Calgary

Rodeo athletes celebrate return of 'Cowboy Christmas' and a full rodeo season

There are dozens of rodeos happening around North America this time of year, a period known as “Cowboy Christmas” to many competitors. It lasts from about mid-June to early July (depending on whom you ask), and during that time the athletes aim to take home as much money as possible.

2 years of restrictions made it more difficult for some competitors to make money

The Calgary Stampede may host Canada's biggest rodeo, but leading up to it is a brass ring not that familiar to outsiders.

3 months ago
Duration 1:20
It's called the cowboy Christmas, and if it goes well, an athlete can make tens of thousands of dollars - and that's before they even reach "the greatest outdoor show on earth."

From the time he was four, Cory Solomon remembers having a rope in his hand.

He grew up in a rodeo family, spending his childhood in Texas with horses and cattle. When he went to school, he made sure he did well — it was the only way he could get back to the rodeo.

"Rodeo is a way of life," he said. "It has kept me on a good path."

It's also helped to pay the bills. Solomon regularly tops the standings at North American rodeos, including first place at last year's Calgary Stampede — a title earning him a $50,000 cheque.

There are dozens of rodeos happening around North America at this time of year, a period known as "Cowboy Christmas" to many competitors. It lasts from about mid-June to early July (depending on whom you ask), and during that time the athletes aim to take home as much money as possible.

Of course, the last two years haven't been the same. The pandemic resulted in border restrictions and fewer competitions, meaning many athletes didn't have the same opportunities to cash in. 

This year, though, the holiday season is on. 

Solomon has already taken part in 16 events, flying around North America, earning thousands of dollars and a few first place titles. 

"That's why everybody calls it the Cowboy Christmas. It's the biggest payday in rodeo."

Cory Solomon is a tie-down roper from Prairie View, Texas. He's competing at this year's Calgary Stampede. (Taylor Simmons/CBC)

'Awesome to be back'

Solomon isn't the only one looking to make some big money this year.

Bull rider Lonnie West from Cadogan, Alta., is at about $40,000 in earnings since June 20, and he says this year's competition circuit is better than ever.

"There's more rodeos for us to go to up here and lots of bull riding," he said.

Like most in the profession, West has spent most of his life around rodeo. It's not just the bull riding he loves. It's the people in the industry, the travel and the ability to compete.

Lonnie West is a bull rider from Cadogan, Alta., pictured here at the 2021 Canadian Finals Rodeo. (Covy Moore/CPRA)

When those options weren't as readily available over the past two years, he turned to his other profession as a heavy equipment mechanic to fill the gap.

"There were guys that really tried hard to make events happen. We had to deal with some circumstances that weren't ideal for us," he said. "So it's pretty awesome to be back." 

West knows his career won't last forever, which is why big seasons like this one make all the difference, he says.

"Usually it's not a matter of if you get hurt, it's when. So when you're healthy like I am now, you just pour the coals on and try and win as much as you can."

During the pandemic, barrel racer Lynette Brodoway of Brooks, Alta., focused on her career as a horse trainer and clinician. She also had some funds saved up from some previous successful years competing.

Lynette Brodoway is a barrel racer from Brooks, Alta., pictured here at the 2021 Canadian Finals Rodeo. (Covy Moore/CPRA)

She's up to at least $8,000 in earnings over her holiday so far, she says, and she's not stopping any time soon. 

"Calgary would be considered, I think, part of Cowboy Christmas.… There is a lot of money up over these last weeks between Calgary, obviously, Ponoka, Williams Lake, Wainwright, and my horse did well at all three of those rodeos," she said.

"So it's a financial shot in the arm.… I am extremely grateful to be back at it."

Rodeo operators are also thankful to be truly back to normal this year.

The Calgary Stampede had to cancel its event in 2020, and last year, competitors could only take part under strict rules, including a modified quarantine, testing and limited attendance.

Kristina Barnes is manager of agriculture and western events at the Calgary Stampede. She says the Stampede had to reduce the overall prize money but is looking forward to bumping it back up again. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

It's all meant a bit of a hit to the competition's purse, with a 25 per cent reduction compared with 2019.

"The last two years have been really challenging for the Stampede, and financially challenging. So we have had to reduce the overall prize money, but we're looking forward to bumping it back up again in the future," said Kristina Barnes, manager of agriculture and western events for the Calgary Stampede.

"It's still a fantastic payout for the competitors, and it counts towards their year, their world standings."

Passion for rodeo

While rodeo athletes need to make money, love of the sport is the main driver behind their desire to compete.

Oklahoma barrel racer Wenda Johnson grew up around horses. She loves to develop them and make sure they're successful.

She spent much of the past two years using her skills as a nurse practitioner to take care of sick patients in the emergency room. She also spent time with her two daughters. But with things opening up more fully, she's happy to be back in the saddle again.

"I spent my Cowboy Christmas up here in Canada and went to several of the rodeos up here prior to Calgary," she said. 

"Competing is a complete fun thing for me. Financially, it doesn't impact me like it does some of these others who full-time rodeo."

But it doesn't hurt that she's quite good. 

Wenda Johnson is a barrel racer from Pawhuska, Okla. (Calgary Stampede)

The Women's Professional Rodeo Association keeps an unofficial tally of Cowboy Christmas earnings over the season, and Johnson made it to the Top 10. She's also continuing to take home prizes in her competitions at the Calgary Stampede.

Solomon hopes to take home some extra cash in his last few days of the Stampede rodeo as well.

Like everyone else, he wants to win, but he's not putting too much pressure on himself. The real goal is to get to the "Super Bowl of rodeo" — the National Finals Rodeo, held in Las Vegas in December. 

To get there, you have to be one of the top money earners for each event over the whole rodeo season.

"A lot of people get overwhelmed, in my opinion. We all want to do good. But in rodeo, with so many great athletes, I mean, you have to be ready for your time," he said.

"So Cowboy Christmas, if I don't do as good as planned, there are a lot more rodeos after."

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