Cards and dice give way to spurs and saddles in Las Vegas during the National Finals Rodeo.
THIS IS NOT MY FIRST RODEO, but it might as well be. The leisurely rodeos of my youth took place in poky outdoor settings where you inhaled dust while eating corn dogs. But tonight I'm in Las Vegas's 17,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center arena where legendary fiddler Charlie Daniels has just kicked off the ceremonies, accompanied by flashing lights, puffs of smoke, and the cheering of a sellout crowd. It feels more like a rock concert than a rodeo.
But this isn't just any rodeo. It's the National Finals Rodeo, organized in 1959 to serve as a sort of Super Bowl for cowboys. Competitors typically drive 70,000 or more miles a year to take part in 80 to 100 rodeos, but only the top 15 contenders in each of seven events (see Seven Up) are invited to come to NFR and vie for a share of its $5.6 million purse.
First up is bareback riding. A burly gelding, Real Deal, is trying to climb out of the chute as Oregonian Bobby Mote hovers above him, psyching himself up. "You get all the time leading up to prepare your body and mind, and when that gate swings open you see how good a job you've done," Mote confides later. "If people had any idea of the preparation that went into each rodeo, it'd blow them away."
Tonight Mote stays astride Real Deal for the required eight seconds, his free hand never touching the animal as it corkscrews around the ring. Mote's score: 86.5 out of 100 points, based in equal parts on his riding and on Real Deal's bucking. What does he enjoy about this bone-jarring experience? "Winning," Mote says. And by the end of the week he's done just that, taking home the world champion bareback riding title and $55,000.
Originally a friendly competition between ranch hands, rodeos emerged in the late 19th century as a spectator sport where cowboys could show off their roping and riding skills. Though there are some famous exceptions (Bronx-born Bobby DelVecchio and Charlie Sampson, the 1982 champion bull rider from Los Angeles), most NFR contestants still come from the semirural West. Both parents of Cheney, Wash., resident Ryan Gray rodeoed; he began bronc busting in fifth grade—on Shetland ponies. ("They're actually really ornery," Gray says.)
"Secretly I always wanted to be a jockey," says Texan Brittany
Pozzi-Pharr, NFR's 2007 world champion barrel racer. This event, the only one for women, involves racing a horse full tilt around three barrels, executing hairpin turns without toppling the barrels. As with all rodeo events, victory depends on both human and animal. "You can have a great rider on a crappy horse and you can't win anything," says Pozzi-Pharr, who credits her triumph to her gelding, Stitch. "It's 70 percent horse."
The most violent event is reserved for last. A century ago, for kicks, cowboys would jump on steers and try not to get thrown. Gradually steers were replaced with 1,600-to 2,000-pound bulls, and a goofy stunt evolved into a competition that can turn lethal. The concept is similar to bareback bronc riding—except that bulls sometimes try to kill their riders.
At NFR, even the bulls are special: They're nastier.
A rodeo novice wouldn't know this, or appreciate the skill required to tie down a calf in under seven seconds, or consider that a top steer wrestler spends months just learning to jump off his horse correctly. If you don't understand the nuances, why travel to NFR when you can find other rodeos closer to home? For a chance to see the best compete head-to-head like denim-clad Olympians. Only here the winners get their gold in belt buckles instead of medals.
BAREBACK RIDING A competitor tries to remain on a bucking horse for eight seconds while grasping a "rigging" with just one hand.
BARREL RACING This event, exclusive to women, requires a rider to guide her horse through a barrel course at high speed.
BULL RIDING A rider hangs on to a braided rope with one hand as the bull tries to dislodge him.
SADDLE BRONC RIDING Similar to bareback riding except that the rider sits on a saddle and uses one hand to hold a rein.
STEER WRESTLING A contestant jumps from his horse onto a running steer and pins it by getting all four of its legs off the ground.
TEAM ROPING One rider ropes a steer around the neck while the other rider handles the hind legs.
TIE-DOWN ROPING A rider must rope a calf over the head, then tie up three of the animal's legs.
Photography courtesy PRCA ProRodeo/Mike Copeman
This article was first published in November 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.