You're only as good as your last performance in any sport. But in rodeo, that can change so much from day to day. One of the real challenges is to savour the highs and work through the lows.
I had a chance for a brief visit with Dusty LaValley. He's the Canadian champion bareback rider, but when you walk in the gate at the Calgary Stampede, the competitors all start from equal ground. There are no special concessions or privileges, and for sure, the horses don't show any more respect for riders with the most important buckles.
I'd heard this cowboy had been riding sore. When I asked how he was at the Ponoka Stampede last week, his only comment was "thank goodness for tape."
Athletic tape is definitely a cowboy's friend this time of year, and sometimes the only thing that holds them together. LaValley has a sore wrist on his riding hand, perhaps a cracked bone. With the help of the Canadian Pro Rodeo sports medicine team, he's got a brace-type device rigged up for support on his wrist, but he admits it doesn't feel great yet. It doesn't allow the full range of movement and there's still pain. But there's no time to stop and heal this time of year.
Allow me to describe exactly how bareback riders hang on. Unlike the saddle bronc riders, who use a nearly normal looking western saddle (they have no horn on theirs and the stirrups are set a little further forward), the bareback riders have very little for support. The 'rigging' looks like a suitcase handle, and it's positioned on pads that fit on the horse's withers. There's a cinch on it, which goes around the horse. When a bareback rider positions himself on the horse in the chute, he works his gloved fingers into that snug hand-hold, and curls his fingers around. Did I say snug? Really, they winch their fingers in, and use rosin to make sure it's good and sticky. They need every edge they can get. Most bareback riders ride with an arm contraption, a specially designed brace. It's held on with, you guessed it, plenty of tape, to absorb some of the torque factor on the arm and help hold it together.
Bareback riders have bulging biceps on their riding arm, and those arms are as strong as steel. The rodeo announcers joke about bareback rider's arms being jerked on so much, they're longer on the one side, and that may be stretching the truth only a little.
So when Dusty is riding sore, that's not easy in an already difficult task. Add to that a little fatigue for him and most of the cowboys this time of year. Dusty, and his travelling partner, Matt Lait, sat down over a coffee on the road and got to figuring they'd have a grand total of two days off in a 24-day stretch. And those two days wouldn't be "off" as in "at home and resting," they would be driving days from one rodeo to the next. And some days they would manage to squeeze in two rodeos, and two rides.
How crazy is their schedule? Get out a map of North America, and try to trace a path like they've been on. It's not like on your GPS, with 'most direct route'. The stops didn't include tourist highlights and sightseeing. It was all-night hauls, and pressure runs to try and get to the next rodeo in time to ride. The stops included, (and I couldn't even keep track of them all in order) High River, Wainwright, Sundre and Ponoka in Alberta; Swift Current, Saskatchewan; Cody, Wyoming; St. Paul and Molalla in Oregon; Reno, Nevada; and then there was an all-night hustle to get to Calgary in time for Dusty to ride Friday. By the way, there were return trips to several of those spots along the way.
Looking ahead, Dusty's got it all memorized for the next week. After his Monday ride in Calgary, it's off to Colorado Spring on July 8, then Vernal, Utah; Sheridan and Casper in Wyoming; all before LaValley gets back to Calgary for Wild Card Saturday, or what he's hoping for, Showdown Sunday.
After that, there is a massive three-day break, but that's when fellow bareback rider Russ Hallaby is getting married near Calgary, and Dusty is standing up for him, before he heads off again, to Nampa, Idaho; Morris, Manitoba; and Salinas, California… and he's a little fuzzy about the stops after that.
Imagine the logistics of planning for such trips. Cowboys have to do all their own entering, and figuring out which rodeos they want to compete at, and which ones they can physically can get to. Oh yeah, they have to pay to do it, too.
It's the little things Dusty says are hard to keep up with - like the laundry and stuff at home, paying bills, and keeping up with the mail. Thankfully, he's got family near his home, who can keep an eye on the place for him.
One of the biggest bills cowboys face these days is gas. It costs Dusty $150 to fill his pickup, but he's especially grateful for his sponsors, Okotoks Rentals and Petro West. Their financial assistance helps cover some of those costs. You can see why individual sponsors are so important to pro cowboys.
And Dusty is fortunate. One of the perks of winning a Canadian championship is the use of a pickup truck for a year. He's already logged 75,000 kilometres on his since November.
So when I asked again how Dusty was doing at Calgary, it wasn't an enthusiastic "great," but a slightly weary "not bad."
The well-muscled but compact, dark-eyed 27-year-old isn't having a horrible Calgary Stampede. But it hasn't been great, yet. He was 79.5 points on his first horse, one place out of the payoff. On his second one, he marked 82 points on a horse called Good Friday. That was good enough for fifth place, and $1,000. And then, later, on this day, things look brighter when he's drawn a horse he's looking forward to, called Horse With No Name. Dusty puts pain and tiredness aside, and turns in a shiny spur ride. The judges hand him an 83.5. Things are looking up. But it's a spectacular day of bareback riding with an 88, an 85 and a pair of 84's finishing above Dusty, and then his buddy Russ tied him at 83.5. So when all is said and done, he picks up $500. At most rodeos, an 83.5 would nail down first place, not a share of fifth.
But this is rodeo. And there's always tomorrow. Another horse, and another day. In just eight seconds, his whole Stampede could become much more successful. He's still in the hunt for $100,000 and what a difference a payday like that could make to a cowboy like Dusty LaValley.
That's what he'll be dreaming of, when he gets the rare occasion of a night in a bed, before his next long haul on the rodeo road.
Dianne Finstad is an agricultural and rodeo broadcaster in Red Deer, Alberta. She grew up near the Montana border in southern Alberta where her family’s been ranching for a century. Her western background and 4-H experience led her to a broadcasting career, which has included more than 25 years of covering pro rodeo for television, print, radio and now through this blog, the internet!