Cowboy traditions and culture are rooted in the West and nowhere is that more apparent than at rodeos, hugely popular sporting events where horseback riding, livestock animals and fancy rope skills are on display. Thousands of cowboys and cowgirls compete to see who has the best rodeo skills.
VOA reporters Caty Weaver, Ashley Thompson and Adam Brock are taking a cross-country road trip across America along Route 66. This is one of their reports from the road.
Rodeos are big business for the states where they take place; the competitions bring in about $250 million dollars of revenue each year.
The Elk City Rodeo of Champions began entertaining crowds 77 years ago. The three-day event is the third-largest rodeo in Oklahoma, drawing about 14,000 people each September. About 300 people compete in the events.
The action at the Elk City Rodeo begins with a daring skydiver who floats into the middle of the outdoor arena with a huge U.S. flag. Then the crowd stands for an a capella version of the National Anthem.
The competition kicks off with bareback bronc riding. A bronc is a horse that bucks and kicks high in an attempt to throw off its rider.
“It’s just a wild horse, one that’s never been broke and is getting to play and do what it really wants to do,” said Will Lowe, a rodeo competitor from Texas who has won three world championships and hopes to compete for his fourth in December. “You really want them to jump real high in the front end and you want them to extend their back feet all the way. You want them to try to buck you off.”
There’s a small device attached to the horse that the rider holds onto with one hand, but his other hand must not touch the animal. A rider wins points based on his form and the judges also consider the horse’s performance. A horse that behaves more wildly can give the cowboy more points.
We asked Lowe how and why he got into this dangerous line of work.
“Well, it started when I was real little,” he said. “I wanted to ride bulls when I was little, and my parents wouldn’t let me ride bulls. So we had bucking horses so I got to ride bucking horses … and it just stuck.”
Bareback bronc riding is among what is called “rough stock competition.” Saddle bronc and bull riding are also in that category. Rodeos also have timed events, such as calf roping and barrel racing.
Rodeo cowboys are not the only performers who face danger in the arena. Rodeo clowns, called bullfighters, have a risky job as well. The clowns are trained to distract the bull when a rider falls off to keep the rider from being trampled by the animal.
Bullfighter Justin Rumford calls it “playing with the bulls.” He’s among those clowning around at the Elk City Rodeo. He wears crazy, colorful clothes, jokes with the audience and performs some silly stunts.
Rumford has been a rodeo clown for six years, and he receives more than just laughs. Rodeo’s governing group, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, has named him Clown of the Year three times.
However, the clown has also taken some hard hits as a bullfighter. He said he’s broken many bones, injured internal organs, and spent time in the hospital. But, he says he still loves what he does.
It takes a huge number of people to organize and put on a rodeo. A main feature of the event is the livestock. The Beutler and Son Rodeo Company, based in Elk City, is the stock contractor for the Elk City Rodeo. The Beutler brothers have been in the rodeo business since 1929.
“I’m the fourth generation, my son’s the fifth generation, and this is our hometown show, here at Elk City, and we just bring all the bucking horses, the bulls, the calves, the steers — everything involved with the rodeo — we bring it all to town and try to put on a good show for everybody,“ said Rhett Beutler, who co-owns the company with his father.
The audience on Friday night cheers for their favorite riders and ropers, laughs at the clowns, and rocks under the stars to country music at the Elk City Rodeo of Champions.
Many of the participants come from generations of family who’ve also competed in rodeos. You could say being a cowboy — or a cowgirl — is in the blood.