Wyoming Rodeo Association’s Finals – Torrington, WY
“A cowboy is a man with guts and a horse.” – Anonymous
Wyoming is the Cowboy State, and they take that very seriously. The University of Wyoming’s mascot is the cowboy, rodeo is their official state sport, the entire state just looks like one big ranch with animals everywhere, and everyone just LOOKS like a cowboy. So even though our original event was rescheduled, forcing us to make a few changes in plans, it was serendipitous when we found a rodeo scheduled during that same week.
The Wyoming Rodeo Association is the state’s only rodeo association, and is there for those Wyoming cowboys looking for a competitive outlet. “We provide a service for those amateur cowboys who don’t have enough time to practice as much as they’d like, or who don’t have enough money to travel to those bigger events, but they still want to get out there and compete” said Jim McNamee, president of the WRA.
He also tells us that it has more to do with the competition, rather than preserving the cowboy way of life for most of the participants. “You’ll get some ranchers here who do this stuff every day, but most of the people here are lawyers, doctors, and business men and women who just love to be able to show off their skills and try to beat one another. They might be playing cards later tonight, but out there the competitive nature takes over”, he said.
We must’ve given off an LA hippie vibe, because then he began to talk about the negative stereotypes of rodeo, and how organizations like Shark and PETA not only don’t do their research with regards to rodeo events, but also are just like any other business, promoting certain things that will end up making them money. We listened intently, not wanting to interrupt him to inform him that we’re not quite investigative journalists trying to uncover livestock injustices. We’re just ready for a rodeo!
Not knowing much about rodeos other than bull riding, we were interested to not only see all of the different events, but also to learn about their history and why they’re included. Almost all of the events are timed, with cowboys and cowgirls competing for the best time. But they all have a reason for being included in the rodeo lineup as well, which makes watching the events even more compelling.
Here’s a rundown of the events at the Wyoming Rodeo Association’s Finals:
Bareback/Saddle Bronco Riding:
The bareback event is one of the more difficult events, evidenced by having only three participants. Riders attempt to ride a bucking bronco without a saddle for 8 seconds without falling off. In the saddle event, cowboys use a saddle with free flowing foot stirrups that allow for better movement. If they are able to complete the ride, they’re scored on a scale of 50, with the horse’s bucking also getting a score on a scale of 50. Those scores are combined for a final score.
This event showcases the necessary horse breaking skills a cowboy would need on a ranch. Because of its flare, it’s easy to see why this event helped start rodeos in the first place. Not only is it hard to stay on top of a bucking horse for 8 seconds as you flop around like a rag doll, but you’ve got to do it with style!
Probably the most controversial event because of the way it looks, it’s also one of the most dynamic events. Also known as bulldogging, competitors are timed as they chase after a steer on a horse, jump off of their horse, grab the steer’s horns in mid-air, land, and then wrestle the 280 lb. steer to the ground by twisting its horns. This event has more folklore roots than ranch life history, as it came about because a rodeo performer claimed to have done this to catch a runaway steer in the 1930s.
Cowboys only get one shot at this, as a mistimed jump or a slip of the hand on the horns sees the steer run away successfully. We thought we were watching a western movie’s stunt tryouts with this one, as the cowboys showed no fear when leaping from a horse at high speeds. As with most of the other events, these guys could easily have another career in the stunt business.
Used as a means to catch a calf for medical purposes on the ranch, this timed event requires a cowboy to chase a calf, rope it with a lariat attached to the horse, dismount, and then restrain the calf by tying three of its legs together before returning to his horse. The ties must stay for 6 seconds, and the best time wins.
In addition to everything listed above, is the slight nuance that requires the cowboy to take down the standing calf before trying its legs together. The technique is to grab the 280 lb. calf by its midsection, and literally pick it up and lay it on the ground. “These calves are bigger than most linebackers,” Jim told us.
Our first female event of the day, which was billed as “The fastest sport on dirt” by the announcer. Cowgirls chase a calf, rope it around the neck with a breakaway lariat attached to the horse. After the calf is roped, the horse is stopped and when the rope gets to the end of its line, a string breaks and the rope is released, signaling the end of the timing.
The best of the cowgirls were getting timed in the 2-3 seconds range, and everything happened fairly quickly. To give the calves a head start, the horses must wait behind a rope barrier for a short amount of time before being released to chase the calf. If the horse breaks that barrier before it’s supposed to, 5 seconds gets added onto the competitors’ time. As the posted times got lower and lower, more competitors broke the barrier trying to get out of the gate quickly. Jackie noted that when our future book is successful and she takes up a hobby in horses, this could be an event that she could do.
Mixed/Open Team Roping:
Two competitors (mixed = male and female, open = males) chase a steer on horses, with one roping the neck and the other roping both of the back legs. A timed event, this is the only event where people work as a team, as well as the only event where men and women compete together. 5 seconds is added onto the time if only one back leg is able to be roped. This event harkens back to ranching days, when cowboys developed this technique to take down larger animals.
Being the only team event, the bonding was evident as husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and fathers and sons all competed together as teams. Our host for the day, Jim, competed with his son and told us that it’s his favorite part about being involved with rodeos. “Just being able to share these experiences with my sons, makes it all the more worthwhile for me,” he said. What was most impressive to us was the fact that people were able to rope the back legs of a moving animal. If only people did this to their runaway children at theme parks…
Another cowgirl event, as competitors are timed as they raced in a clover-shaped pattern around three barrels, before sprinting to the finish line (on horse of course!). Originally started to get women involved with rodeos, this event can now feature men, depending on the rodeo.
These girls could ride though, and the speed at which they did combined with the amazing turning ability of some of the horses made for a really fun show. One of the more spirited events for the crowd that day as well, as they cheered loudly for their favorite cowgirl.
The signature event of every rodeo, and the first thing that came to our minds before actually attending a rodeo. But unlike the mechanical bull at your local western-themed bar, these bulls are huge. A cowboy tries to stay on top of a large bucking bull for 8 seconds, and much like bronco riding, both the cowboy and the bull are scored for a possible total of 100 points. The rider tightly fastens one hand to the bull with a long braided rope. It is a risky sport and has been called “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.”
The taming of bulls has ancient roots in many cultures, most notably cultures of Hispanic origins. But unlike the Spaniards and others, American ranchers didn’t have the need for stylized bull fighting. Instead, they needed to tame unruly bulls, and later they decided to showcase their skills in competitions.
Easily our favorite event, the few seconds of unadulterated excitement that comes with a bull ride is something that needs to be seen in person. The power of these animals meant that some of the cowboys could only last a second or two before being flinged off. Being close to the action sometimes has its disadvantages, as bulls came racing toward us more than once. (We were behind a metal pen, but it still makes you take a few steps back.) Even wrangling these giants beasts back into the pen after a bucking session was a feat itself.
As has been the case with numerous events we’ve attended so far, we’ve gone in with very little knowledge or the sport or the culture of the area where that sport is being featured. Each time we’ve come away with a great respect for not only the competitors, but also for the history behind the sport being popular in that part of the country.
It was fate that led us to a rodeo in Wyoming, but in the end it felt right to be there, watching that rodeo in that state. And if anything, now when we’re at the Houston rodeo we can use our soon-to-be favorite line: “This isn’t our first rodeo”.