Santa Maria, Calif.
Ask Marv Hurley how many bones he’s broken in rodeo and he’ll rattle off a list that adds up to almost an entire skeleton: both ankles, both wrists, both feet, his collarbone, every one of his ribs.
But out-of-control gas prices -- now that’s a cowboy’s nightmare.
“They’re killin’ me,” moaned Hurley, a 50-year-old bareback rider who manages to hang on to bucking broncs for a full eight seconds even with a partly metal pelvis that’s held together by screws.
Hurley, who lives in Bakersfield, was one of the 150 or so competitors who showed up at the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo a few weeks ago. But officials said soaring fuel prices had cut entries by about 20% -- about the same as at rodeos all over the West.
Wherever diesel hovers around or above $5 a gallon -- which is almost everywhere -- cowboys are singing the same sad song. Fewer competitors are saddling up, and those who do are staying closer to home. They’re hitting fewer towns and are thinking of hanging up their spurs earlier in the season. Some rodeo folks are even squeezing themselves into airline seats because it can be cheaper than driving that long, lonesome highway.
By far the most strapped are those in events such as steer-wrestling and calf-roping, who have to haul their own horses in gas-guzzling truck trailers. Many are doing something never anticipated by Zane Grey in his odes to the lone, wandering heroes of the West: They’re rodeo ride-sharing, with half a dozen cowpokes cramming into a truck and splitting fuel bills in the thousands of dollars.
“The sport’s doing fine,” said Jim Bainbridge, a spokesman for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn., pointing out that PRCA-sanctioned rodeos offered more than $40 million in prize money last year. “It’s just getting tougher and tougher for guys to get up and down the road.”
On the other hand, rodeo operators say, crowds are packing the grandstands, perhaps because gas prices are keeping them close to home. Some rodeos that span several days are adopting tighter schedules that don’t require cowboys to make fuel-consuming return trips for later events. A few are even waiving entry fees -- typically from $150 to $500 -- for the competitors.
“A lot of these guys are operating on margins that are razor-thin,” Bainbridge said.
At the rodeo grounds in Santa Maria, Hurley was nursing a Coors in a competitors’ lounge and trading stories with some buddies. Conversation drifted here and there, from the meanest horse in Kern County to a certain waitress in Las Vegas, but the skyrocketing cost of rodeo was in the air as surely as the smell of horse manure and hay.
“I don’t go more than two hours from the house now,” said Hurley, a horse trainer and farrier who supplements his income with rodeo earnings. “I enjoy it, I love it -- but I do it for the money.”
Though many cowboys barely break even, rodeo can be very good to its top competitors. Luke Branquinho, the world’s third-ranked steer wrestler, last year took home more than $151,000. But even with his big paydays, the Freightliner truck he drives 10,000 miles in a typical summer still gets just eight miles per gallon.
“It’s more money out of your pocket, but there’s just the same amount to be won,” said the 27-year-old, who lives in Los Alamos near here. “A guy’s got to pick and choose. You’ve got to stay in a tighter circle and not travel as much.”
For many, that’s easier said than done.
Rodeo clown Bert Davis, his wife, Frannie, and their 11 performing dogs live on the road permanently, appearing at rodeos and other events roughly 48 weeks a year.
“Last year I spent $14,000 on fuel, and this year it’ll be $20,000,” said Davis as he relaxed in his trailer before an appearance in Palmdale. “There’ll be a bunch of people who quit, but I’m praying to God that I’ll be one of the survivors.”
To make money and qualify for the biggest jackpot of all -- at the National Finals in Las Vegas -- cowboys typically hit dozens of rodeos scattered from Saskatchewan to Santa Fe. In the week and a half after July 4 -- a time traditionally known as “Cowboy Christmas” -- Branquinho plans to compete at seven or eight of the 33 rodeos that will be held throughout the West.
Whether cowboys who aren’t pulling in much prize money will stay on the road through the summer is an open question.
“I personally won’t hang it up, but I think a lot of people will,” said Anthony Estep, a 24-year-old calf roper who has earned about $10,000 so far this year. Traveling with three pals, two horses and a couple of dogs, he said, he’ll spend about $1,000 a week on fuel at the height of the season.
In a dusty field amid dozens of cowboy RVs and horse trailers at the Santa Maria rodeo grounds, Estep was trying to jump-start his motor home’s run-down batteries. When asked how he chose his life’s work, he sounded like a country song: “My dad was a roper and my mom rodeo’d,” he said. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Nearby, Mary Ellen Hannon was unloading hay off the roof of her $200,000 rig so she could feed her two horses in her portable corral. Her 34-foot trailer is equipped with a tack room, a couch upholstered in the style of a tooled saddle, a rooftop water tank, a hay rack, a satellite dish and a flat-screen TV. The gleaming white truck that pulls it has ergonomic leather seats and a few acres of windshield.
“These gas prices are taking a lot of joy out of rodeo,” said Hannon, 47, a barrel racer since she was a teen. “We’re all focused on the cost.”
She lives in Brawley, near the Mexican border. In Mexicali, she filled her 160-gallon tank in with diesel at $2.08 a gallon. In Santa Maria, it topped $5 -- a difference that pained her as she thought about the fuel bills she and her husband, Mike, have to pay to run their farm and hay-harvesting business.
“If I don’t win some money in the next few weeks, I’ll sit out the rest of the season,” she said. “In the past, I wouldn’t think about it and I’d just go all year.”