Ride ’em, Cowboy!

We drove into the storm until it surrounded us. Lightning was brewing in the distance and then it was beside us. “Do you think they’re gonna cancel if it’s raining?” inquired Leah.

I really didn’t have an answer. “I’m certain that rain or shine is pretty much the rule here. This event is sold out, and there are no rain-checks for this sort of thing,” I hoped.

As we were approaching Belle Fourche (known as the geographical center of America), the rain abated. We dodged a bullet, but the evening was early. We navigated our way through town by following the crowd.

Townsfolk were homesteading on their claim of sidewalk with folding chairs and coolers in an effort to capture the best view, hours before the fireworks. Leah and I were on our way to our first rodeo in the “official” middle of nowhere.

We picked up tickets at will call, and continued through a cowboy arcade of beer, buckles and bows, mixed with the sweet smell of manure. We were shown to our seats by an usher in his sixties. Wiping them dry, the usher cautioned, “I hope I only need to do this once.”

“How much did it rain here?” Leah wanted to know.

“Not so bad. Couldn’t tell ya if it’s gonna start up again, and I used to do weather forecasting for a living,” the usher confessed. “But you know what they say about South Dakota weather?… ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes and it will change.'” I looked up from my seat. We were sitting in Row C, and the overhang eave was positioned perfectly over our heads.

“Could that explain why you’re an usher today?” I jested.

The usher turned back without hesitation. “That’s what my wife asks!”

The evening opened with a salute to America. Retired Sgt. 1st Class Dana Bowman, Special Forces maneuvered through a dark and gloomy sky, dangling from his Coca-Cola-sponsored parachute.

skydive salute

Bowman streamed into the arena amid cheers, proving to naysayers that the first double-amputee ever to reenlist in the military has the audacity to demonstrate that disability is only a state of mind.

skydive complete

The 98th Annual Black Hills Roundup attracted cowpokes from near and far,

chew and spit

each one competing for a share of $170,000 in prize money with a daring-do skill set that defies sanity. It’s risky business, but the guys on the rodeo circuit take a beating for eight seconds of work–often times coming up lame and short on funds.


Yet, if they don’t remount, there’ll be no payday. So riding injured is a way of life. The roundup was filled with traditional rodeo events:

flying cowboy
Bareback Riding
The cowboys ride one handed and cannot touch themselves or the horse with their free hand. The cowboys spur the horse from shoulder to rigging, trying to make a qualified ride of 8 seconds. Cowboys are judged on their control and spurring technique, and the horses are judged on their power, speed, and agility. A good score in the bareback riding is in the mid 80’s.
steer wrestler
Steer Wrestling
Steer wrestling is a timed event, and cowboys compete against each other and the clock. Bulldoggers start out in the box just like the tie-down and team ropers. The barrier is placed across the box and the steer is loaded into the roping chute. As soon as the cowboy nods his head the steer is released and he charges after it on his horse. The steer wrestler catches up to the steer as quickly as possible and then leans over, jumps off of his horse and grabs the steer by its head. A winning time is usually between 3 to 4 seconds, but these big boys keep getting faster and faster. Breaking the barrier in the steer wrestling results in a 10 second penalty which effectively puts you out of the money. The bulldogger then plants his feet and tosses the steer onto its side, thereby stopping the clock.
saddle bronc
Saddle Bronc Riding
As with bareback riding, the mark out rule is in effect. The cowboy spurs from the front of the horse, back to the skirt of the saddle in an arcing motion. The cowboy must constantly lift on the hack rein to keep his seat in the saddle. Scoring is the same as in all the roughstock events with 1-25 points given to the cowboy and 1-25 points for the animal by each of the two judges. Cowboys are judged on control, spur motion, and timing. Saddle broncs are judged on their bucking ability. A good score in the saddle bronc riding is in the high 80’s.
bull rider before
Bull Riding
As with bareback riding, and saddle bronc, bull riders ride with one hand and cannot touch themselves or their bull with the free hand. Doing so results in a no score. Two judges give 1-25 points for the cowboys performance and 1-25 points for the animals performance. 100 points being the maximum, and is considered a perfect ride. Cowboys can spur for extra points, but just staying on the bull for 8 seconds is the main priority. A good score in the bull riding is in the 90’s. There has been one perfect score of 100 in the PRCA.
bull rider after
 Thrown Bullrider
Team Roping
Team roping is the only team event in rodeo. The two cowboys involved in team roping have unique goals. The first, known as the header, does just what the name implies and ropes the head of the cattle. The other cowboy, known as the heeler, ropes the heels or legs. The header is the first out trying to rope the head as quickly as possible without breaking the barrier. Once the catch is made the header dallies and turns the steer left. This opens up the way for the heeler to work his magic and rope the legs. The clock is stopped when there is no slack in both ropes and the horses face each other. If the barrier is broken a 10 second penalty is added to the time. Also, if the heeler manages to catch only one leg, then a 5 second penalty is added. In addition to these penalties there are only 3 legal catches that the header can make. These are: both horns – one horn and the head – the neck.

Barrelman Dennis Halstead provided slapstick shtick between events, while concessions provided corn dogs, cookies, and coffee.


Not to be outdone, Cowboy Kenny Bartram and his protege performed X-Game stunts on their steel horses after all the real horses had been stabled for the night.

flying cycle

And if that wasn’t enough, the night finished with a flurry of fireworks.


It rained for much of the drive back to the Airstream in Rapid City, making the trip longer than necessary, but a time for reflection. The America I witnessed tonight was spirited and inspiring.

It was cathartic for the cowboys to chew tobacco, drink beer and raise hell, while young families dressed their kids in patriotic onesies, and showed off their newest Western boots. It was an evening dedicated to perpetual promotion–from the ads, the banners, the announcements, the props, to the flag-waving riders.

Banner girl

And it was a chance to see how important rodeo is to the qualifiers, and applaud how they risk their futures to compete and entertain the crowd.

But more than anything, I was grateful that I would wake up tomorrow feeling better than the cowboys.

* Description and Rules provided by PRCA.


2 thoughts on “Ride ’em, Cowboy!

  1. Not to worry, none of the animals are harmed in any way. After they toss their rider they are happily guided back to their pens. Their owners take very good care of these bulls and horses as they are worth over six figures!

    Liked by 1 person

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