A few seconds. That’s how long a typical rodeo event lasts. A successful bronc rider only has to stay atop his bucking horse for eight. The fastest steer wrestler pins his calf to the ground in six. A freestyle bullfighter can meet the dirt in even less time.
Thousands of fans attending the California Rodeo in Salinas on July 21-24 will bear witness to these make-or-break moments—if they can avoid blinking.
What they won’t see is everything that goes into making sure those precious few seconds go off with gusto: days of travel and constant injury treatment for the competitors, months of planning and preparation for the rodeo committee, years of care and training for the livestock.
The unseen sacrifice
Hanging on to a wild bull as it tries to fling you to the ground takes strength and courage. But according to Salinas-based bull rider Josh Daries, it’s not as grueling as the less public challenges of the rodeo lifestyle.
“Money is the biggest thing,” he says. “It will keep a guy going or send a guy home.”
Riders can compete at up to 70 rodeos in a year, but they are responsible for covering their own entry fees and travel costs, and there is no guarantee of winning anything back from a tournament.
“The financial aspects enter very quickly, because you can’t just keep spending money,” says Wayne Brooks, a rodeo announcer who has worked at the California Rodeo for almost 10 years. He began his career riding bucking horses, but switched to announcing when he realized that he couldn’t make enough to pay for gas.
It’s an especially big concern for young riders hoping to break into the sport, because it can take a while before they begin to make any money. But even veteran competitors continue to watch their costs.
“When you’re getting started, it’s tough,” says Billy Bugenig, a steer wrestler now in his ninth season competing on the circuit. “I’m single, so I can make a living from it. If I had a family, it would be a lot tougher.”
As a result, the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) has a “buddy system” in place that allows up to five cowboys to request performance slots on the same day so that they can coordinate carpool plans.
“I travel with four other guys and we enter together, split up fuel and so on,” Bugenig says.
That arrangement helps breeds more solidarity than rivalry at the rodeo. “Everybody roots for each other,” he says. “There’s a good atmosphere.”
The difficulty in making it in professional rodeo means many riders have side jobs in order to nurture their athletic ambitions. Though Bugenig made it to his first National Finals Rodeo—the PRCA’s end-of-year championship—last year, where he tied for first in the steer wrestling competition, he still works part-time as a teacher and rodeo coach at a community college. “It helps me maintain this lifestyle,” he says.
Meanwhile, Daries just finished his fourth year at University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he is studying agricultural business. His focus is currently on competing, but he also has his eye on life after rodeo. “[College] always helps you later in life,” Daries says. “You can’t ride bulls forever.”
The unseen effort
Though rodeo events like rough stock riding, bullfighting and calf roping are often seen as solo sports, every ride is a collaborative effort—from the rodeo clowns who distract animals away from fallen cowboys to the timers who keep the competition in check. There’s more to it than simply opening a gate and letting a bucking bronco go wild.
Brooks is a crucial component in translating that insider knowledge to the crowd.
“I have to explain the sport and the industry to the ticket-buying customer, but I also have to keep a fun and exciting environment,” says Brooks, who recently won his second PRCA Announcer of the Year award. Besides introducing the competition, the emcee tries to paint a picture of the event for the crowd, helping them understand the importance of any given ride to a cowboy’s overall performance and what the tournament means for their season as a whole.
Brooks estimates that there are two hours of research and preparation involved for every hour of rodeo he announces. In rough stock events, for example, he keeps track of the previous round’s results and which bull or bronco a rider has been assigned for the next one, calculating what a cowboy needs to do to win based on his animal’s previous performances.
“Realizing what the customer wants to hear in the grandstands and what they don’t takes up a lot of my time,” he says.
Brooks is subcontracted to the events he announces, but many of the hardest rodeo jobs are done by those merely in it for the love of the sport. The majority of the labor force is comprised of volunteers like Tim Rossi, an agronomist from Salinas. He grew up watching his father work the rodeo and has now been part of the team for almost 20 years himself.
Rossi is a veteran of the stripping chutes, where he helps to take equipment off the bulls before they are returned to their pens. The animal is kept in a small enclosure while workers quickly remove the rider’s grip and the flank strap, a loose rope tied near the bull’s hind legs to encourage higher bucking. With the roar of the crowd making communication difficult and the next bull already in the ring, the job can be a pressure cooker.
“We’re on a time clock,” he says. “Everything has to go smoothly because we need to be ready when the next bull comes.”
But the biggest challenge is usually staying safe around the massive animals—especially because they don’t like to be touched. Sometimes, the slightest movement can set them off again, sending a bull hurtling through the corral’s gate.
“You don’t want to go against them,” Rossi says. “They don’t think, they just react. You have to just anticipate what they’re going to do and react with them.”
And though there is little glory and unglamorous conditions—“If you don’t leave at the end of the day covered in dirt and cow pies, you haven’t done your job,” he jokes—the job is usually its own reward. It also injects over $200,000 into local charities every year.
“Everybody involved around rodeo has to have a passion for it,” Brooks says. “No one really gets rich from it, but we’re rich with friendship and experience and culture.”
The unseen animal affection
Without its four-legged athletes, rodeo wouldn’t be much more than an elaborate mime performance in the dirt. Bulls and broncos are such an essential part of rough stock events that they are even judged and awarded prize money based on their performance.
The journey to the rodeo arena begins at birth for these bucking animals. “When they’re raised, they’re bred to do this,” says Linda Russell, whose company, Western Rodeos, Inc., is the main rough stock contractor for the California Rodeo. “They’re not trained; it’s in their blood.”
She cites elaborate breeding practices that trace genetics for generations in order to create “a mix of hot and cold bloodlines” that encourage bucking tendencies in the bull or horse’s disposition.
Controversy has long raged over whether the sport is right for the animals. Despite strict guidelines and sanctions introduced by the PRCA, criticism continues that rodeo is inhumane.
Having been around the California Rodeo since childhood, Tim Eastman, a veterinarian who now staffs the event annually, is surprised at that.
“Most of the animals competing I truly believe enjoy it,” he says, pointing out that a bull participates in no more than two, eight-second rides in a tournament. “They’re only competing for a few minutes each year, and the rest of the time they’re really well taken care of, both at the rodeo and wherever they come from.”
As for concerns that the sport is dangerous to the animals’ well-being, Eastman explains that the veterinary team has been fortunate to deal with very few injuries over the course of his time with the rodeo.
“We don’t usually have a lot of duties,” he says. “Most of the things we end up treating are minor bumps and bruises from transportation. The cowboys get hurt about 50:1 to the animals.”
According to Eastman, the biggest maladies are taken care of with careful preparation. “If the footing is too soft, that can mean career-ending injuries for horses. I’ve seen it happen in SoCal,” he says.
Hosting the California Rodeo Salinas in the county’s agricultural center helps maintain the arena dirt—there are always plenty of experts and equipment at the Salinas event to keep things running smoothly. “Millions of dollars in tractors are out there taking care of the grounds,” Eastman says. “I believe we have the best footing in the country.”
Besides, knowing bulls and horses is just as important to being a good cowboy as the rodeo culture. “Caring for animals has been bred into us, too,” Russell says. “We’re like their parents.”
The California Rodeo Salinas takes place at the Salinas Sports Complex, 1034 N. Main St., Salinas. $13-$20/day. 800-549-4989, www.carodeo.com/tickets for more scheduling information.