We Have to Unify

Photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

Photo by matt cohen / cowboy journal

It seems like it has always been the roughies versus the timies in rodeo. That should end.

by Tim O’Connell

I read Shane Hanchey’s column about added money and his follow-up conversation with Sage Kimzey. They both made some great points. You can go back and forth about what’s fair when it comes to rodeo purses, but the bottom line is we’re all riding this train together.

There’s already an unspoken bond between the bareback and saddle bronc riders. The saddle bronc guys help us get ready, and we help the bronc riders get ready. In the past, I’d go to the roughstock end of the arena, where the bareback riders were in the chutes and the saddle bronc riders were starting to filter in. Normally, before the rodeo was even over, we were gone and headed to the next one. That’s no different from the calf ropers going to slacks. There are always pros and cons on each side as to how you work the rodeos. That’s just the game you play. The point is, by the time we were done with our events, there was no reason for us to go to the timed-event end and meet people.

But ever since I joined the 12 Gauge Ranch team, a door has opened for me to be able to talk to some of the timed-event guys more. It’s pretty much a timed-event team, made up mostly of bulldoggers and barrel racers and ropers. I’ve gotten to know Shane and Ty Erickson and Tyler Pearson and Tyler Waguespack. Now, they’re friends. I have a reason to go talk to those guys, to say, Hey, what’s up? How’s the road been? It makes me care more about those guys. I mean, you can never have enough friends in this world. It’s made rodeo more personal.

Sure, rodeo is a business. But, man, regardless of the event, we’re out here living our dreams and, at the end of the day, you want people to be able to make a living at this sport. You want the best for everybody, whether they’re roughies or timies.

I feel like there’s a circle of life in rodeo that includes the contestants, stock contractors, membership, Procom and committees. We all have to work with each other to make rodeo work. Take one of us away, and rodeo’s done. Take Procom away, and there will be no way to enter the rodeos. Take the contractors away, and we don’t have stock to supply the rodeo. Take the contestants away, and there goes the entertainment aspect. And if you take the committees away, we don’t have a place to go compete.

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Part of the Circle

I pretty much grew up in rodeo. My Dad was a pickup man for Three Hills Rodeo for many years. Before that, he did the same for Cervi Championship Rodeo. As a kid, I spent every weekend traveling around the U.S. watching my Dad do his thing. My brother was a bull rider turned bullfighter who then followed in my Dad’s footsteps. He’s now a very, very good pickup man. Truth be told, I don’t even ride broke horses very well. I just knew I wanted to be involved with rodeo. I rode bulls and when I was 18 found bareback riding to be my specialty. Other guys found roping.

There’s a saying in this business: You’ll never forget rodeo, but rodeo will forget you. Unfortunately, it’s true. Rodeo is a what-can-you-do-for-me-now sport. I’ve sat out the last four months recovering from a shoulder injury I got at last year’s NFR, and when you’re sidelined, you don’t get phone calls. They don’t miss you.

Guys go broke playing this game. It’s a love addiction. Very few get out and can retire and say, Man, I’m gonna do whatever I want. Most have to go get jobs. And when we do have a big lick, a lot of us aren’t educated enough to know how to put it away so that taxes don’t take it all from us. All of a sudden your career’s over, and it’s just done. No big hurrah. No retirement plan. It’s just over, and rodeo goes on.

I want rodeo to go on. If my child decides he wants to rodeo, I want him to rodeo, and the same goes for his kids. I want the PRCA to succeed. I want them to be the front-runner. I want more than the top five guys in the world to be able to make a living at this and go do what they want afterwards. I mean, I know guys who have had to take out loans to go to the NFR. That’s crazy. You shouldn’t go broke and be one of the best fifteen guys in the world at what you do.

Let’s Be Honest

It’s an unspoken thing between each event that we don’t talk about each other’s money—the committees, the contractors, the individuals in each event. It’s just something that’s never brought up. I think the old hush-hush days—the days of don’t tell so-and-so what you’re making, this is between us—need to end.

In the past I feel like there was so much miscommunication and downright dishonesty. You would ask a contractor why this committee did this or that and often they didn’t know but they fed you some BS. There needs to be an open communications channel so we can reach each other and get real facts and answers. Everything should be transparent.

And as contestants, we need to stop cutting each other’s throats. The lure of money is good, but money spends. We’ve got to find a way as a group, as a whole, to come together, whether you’re a roper, a bulldogger or a roughstock rider.

I’ll give you an example. It’s painful even to mention.

Late in the 2014 rodeo season, I was broke and trying to make my first National Finals Rodeo, when I flew out to Washington to compete in the Kennewick rodeo. I was part of the Champions Challenge, a televised event featuring some of the top bareback riders in the world. When we got there, the horses we thought we were riding—the ones we had all agreed on—weren’t the ones they offered us. Instead, they brought ten of the worst horses you can imagine. None of us contestants was happy.

We all sat down in the locker room to talk things out. I was just a kid coming off my rookie year, but some of the veteran bareback riders said we should tell the committee, Either get the horses we agreed on, or we’re boycotting the rodeo.

This was three hours or so before performance time.

The PRCA flew in our commissioner, Karl Stressman, to try to smooth things over and convince us all to get on the horses. He said, We’ll make this right with you guys. This won’t happen again.

Did I mention I was broke? All I could think about was the twelve-hundred bucks I had wrapped up in airfare, plus entry fees. I wasn’t interested in using this to my advantage to get myself higher in the standings. It was just that I went there to compete. I wanted to compete. And I was running seriously low on funds.

Ryan Gray had stepped up to lead us, and I remember him saying, Hey, if you need to get on, do what you need to do. We don’t pay your bills. I’m not going to judge you.

Three of us decided to get on the horses.

I knew as soon as the whistle blew that I made the biggest mistake of my career. I just cut my brothers’ throats for a paycheck.

I ended up winning second. The PRCA came to us and said, You three are gonna split the money set aside for fourth, fifth and sixth. I told them, No, I only want money for placing second. The three of us made that clear. We didn’t want ground money. The PRCA ended up splitting the rest of the money between the guys that sat out. I think it was maybe six or eight hundred dollars each.

That day was a defining moment for me. I’m not one to say I’m wrong very often, but that was a big mistake. It haunted me for years.

The very next year, the PRCA asked the top fifteen bareback riders to sign a Champions Challenge contract that didn’t give us any say over the horses. That didn’t sit well, so we made a deal. We said we’d sign the contract only if they let us screen the horses first. The same should be true for all events. Everybody deserves an equal opportunity.

Well, the PRCA agreed to let us screen our stock and gave us a signing deadline so they could go line up sponsors. But when we got the contract, it didn’t say anything about us being able to screen the horses. This time, I stood with the group. We said, No, we’re not signing these contracts.

They must have expected us to balk, because, without telling us, they also sent contracts to the next fifteen bareback riders. All those guys signed, and the PRCA came at us. They said, You can either be with us or not at all. If not, we’ll take the guys ranked 16 to 30.

The PRCA knew we’d cut each other’s throats for a little extra money. They knew, because I had previously done it. They turned us against each other.

We refused to sign. They brought in 16 to 30, and the sponsors threw a fit. It wasn’t until Round Nine of the 2015 NFR that year when the PRCA finally agreed to let us screen our stock for the next year’s Champions Challenge.

The Champions Challenge only lasted another couple of years. But there are other things that divide us. That kind of thing has got to stop.

We have to unify.

I’m optimistic. There’s a lot of change going on in the PRCA right now. With Houston coming back and The American getting sanctioned, things are changing. In my opinion, our new CEO, George Taylor, is doing a bang-up job. He goes out of his way to talk to contestants. He’ll pick up your phone call. And if he doesn’t pick it up, he’ll call you back. He goes to rodeos, big and small, across the U.S. to meet committees and members. I think he was at every circuit finals this year. George wants the cowboys to succeed. He wants the fifteenth guy to come into the NFR with a quarter million dollars in his pocket. I think he’s the change we needed.

I’ll admit: Change is hard, especially in a sport grounded in tradition. But we have to grow as an organization. Now that I have a son, my eyes are a little more open. If he wants to rodeo when he grows older, I want rodeo to be better than when I came into it. I love this game. I’m living the American Dream right now. But if rodeo doesn’t change, it won’t exist down the road.

Photo by Matt Cohen

Photo by Matt Cohen


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