only made about $28,000 this year – enough to put him 31st in the rankings.

But he’s not too bothered. His days of hard rodeoing – when he would spend the year crisscrossing North America from New York to Washington and Canada to California – are over. He’s been competing more this summer, the most hectic and lucrative months of the year.

“I wanted to be home for kid stuff,” he says. “Family is the most important thing. I’d like to go to finals, but if I can’t it’s not the end of the world.”

The million-dollar rodeo

Some of the younger cowboys with shorter résumés are slightly less relaxed about these big-money summer rodeos. Salt Lake City’s Days of ’47 rodeo, in particular, sets pulses racing. While the prize money doesn’t count toward the standings for Las Vegas, the money – $1 million shared among all the event winners, including $50,000 for the bareback winner – is real.

“Winning $50,000 is kind of life-changing,” says Caleb Bennett, a bareback bronc rider from Corvallis, Montana. “Otherwise you’re just nickel and diming. You spend so much money traveling during the year.”

Mr. Bennett is here with Richmond Champion, another bareback rider he’s known since 2011. Both short, solidly built, and clean-shaven, with high and tight haircuts hidden under their cowboy hats, you could mistake them for brothers.

It wouldn’t hurt, but $50,000 wouldn’t be as life-changing for Mr. Champion as it would be for Mr. Bennett. He became the first cowboy to earn $1 million in one day after winning The American rodeo as a college junior in 2014. What he’d really like, he says, is the gold medal that Days of ’47 winners get instead of the traditional belt buckle.

In scored events like bareback and saddle bronc riding, the score is split between the stock and the rider. The rider and animal are competing as much with each other as against each other. The stock – raised and trained by stock contractors – are also athletes trying to make nationals, the cowboys say.

For decades, animal rights groups have argued that rodeo is in essence animal cruelty. Rodeos “are nothing more than manipulative displays of human domination over animals, thinly disguised as entertainment,” according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Dr. Peggy Larson, a veterinarian and former bareback bronc rider from North Dakota, wrote in 2015 that “rodeo events are inherently cruel.” This summer, six horses had to be euthanized after being injured during the chuck wagon races at the Calgary Stampede, with animal rights activists calling for the event to be canceled.

Cowboys, unsurprisingly, disagree. A rodeo horse typically competes between 10 and 15 times – perhaps less than 200 seconds total – a year, Mr. Lowe notes. 

“If they’re not healthy, they don’t perform,” he adds. “That’s one thing a lot of people don’t understand.”

Cole Elshere, who grew up on a ranch in South Dakota, thinks the growth in cowboys and cowgirls entering through high school and college is helping the sport.

“It gets a lot of rural kids a chance to get a scholarship, to get that college experience,” he says. “And [it’s good] there are more big rodeos like this one. Little kids can see you can make a living, and it’s good for crowds to know there’s big money on the line.”

Still making Cheyenne

The big check Mr. Lowe was hoping for in Ogden never came. His ride on Promenade started well enough, but before he’d lasted the eight seconds necessary to get a score a loose strap hooked around his neck. Choosing his larynx over placing, he’d grabbed his new rigging with both hands.

July and August are the peak months of the professional rodeo calendar, beginning with a frenzied few weeks around Independence Day known as “Cowboy Christmas.” This week, late July saw cowboys shuttle around a roughly 800-mile circuit between concurrent rodeos in Spanish Fork, Utah, and Deadwood, South Dakota. Mr. Lowe’s no-score in Ogden followed a third-place finish in Salt Lake City. Consistent with his big-picture view of rodeoing, he’s happy that he lived to ride again.

“I needed this one,” he says. “But I got out, which is most important. … And I’m going to be ready for Cheyenne.”

Also taking the sting out of the Ogden defeat is the knowledge he and his wife, Tiffani – who used to compete as a successful barrel racer, once winning more than $100,000 at a single event – will be picking up their sons from her parents in Colorado the next day. A few hours after the rogue flank strap cost him a shot at $5,000 dollars, he’s holding hands with Tiffani and watching the night’s closing act: four dirt bikers zooming and somersaulting over ramps in the arena.

Rodeo is “the original extreme sport,” he says. “If you do well, be thankful. If not, be thankful you can go on to the next one.”

The next one begins to pay off three days later at the Frontier Days rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Mr. Lowe secures a place in a semifinal round after scoring 84.5 out of 100.

Under the bleachers, Ms. Lowe breathes a sigh of relief. “That was so nerve-wracking,” she says.

The ride itself didn’t stress Mr. Lowe, but the logistics do: If the semifinal isn’t tomorrow, he’ll have to try and hit Cheyenne and a Deadwood rodeo on the same day.

He’s sitting under the bleachers with his wife and chatting with J.W. Harris, a bull rider they camped next to in Ogden, and his wife. The Harrises are also trying to figure out the Deadwood problem, not to mention hay for their cows back home in Mullin, Texas. Their similar-aged young children are running around under the bleachers, eventually coming over to ask for money to buy Dippin’ Dots. Ask your dad, Ms. Lowe says. “Ask Mom,” Mr. Lowe says.

This might be what he likes most about the rodeo circuit, the people he does it with.

“They become family because you spend so much time with them,” he says. “They could live in Oregon, Montana, South Dakota – they’ll drop everything to be there for you.”

After Deadwood and, possibly, the finals in Cheyenne, Mr. Lowe will be heading home. He’ll be back on the road a few days later though, hitting rodeos in Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. He probably won’t slow down until school starts again. He doesn’t think he’ll ever quit rodeoing.

“I like what I do. Why do guys do backflips on motorcycles? Why do 300-pound [football players] run into each other?” he says. “So long as it’s fun, I’ll keep going.”

But it can be difficult to stay competitive, he admits. If a month of hard rodeoing through August doesn’t go well, he’s looking at a schedule of part-time work at a friend’s metal shop in Amarillo and shuttling kids to school, baseball, and taekwondo. Neither son is interested in rodeo.

Mr. Lowe, as he is with most things, is relaxed about it.

“It’s so hard to plan [rodeos]. You almost have to play it week to week,” he says. “But I’ve got kids, and I don’t want to miss that.”

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