Fall is the start of the rodeo championship season, but most cowboys have already spent endless summer weeks driving from one small event to another, earning points toward championships by breaking records--and sometimes breaking bones in the process.
It's not the money, as I learned this year while shooting photos of rodeos in the West. The vast majority of rodeo cowboys have no agents, many make barely enough to cover their entry fees and, chances are, they'll lose that investment in about two seconds, landing face down in dust as the bull or bronco explodes from the chute. With each new season, they acquire new injuries. One cowboy told me he prefers riding bulls to broncs because he's only broken one bone riding bulls, but 31 on broncos.
The best riders can collect big bucks, though. At the biggest competition--the National Finals Rodeo held in Las Vegas Dec. 1-10--one ride can pay $10,000. But the bulls and broncs also accumulate points throughout the season by successfully throwing riders. That means the animals at the finals are the fiercest of their kind.
For those who want to see good rodeo but can't make it to Las Vegas in December, when rooms and tickets are hard to come by, there are alternatives. These include regional finals and a few other big-money rodeos. The Grand National Rodeo at San Francisco's Cow Palace, which begins Friday and runs through Nov. 5, is perhaps the second most exciting rodeo in the country.
But local and regional rodeos also abound this time of year, and are far more intimate than the big shows. (Throughout the year there are dozens in California.) For information on dates and sites, many in the Southern California area, two major rodeo sponsor groups can provide help: The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. (PRCA) is the largest and most prestigious sponsor group; call (719) 593-8840. The International Professional Rodeo Assn. (IPRA) is a smaller association, with finals of its own; call (405) 235-6540.
Here is a sampling of upcoming events in the West: Western Circuit Finals, Lakeside, Calif., Oct. 27-28; Brawley Cattle Call Rodeo, Brawley, Calif., Nov. 11-12; Sierra Circuit Finals, California region, Rancho Murieta, Jan. 5-7; Columbia River Circuit Finals, Northwestern region, Yakima, Wash., Jan. 5-7, and the International Finals Rodeo, Oklahoma City, Okla., Jan. 25-27.