Summer has arrived and for professional rodeo athletes all over the United States and Canada that can only mean one thing … the “summer run” is upon us.
It is time to pack our bags, load the trailers full of horses and tack, or in my case, load the van with a few clean shirts and a rigging bag, hide the key to the house and hit the road! For a professional rodeo athlete like myself, (some would call us cowboys) the months of June, July, August, and September are the most crucial time in our year of competing. Although the season officially starts Oct. 1, opportunities to compete are everywhere during these four months, and the window to reach the top is small. My travelling partners and I will cover over 40,000 miles (64,374 kilometres) by vehicle — even more by air within these months alone.
We will ride at roughly 80 events across the U.S., and Canada. The PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) regular season ends Sept. 31, leaving only the top-15 cowboys in each discipline’s world standings to advance to the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas in December.
The point system that determines these standings is easy to understand: every dollar earned equals one point. In a race towards earning a world championship at the NFR, every last penny is worth fighting for. There are seven disciplines in rodeo; each of them very technical and tough in their own right. I specialize in the sport of bareback riding, which is arguably the most physically demanding sport in rodeo.
The rules are simple: hang on with one hand, don’t touch the animal with the free hand, ride for eight seconds, and the best spur ride on the animal that is the hardest to ride wins. Piece of cake!
The summer run as a whole can make or break your season, but there is one week within the summer that can take you from the outhouse to the penthouse — The Fourth of July, or “cowboy Christmas” as we call it. Some of the summer’s largest purse rodeos are packed into this 10-day period from the last weekend in June to the July 5. If I could describe it in one word it’s mayhem … it is planes, trains, and automobiles to the fullest extent. I have memories of my travelling partners and I riding in Red Lodge, Mont., at 5:30 p.m., grabbing all our gear and racing over to Cody, Wyo., to ride at 7 p.m. the same evening.
My favorite mayhem moment might have been chartering a plane to St. Paul, Ore., to ride at 2:30 in the afternoon, jumping back in the same plane to land in Livingston, Mont., at 6:45 p.m. for a 7 p .m. performance. Our airplane pilot turned into our personal Nascar driver as he raced us to the rodeo in a car that’s left parked (with keys in it) at the plane hangar for cowboys such as us to use.
While our pilot/chauffeur stomped on the gas, my riding partners and I taped up our riding arms in the back seat and jumped out of the car just in time to climb on what felt like the 100th bucking horse in 10 days. It’s exhausting, it’s dangerous, it pushes the body and challenges the mind, but it’s a rush and it’s a lifestyle that nothing else compares to. It is MY lifestyle.
Cowboy Christmas is like a sprint within the marathon of the summer run, and in my opinion, it is one of the most exhilarating weeks of the year. The top money earners during Cowboy Christmas take home over $30,000 US and usually a nice jump to the top five in the world standings. The best way I can describe what it feels like is to think of each ride as a buzzer-beater shot from half court, or a Hail Mary play in the final seconds of a football game. It is that type of pressure, every ride. It is hours and days of travel and hundreds and thousands of dollars invested into making the final play at every arena I show up to. That is why I love it; it’s “all in” every day.
Calgary Stampede a wonder
Following “cowboy Christmas” is the start of one of the largest standalone (non-sanctioned) rodeos in the world — the Calgary Stampede. If you’re from Calgary and wondering if it is as big a deal for competitors as it is for you and your city, the answer is YES! There is no better feeling than finishing up the mayhem of the Fourth of July week, and pulling into Calgary knowing that you’re going to be A) in one place for a whole week and B) riding for over $100,000 (Cdn.) on one of the biggest stages in rodeo.
It doesn’t get much better than that! This will be my fifth consecutive year to compete at the Calgary Stampede and I’m already daydreaming about it. Last year I was asked by the committee if I wanted to ride in the opening parade through downtown Calgary and am I ever glad I said yes! I have never seen a community come together and support a rodeo like that. It was pretty surreal just to ride a horse through the city, but to have thousands of people along the road, on rooftops, hanging out of parking garages, cheering and supporting their rodeo … it was something special and another memory from this crazy life that makes it all worthwhile for me.
I’m grateful for opportunities like these and am proud to be making a living doing the sport that I love. Calgary, you keep doing you and I’ll see you soon. As for everyone else reading this, if you see a white van with cowboy hats on the dash going down the highway way too fast, don’t worry. That is just me and the guys and we will see ya at the rodeo!
(Top large photo by CS rodeo; Second large photo by Mike Coperman)