Before I begin, I should warn aspiring competitors that it’s not just a matter of jumping in the chutes and holding on tight.
You don’t need to have grown up on a farm or ranch, but it helps to have some familiarity with horses and bulls.
I didn’t grow up riding broncs; in fact I didn’t get into it until my early 20s. It all started while photographing rodeos for the Pinedale newspaper. I love adrenaline rushes, and bronc riding seemed like a fine substitute for martial arts — both are fast and require taking a beating for some glory.
It wasn’t the roughstock that nearly scared me away — it was the price tag on all the equipment. Who knew rodeo would be so expensive?
My first time in the chutes was about as Western as it gets. No helmet, no vest, not even a mouthguard or gloves. I just plopped my scrawny rear in a borrowed saddle and hoped for the best.
Instead, I got a mouthful of dirt and discovered an unknown talent as a contortionist.
• Lesson No. 1 — borrow equipment, but buy your own mouthguard.
The cool thing about the rodeo community is the riders are so hungry for some new competition that they’ll often lend out gear for newcomers to get a feel for the sport and see if it’s right for them.
If you don’t know anyone who competes, poke around behind the chutes and around the crow’s nest. Eventually you’ll find someone who will loan out some gear for a trial ride or two.
Some groups offer lessons and even host week-long camps or “rodeo schools,” these are pretty solid investments if you’re looking to go all in. But, if it’s just a few weekends of playing cowboy and seeing if you’ve got the grit, then by all means take it casual and have some fun.
• Lesson No. 2 — You’ve got to be mental, and I don’t mean crazy. Keep calm, breathe steady and approach it with the confidence that you can do it. Panicking and getting scared is what really throws you off (literally).
• Lesson No. 3 — OK, so you’re hooked now. Popping joints, bruises in places that have never been bruised before and bandages are your new best friends.
Now it’s time to make another friend, used rodeo gear swaps.
Surely someone has lost or gained weight and can’t fit into their protective vest. Maybe someone scored new gear and is selling their old stuff.
Either way, avoid buying new when you’re still new to the sport. (Added bonus: Equipment that’s already broken in seems to work better; at least in my experience it did.)
Buying used will save you a lot of money, which is good news because you’ll be dishing it out for entry fees, travel expenses and anything else that comes up while playing weekend warrior.
• Lesson No. 4 — Cutting costs while on the road is essential. The only way to become a millionaire in rodeo is to start out as a billionaire.
But, you don’t have to stay at a hotel every weekend, or ever, if you’re thrifty.
I funded my rodeos by working a side gig at a guest ranch nearby, then stretched every dollar by using my gym membership to score a shower as needed.
If you were in an Anytime Fitness in Montana, Wyoming or Texas from 2012 through 2013 and saw an extremely dirty guy smelling like ... well, you know what ... jogging along on a treadmill and then hopping in the shower afterwards, that was probably me.
Either way, having a franchised gym membership meant access to a hot shower after a night of crashing in my truck.
Why shell out $100 for a hotel room when the truck is right there?
This actually leads into the next part, exercise.
• Lesson No. 5 — Stay in shape. Unless you’re bulldogging, any extra pounds come at a disadvantage. Running will burn fat, making for better rides and swifter escapes once you get bucked off.
Do yoga for core strength and flexibility. The pickup men don’t like hearing you shout to come closer, so if you want a safe dismount, you’ll need to be flexible.
Like any sport, the better shape you’re in, the better you’ll compete.
• Lesson No. 6 — Never stop learning.
Practice whenever you get the chance, watch what other guys do and try it out, listen when advice is given and don’t take criticism personally.
• Lesson No. 7 — Know your limits and know when to quit.
Rodeo isn’t like most sports, you can’t do it forever. It’s not a matter of if, but when — you will eventually get to the point where being tossed to the ground is no longer a safe idea, and that’s when it’s time to call it quits.
Plenty of guys keep going, even after their doctors say to cut it out if they want to continue walking, and there’s nothing fun about permanent injuries.
With all that in mind, I thought I’d end with some words of encouragement. I’ve seen guys win rodeos who had never so much as been on a bronc or a bull. It’s the luck of the draw, and luck was on their side.
Meanwhile, I’ve seen guys who have done it their entire lives land face first in the dirt as soon as the timer starts.
It’s a dangerous sport and anything can happen, so cheer for your competitors and help them out — odds are good you’ll be needing some help soon too.