The Cowboy Way
A Greenhorn's Guide to the Rodeo
Discover your inner cowboy at Silver City's annual Wild, Wild West Pro Rodeo this month.
by David A. Fryxell
Pat Bearup can't remember when he wasn't involved in rodeo. "It's been part of my whole life in one way or another," he says. "I competed in high school, and I still do team roping now. My dad and I have a crane company, and we help put up the scoreboard at the Southwest Horseman's Arena for the rodeo every year."
Saddle Bronc Riding at the Wild, Wild West Pro Rodeo
(All photos © CariSue Flores)
Ten years ago, Bearup became part of the committee that plans and puts on the annual Wild, Wild West Pro Rodeo in Silver City, which this year will be June 5-8. Six years ago he stepped up to be the committee chair.
He's quick to say, though, "I cannot do any of this without lots of volunteers and the whole committee and the help of sponsors."
This is the 23rd annual pro rodeo here, but the roots of the sport locally go back to the early 1900s, Bearup says. "Rodeo has been almost nonstop in Silver City since then. Before, it was always on the Fourth of July, and the arena was about where the Army Reserve Center is now on Swan Street. The Fourth of July is the ‘Cowboy Christmas,' and there would be hundreds of rodeos held then nationwide."
When the "old rodeo grounds" were torn down, the action moved out to the site that's now the Grant County Business and Conference Center on Hwy. 180 East. After that site was sold to build what was originally a Walmart, the rodeo moved again, across 180 to the Southwest Horseman's Arena. About that same time, the rodeo switched from an amateur event under the auspices of the New Mexico Rodeo Association to a professional competition affiliated with the growing Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). The date moved from the "Cowboy Christmas" to June to reduce the competition with so many other rodeos.
Bull riding is the most popular rodeo event.
The Wild, Wild West Pro Rodeo adjusted its schedule again this year, about a week later in June, to actually better coincide with a pair of other area rodeos. In recent years, the Silver City event had matched up with rodeos in Clovis and Window Rock, NM. A little overlap is a good thing, Bearup explains: "For a rodeo cowboy, having three rodeos within a six- or eight-hour drive is like heaven. In one weekend, you can collect three different paychecks."
But when Window Rock's rodeo switched to the July 4 weekend and Clovis also moved, contestant numbers dropped here. This year, the June 5 "Boys and the Bulls" and June 6-8 PRCA Pro Rodeo in Silver City will synchronize again with Clovis, as well as a rodeo in Cortez, just over the Colorado border.
— 101 Wild West Rodeo
All are part of the PRCA's Turquoise Circuit, which mostly encompasses New Mexico and Arizona. Other circuits cover a single big state, such as Texas or California. Top finishers at the Turquoise Circuit finals in Las Cruces in October will compete in the national circuit championships.
Local rodeo fans may very well have seen some of those top competitors here. "We've had lots of big-name, top-tier guys," says Bearup. "They come here because our contractor, Scotty Lovelace of Classic Pro Rodeo, has a really good string of roughstock and timed-event stock." After all, in roughstock rodeo events — bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding — half the score comes from the performance of the horse or bull.
"I've been told," Bearup goes on, "that if Silver City was in Texas, we'd be in contention for rodeo of the year every year, which is voted on by the contestants. We're just too out of the way here, though."
Rodeo fans, deflecting criticism from animal-rights advocates, like to point out that theirs is the only American sport that developed from the skills needed for an occupation. As promoters for the annual 101 Wild West Rodeo in Ponca City, Okla., put it, "It emerged from an industry — from the daily routine and long hours performed by ranch hands who came to know very well the animals with which they lived. If it were any other kind of job, leisure hours might have produced another kind of ball game rather than a recreation involving the very animals one had already spent long hours tending. But cowboying has always been more of a way of life than a job or an opportunity to get rich."
23rd Annual Wild, Wild West Pro Rodeo
Those occupational skills were first developed by Spanish vaqueros on early cattle ranches in California. The word "rodeo" means "roundup" in Spanish, and many of the events in today's rodeos have their roots in techniques that vaqueros used to roundup their herds. As Americans drove westward and especially after the Mexican War and US Civil War, those vaqueros' skills were passed along to American cowboys, along with the idea of the rodeo. According to the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame, "The difference between Spanish rodeo and American rodeo is that the Spanish version focuses on style, while the American version focuses on speed."
Several places claim to have hosted the first American rodeo, including right here in New Mexico, where Santa Fe held an event in 1847 that Captain Mayne Reid described in a letter to a friend in Ireland: "This round-up is a great time for the cowhand, a Donny-brook fair it is indeed. They contest with each other for the best roping and throwing, and there are horse races and whiskey and wines. At night in clear moonlight, there is dancing on the streets."
Deer Trail, Colo., stakes it own claim to the first US rodeo for an event held in 1867, and Pecos, Texas, claims the honor for a rodeo in 1883. All were free to the public and varied widely in their spectrum of cowboy-skill events.
The first American rodeo that resembled today's organized events is generally agreed to have been held on July 4, 1888, in Prescott, Ariz. The rodeo charged for admission, awarded prizes and had rules for competition set out by an organizing committee. The events would not have seemed too unfamiliar to today's rodeo fans — bronco riding, steer roping and "cow pony races." Steer riding, the forerunner of today's bull riding, was added in 1889, and calf roping in 1917. The contests weren't standardized until 1929, however, and the term "rodeo" wasn't even universally adopted until about the same time.
For many spectators as the real "Wild West" was tamed, rodeo competitions were intermixed with "Wild West shows" staged by the likes of "Buffalo Bill" Cody. An actual Medal of Honor recipient for "gallantry in action" as a civilian scout for the Third Cavalry in 1872, William Frederick Cody joined one of the original Wild West Shows, produced by Ned Buntline. Cody performed in a production called "Scouts of the Plains" with his friend "Texas Jack" Omohundro and another Western legend, James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok.
After touring with others for 10 years, Cody founded his own "Buffalo Bill's Wild West" show in 1883 in North Platte, Nebr. More grandly, by 1893 it became known as "Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World." By that time, Cody had already performed in London for Queen Victoria's Jubilee and met Pope Leo XIII; the show would tour Europe eight times.