To spectators in the grandstands, the rodeo cowboy might seem to be the embodiment of a fading American dream, a rugged individual with no bosses to answer to, no time clocks to punch, no rigid workday schedules to follow. All that may be true. But rodeo life is also tough, a long shot at fame and fortune and a better shot at broken bones and long roads.
Events sanctioned by the Colorado Pro Rodeo Association comprise one of the fastest-growing sports in America. But, to the cowboys and cowgirls who compete, rodeo is more than a sport – it’s a lifestyle that offers heartbreak and reward in equal measures. The cowboy doesn’t compete at rodeo as much as he lives it.
Rodeo encompasses the attributes America covets in its sports – explosive action, danger, extraordinary skill, and refined talent – and the cowboys who ride are some of the most rugged individuals in athletics.
Cowboys still drive pickups, still work cattle, still say “ma’am” and “sir,” and still wear jeans and boots. But today’s cowboy is a businessman as well as an athlete, as likely to have refined his skills at a rodeo school as on a ranch.
They pursue glory in the dust and rain of rodeo arenas across North America. But unlike other professional athletes, the rodeo cowboy pays for the privilege to compete. Every rodeo requires an entry fee and promises nothing in return. The cowboy doesn't get paid unless he produces. One missed throw, one lost grip and the cowboy doesn't even recoup his entry fee.
Rodeo is demanding, but the life of the American cowboy has never been easy. Professional rodeo is the only American sport that evolved from skills required in a work situation, and it’s one of the most punishing sports in the world. The events of professional rodeo were drawn directly from the tasks of the range cowboy – primarily roping calves and riding broncs. The typical cowboy of the 19th century worked 18-hour days, seven days per week. And on any given day, he might be thrown from a horse or charged by a wild steer.
The demands faced by today’s rodeo cowboy are different, but no less daunting. Behind every eight-second ride and every cheering crowd are countless hours of traveling and competing.
The cowboy’s life is a special one, envied by many and experienced by few.