Long drives and few chances: How COVID-19 has remade the rodeo circuit
As the coronavirus pandemic forces the shuttering of rodeo events, a tight community of cowboys and organizers bands together
SALT LAKE CITY — One of the toughest things to do in Filer, Idaho, is discern whether or not a rodeo cowboy is joking. Blake Knowles, a steer wrestler from Walla Walla, Washington, takes it easy on a stranger this time, though. “The last guy who did that lost two fingers,” he says with his voice dipped low.
The person he’s cautioning — bending to scratch a puppy behind the ear as it plays outside an RV — offers up a kind of laughter unique to 2020, one cut with relief. With the COVID-19 pandemic slashing payouts industrywide and adding new demands to an already grueling travel schedule, a sense of humor is a must.
In a standard season, the PRCA would pay out roughly $60 million in prize money, across some 700 events. Because of the coronavirus, those numbers has been cut in half, forcing competitors to scramble to make ends meet. But if the pandemic has stretched the rodeo community thin, it has also emphasized what sets it apart, competitively and culturally: a bond that supersedes competition, one fit to endure trying times.
“The cowboys still have to make a living,” Dan Carter, a member of the Filer rodeo committee, says. “They want to go to as many shows as they can, but this particular year, there just haven’t been as many. There’s a great group of people that make their living off of rodeo — and whenever you take about 80% away from that, it makes it difficult.”
The PRCA circuit builds toward the National Finals Rodeo in December — the sport’s Super Bowl, paying out $10 million in prize money — and to qualify, cowboys need to finish in the top 15 in their event’s earnings standings. Usually, The Magic Valley Stampede in Filer, Idaho (pop. 2,851), wouldn’t be the weekend’s big event. Filer pays less than the prestigious Ellensburg, Washington, Rodeo, usually held at the same time, but this year Ellensburg has been canceled. The race for the NFR ends on Sept. 30, and cowboys from all over have come to Filer to make a late push.
Knowles, who lives in Oregon, has amended his standard travel schedule this season, venturing far from the Northwest more often than he’d like. This morning, he made the six-hour drive from his home in Oregon to Filer. After he wrestles this evening he’ll be off to North Dakota for another event in the morning.
Despite the grind of being on the road, he looks fresh and ready — with a crisp, white cowboy hat shading a stiff jaw — as the official start of the Magic Valley Stampede approaches. “The light’s always great in Filer,” he says, gesturing past the parking area toward the surrounding farmland, tinted pink. Soon it’ll be time to get serious and scout out the steer he’s drawn for the evening. For now, though, Knowles stamps from RV to RV in spurred boots, saying hellos, saddling his horse, and trading barbs.
The year has been a hard and unusual one, but for the moment there’s a welcome normalcy.
A sport in hard times
In a normal season the most accomplished rodeo cowboys in the world can make hundreds of thousands of dollars by way of event winnings and sponsorship deals; a first-place NFR finish alone means more than $25,000 in winnings. The athletes at the bottom rung of the sport often work ranch jobs to cobble together enough money for entry fees and animal upkeep. Between these two extremes lie Knowles and his peers. The fuel and lodging costs of hauling horses across the West add up quickly. Last season, Knowles finished outside the top 15 in the steer wrestling rankings and had to make do with what he calls a “cash-flow even” — enough to cover family bills but little else. Right now, he’s in ninth place.
Knowles also works as a real estate agent and has an interest in his family’s cattle ranch outside Heppner, Oregon, which gives him a financial cushion. But cowboys across the sport feel the sting of the cancellations.
Competitors have had to chase winnings this season, but it’s hard to tell if the arduous travel schedules sending them in search of a purse is anything more than a financial draw. In a normal year, Knowles estimates he spends $40,000 on fuel and entry fees. In 2020, that number grows substantially — as the cancellations of nearby events have sent him as far afield as Iowa and North Dakota. “They’re great little rodeos,” he says, “but they’re just so far out of our circle.” PRCA rules allow four competitors to travel together. Knowles’ group is made up of fellow Northwesterners Ringo Robinson, Mike McGinn, and Dalton Massey.
“It becomes normalcy,” Robinson says of the long hours in the RV. “It actually is a weirder feeling when you end up slowing down and staying in one place for more than eight or nine hours.”
Whatever it takes to help a guy’
In almost any other industry or sport, loss of opportunity might breed fiercer competition over a smaller financial pie. But those who have spent their lives around rodeo universally dismiss the notion. “They root for their biggest competitors,” Gail Hughbanks Woerner, a historian of rodeo culture, says. “They tell them how a bronc is riding, where to put their hands on the rein or what he’s going to do. Whatever it takes to help a guy.”
Knowles puts it directly. “You’re not competing with each other,” he says. “You’re competing with the animal.”
Cowboys find out which animals they’ll be dealing with shortly before the event, via random draw. In certain categories — bronc riding and bull riding, especially — the animals can become as well-known as the riders, developing reputations for ferocity and building NFR resumés of their own. Steers eventually grow too big to be wrestled, but even during their brief careers they exhibit certain tendencies that cowboys share with one another.
On this day in Idaho, the sun sets through soft clouds of kicked-up dust. Knowles steps up to a holding pen for his first glimpse of that evening’s competition: the dark brown steer with a white underbelly and broad, curved horns he drew. In an hour or so, Knowles’ evening will reduce to a few crucial seconds as he bursts from a chute atop a chestnut palomino, Monroe. He will match stride-for-stride with the steer and try to leap atop him and swing him to the ground. A time of 4 seconds might mean a good payday and a good position in the NFR rankings. A few tenths of a second more more could mean squandered opportunity.
Knowles sizes the steer up, with some suspicion. He finds this steer “a bit leggy” potentially prone to taking a surprising angle.
Rodeo has a distinct style of scouting report. Knowles doesn’t pull up video or read breakdowns but rather places phone calls to other cowboys on the circuit, asking how they’ve handled this particular steer. One says it’s a gung-ho runner, another that it’s a hesitant young animal.
If some popular portrayals of rodeo riders paint them as gruff loners, Knowles describes a far different community. “Occasionally we’ll have a beer and shoot some pool,” he says, “but mostly it’s this — seeing each other in these towns.” Jokes abound about the stiffness of sponsor-festooned shirts, the sizes of RVs and trucks and memorable failures.
“Cowboys are a strange lot,” Carter says. “They are the biggest fan of the man that’s getting on that horse right behind them. It’s kind of unique, in the world we live in, but that’s why it is so great.”
That all-for-one spirit extends beyond the competitors themselves to the organizers, judges, announcers and keepers of the tradition. Carter describes feeling a duty amid the cancellations to provide a place for cowboys to compete. As soon as it was clear that state ordinances would not prohibit the holding of the fair, Filer pushed ahead with planning, getting word out that things would proceed almost as usual. “We felt a responsibility to the cowboys, to all the people in the industry,” he says. “We just bit the bullet and went straight ahead.”
Despite having to cap ticket sales to allow for social distancing, the Magic Valley Stampede will award nearly as much prize money as it did last year, when the rodeo drew a full house: more than $134,000, across four nights of full competitions. Carter knows that this year, that payout is a lifeline.
Will Rasmussen, who announces the rodeo this evening in Filer, has been calling rodeos full-time throughout the West for decades with homespun charm. His income, like that of the cowboys, has dwindled this summer. He estimates he’s making a third of what he’d bring home in a standard season. He worries for his future and has spent his now-ample time between events thinking of a career change. But as he takes the microphone tonight, there isn’t any sign of unease in his voice. “It is a breath of fresh air,” he says, a lilt shaping the Montana gruffness in his voice, “to be in front of you tonight, enjoying the sport we love.”
Miles to go
Walking the fairgrounds in Filer, you might not know COVID-19 exists. Despite posted warning signs, the cowboys and patrons go maskless. The community is less concerned with the health effects of the virus than with its social and economic implications. The tight-knit rodeo circuit has become an unofficial job-search network in recent months. “You could sense the panic,” Knowles says of the spring and early summer, when events started going under. “Guys seem to be capable enough, they’re all handy people. Everybody hustled around and found (side work), but that doesn’t downplay the pressure and the stress the whole situation created.”
At this moment, though, Knowles is faced with a welcomed challenge. Fluorescent arena lights are washing over the bleachers, which are about half-full with fans — scrambling kids sticky with cotton candy, teenagers with their legs kicked up over empty seats, old-timers with eyes focused on the infield. Steer wrestling is this evening’s second event, and Knowles will be on the road to North Dakota before the rodeo in Filer is even finished.
He sits atop Monroe, behind a metal gate. The leggy, dark brown steer stands behind a neighboring one. In a split second, both fly open, and it’s over almost before it begins. Knowles leaps off his horse, but the steer swerves away past his reach, and Knowles lands on the ground, empty-handed. He gets up, pats at his jeans, and claps his hands in frustration — an opportunity lost.
A few minutes later, a frustrated Knowles is back outside his RV. “It’s a sport like any other,” he says. “This happens. Steer just broke away.” He laughs, remembering the riders who gave him advice earlier in the afternoon. “I don’t know what steer they were looking at.”
The only light now comes from a few scattered stars and the lights back at the arena. The crowd hums and Rasmussen’s voice booms in the background as Knowles gets ready to head out. His trip to North Dakota is a solo venture; he’ll drive his F-150 overnight to get to the morning’s competition, then rejoin the others afterward. The haul would have been easier following a victory, but Knowles retains his place in the top 15, for now, with more chances on the way in the coming days. These opportunities, some short months ago, were not guaranteed. They exist — like handed-down lessons of roping and wayward tips on wrestling steers — because people care enough to make sure they don’t go away.