After graduating from college in May, I grabbed my backpack and, along with Daniel Garber, a friend and former classmate, hopped into a '98 Mercury Villager to trail the cowboys and cowgirls who compete in professional rodeos. We arrived just in time for “Cowboy Christmas,” the weeks surrounding the July 4, which earned their name from the numerous professional rodeos held daily throughout the Mountain West. For rodeo cowboys, Cowboy Christmas is an unparalleled attraction because each contestant has the opportunity to earn payouts of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Through rodeos, they are able to promote a uniquely American Western way of living, one that supposedly has been passed down through generations, and turn a profit at the same time — but only if they adopt incongruously modern strategies.
Most small-town rodeos in the Mountain West bill themselves as traditional and Western. Beth Boggio, the secretary of the Red Lodge Rodeo Association, which has organized the Red Lodge, Montana Home of Champions Rodeo for 84 years, gave us a tour of the permanent rodeo arena. “This rodeo is no-frills,” she explained, describing its authenticity and how little has changed since the rodeo’s earlier days.
Even so, rodeos have cleaned up considerably. As recently as 15 years ago, many rodeos were violently rowdy. The clerk at Allen’s Manix Store, the historic general store in Augusta, Montana, told us that the town had to bring in dump trucks to take away the mounds of beer bottles that had accumulated during Augusta’s one-day rodeo. Thousands of spectators clogged Main Street, started fistfights, and climbed onto cars.
Those Wild West days are long gone. Professional rodeos, many of which are administered by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), have instituted many changes. In the name of audience safety, only judges and contestants are permitted to approach the chutes from which bulls, bucking horses, and calves are released. Many arenas have banned coolers, and police officers roam the grounds to stop fights before they escalate. The rodeo is now family-friendly, in an all-American, televisable way.
What remains is the rodeo’s adherence to showcasing Western life. Family remains at the heart of both rodeo and Western culture. Crowds frequently watch the sons and daughters of former champions prepare to compete while listening to their parents’ achievements. In addition, rodeos begin with a prayer and the National Anthem. PRCA rules, used to enforce Western traditions, cover everything from the length of ropes to dress codes: Everyone in the rodeo arena must wear long-sleeve shirts, blue jeans, and cowboy hats.
Although the cowboys might look the same in the arena, there has also been a fundamental shift in who competes, and how. At the beginning of competitive rodeo, contestants were cowboys who worked on ranches nearby and who competed in order to show off their talents. Because the contestants were still working ranch hands, traveling across the county and traveling all the time were things that weren’t possible. Since the 1970s, many of the contestants have come from urban areas and have never worked on a ranch. Although rodeo families remain, there are outsiders, too, who are successful. In fact, many bullriders are uncomfortable on horseback. After the rodeo performance, many contestants ditch their Western attire for baseball caps, t-shirts, and basketball shorts. In recent years, the changes have accelerated. The most successful contestants charter jets to fly them from one rodeo in the afternoon to another one in the evening. Still more cowboys and cowgirls maintain a strong web presence through Twitter, Facebook, and personal websites, where they sell merchandise and services.
Some of the changes are directly related to the professionalization of the sport. Corporations now not only sponsor the rodeos themselves, providing additional prize money, saddles, silver buckles, and trucks for the winners, but also individual competitors in return for advertising returns. These corporate sponsorships require rodeo contestants not only to be accessible via social media but also to actively create and maintain fan bases.
What do all of these changes mean for the future of rodeos? Although rodeo contestants and rodeos abide by a set of rules that implies continuity and tradition, things are different behind the scenes. The jet-setting lifestyle is exhausting. Flying in chartered jets means the contestants of timed events must train multiple sets of horses and manage their locations. It takes a lot of money to continuously fill up gas tanks, so many rodeo contestants carpool. Bronco and bull riders sometimes pile up — up to six cowboys in one van. The rodeo cowboys and cowgirls are committed to making it work. Rodeo isn’t just their job — it’s their life.