A tough life, but one a cowboy can’t resist

This article originally appeared on MSNBC.com in 2010 and was part of an in-depth series I produced on the life of rodeo cowboys, most of which has disappeared from the site.

LAS VEGAS — There are plenty of good reasons not to be a rodeo cowboy.

The travel is relentless, requiring countless days away from home and thousands of miles on the road. The money isn’t great, and what money there is goes only to those who excel. If you don’t win, you don’t get paid.

The costs are significant, primarily because of the extensive travel. And then there is the danger of the profession, with the threat of serious injury lurking every night, particularly for those cowboys who climb aboard a 1,500-pound bucking horse or 2,000-pound bull.

But there is an allure for the men and women of the sport that is undeniable and manages to overshadow the pitfalls. It stems not only from the thrill of competition, but from the culture of the sport itself, rooted as it is in the western farming and ranching lifestyle of regular, hard-working people, wide-open spaces and unlocked front doors.

That culture might be fading in many aspects of American life, but it lives on in professional rodeo.

“For the most part these guys are just great, great guys,” rodeo announcer Randy Corley said at the National Finals Rodeo, where the best cowboys are competing this week in their sport’s Super Bowl. “A lot of them are ranch raised, country raised at least. You hate to be melodramatic or anything else, but mom and apple pie, God and country mean a lot.”

If you think that’s an exaggeration, spending a few days around a rodeo will change your mind. Most of the cowboys come from ranching or farming backgrounds, a tradition passed down from one generation to the next. They grow up around horses and cattle, and rodeos are simply an extension of that life.

The life is tough, but ranchers and farmers know all about that, and to them there is nothing wrong with a little hard work. The reward comes from that hard work, from exploring the country, from seeking adventure.

“I always heard Dad telling stories about going off to faraway places and getting on bucking horses and all that kind of stuff,” said Heith DeMoss, a 24-year-old saddle bronc rider from Heflin, La., “It was always kind of a fairy tale growing up. So I decided to live a fairy tale life and try to ride some bucking horses and make a living doing what I want to do.”

DeMoss travels with his older brother Cody, a 29-year-old who also rides saddle broncs. They find the freedom of the road to be a big part of the appeal of what they do, and they often camp out when they’re on the road. Cody handles the cooking each night with a dutch oven, and whatever is left over becomes breakfast in the morning merely with the addition of some eggs.

“You get to do whatever the heck you want to do,” Heith DeMoss said. “We’re so tight that we don’t like to pay for a lot of hotels. So we camp out a lot, play around and have a pretty good way of life.”

The thrill of competition is also a huge part of the allure.

“I just love the adrenaline rush that you get, and being able to do something with my horse,” said Linsday Sears, 29, a barrel racer from Nanton, Alberta. “For me to be able to ride Martha and get an adrenaline rush at the same time, it’s a lot of excitement. It makes your heart pound, and that’s kind of what I think draws me to rodeo.”

The road can be difficult. A typical competitor can travel as many as 100,000 miles over the course of a year, hoofing it from one venue to the next. Because only the top cowboys will make more than $100,000 in a season, there is a lot of pressure to qualify for the NFR in Las Vegas, where they can add significantly to that total. Las Vegas takes only the top 15 cowboys in the money standings, so cowboys hit as many rodeos as they can to stay high in the standings.

The pressure is intense, and it’s not uncommon for a cowboy to compete in a rodeo on a Friday, drive through the night to another rodeo on Saturday, then return on Sunday.

Sam Spreadborough, a 29-year-old Australian living in Texas, went to great lengths to reach the NFR after breaking both bones in a shin in June. He missed five weeks, dropping from ninth to 21st in the saddle bronc standings, and his dream of reaching the NFR for the first time was on the ropes. As the deadline for qualifying loomed, desperate measures were required. He hit six rodeos in seven days, an odyssey that took him to stops in Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico and California.

“I had to win $6,500, I believe, and I won $7,086 dollars and moved into 15th,” he said. “I got really lucky.”

Image: Jason Havens

“Travel is one of the biggest things for us,” said Jason Havens, a 33-year-old bareback rider from Prineville, Ore. “It’s one of the hardest parts on your body. There is not a lot of rest.”

The miles on the road are also costly. Unlike in other professional sports, there is no team plane — or even a bus — to ferry competitors from one venue to the next. The cowboys make their own schedules and pay their own ways, and even have to pay rodeo entry fees. Even then there are no guarantees. Since anyone from the stars to the weekend warriors can enter most rodeos, it’s possible to have 70 entrants in a single event. Everyone has to go through qualifying in the morning — called slack — where even the best cowboys have to compete for a spot in that evening’s event.

Things get even more complicated and costly when a competitor, such as steer wrestler Luke Branquinho, is traveling with his own horses.

“We have to travel up and down the road, put fuel in the truck, pay for feed for horses, food for ourselves,” said Branquinho, 30, from Los Alamos, Calif. “There’s a lot of expense behind the curtain that nobody sees. I think one year I had a $230,000 year, but I spent at least half that getting up and down the road. If we could go to less rodeos and win more money, it cuts your expenses down and have more money in the bank.”

Many cowboys travel in groups to defray costs. Good chemistry is a must, as they’ll spend more time together then they will with their own families. Havens is part of one such group that has been successful, traveling with fellow bareback riders Ryan Gray, Bobby Mote and Steven Dent. All four members of “The Pride,” as they call themselves, qualified for the NFR, and that ability to get along and support each other — even though they are fighting for the same prize money in the same event — certainly didn’t hurt.

“We all push each other to be better competitors,” Havens said. “We all have a great time together. We love to compete, and we love to compete against each other as well as drive all over the country and do all kinds of fun things and see a lot of different places together.”

When faced with breaks between rodeos that are long enough to have some fun but too short to go home, the men will often hang out together, golfing, hunting or fishing, or even trying something new like whitewater kayaking.

That camaraderie carries over into the arena. Competitors will help each other prepare in the chute, aid with last-second equipment adjustments and even compare notes on the animals.

“We’re all individual competitors, but there is a camaraderie in the sport that can’t be duplicated,” said star roper Trevor Brazile, 34, the current face of the sport who clinched a record eighth world all-around title on Friday. “It’s almost like teammates except going against each other. You don’t find anything of that nature anywhere in any other sports.”

It’s rare for a cowboy to get through a year without suffering a multitude of minor injuries, and the threat of a major one is omnipresent. Like football players, their bodies are bruised, battered and sometimes broken.

A serious injury can have financial implications. Ryan Gray, a 27-year-old from Cheney, Wash., entered the NFR as the money leader in bareback riding, having earned nearly $160,000 in prize money this year. But on the second day of the NFR he was thrown by a horse. He swung awkwardly beneath the bucking animal, landing on his stomach just as the horse came down and stepped on his back.

Gray was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with a lacerated liver. He was able to avoid surgery, but his shot at the big money of the NFR was gone, and he now faces 6-8 weeks of recovery before he can compete. Nonetheless, there he was four days later, out of the hospital and reunited with his friends. He walked gingerly and tried not to let them crack him up, as laughing simply hurt too much.

“Injuries are definitely a part of the sport, and serious injuries are there also,” he said. “It’s something that I’m OK with because I understand that’s part of my sport. If you sit here and think for one second that nothing bad is ever going to happen, then you’d be in denial. You wouldn’t have any business doing this.”

The dangers are accepted as part of the sport, and part of the lifestyle. While an injury might bring you down one day, the thrill of a great ride, the excitement of seeing a new place and the camaraderie of your buddies can bring you right back up the next.

“There is so much about rodeo that stands out in my mind,” said Gray. “The friendships we make, the people we meet, the things we get to see all year long that most people don’t get to see. We travel 100,000 miles a year, we get to see all different parts of the country the general population doesn’t get to experience. It’s pretty neat to be able to do that, and to be doing what you love to do at the same time.”


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