Photography: Phillip Doyle
Photography: Phillip Doyle

Oh, how we love a great rodeo. Here are 10 of our all-time favorites.

To say it’s a long way to Las Vegas is an understatement.

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association sanctions nearly 600 events in 37 states and three Canadian provinces every year that pay out nearly $40 million in total prize money. Thousands of cowboys and cowgirls — there are more than 7,000 members and 5,300 active competitors — ​enter upwards of 100 rodeos and, in some cases, drive as many as 100,000 miles in hopes of being among the Top 15 contestants in each of the disciplines.

Reigning world champion barrel racer Fallon Taylor averages 93,000 miles a year in her truck — 75,000 of which she personally drives herself — pulling her horse behind in a trailer. Taylor says she averages “two blowouts per month.” In a typical year, reigning tie-down roping champ Tuf Cooper covers 65,000 miles of blacktop. He saves time by flying to some events if his horse can hitch a ride in someone else’s trailer.

For Taylor, Cooper, and the other reigning world champions — Kaycee Feild, Luke Branquinho, Clay Tryan, Jade Corkill, Spencer Wright, and Sage Kimzey among them — the miles are worth it. Because the payoff is to be among the top athletes who reach the pinnacle of rodeo, which is the chance to compete at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, held every December at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

“The history of the Wrangler National Finals is traditional,” says PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman, “but it continues to create this great excitement every year. Even during the year, when people are either attending, competing in, or producing rodeos, that brass ring in the conversation always seems to get around to the Wrangler National Finals and what it means.

“The ultimate goal is to leave the Wrangler National Finals with a gold buckle on,” Stressman says. “Those rodeos [leading up to the NFR] claim those moments, where the tie-down roping champion had a win at their particular rodeo. It creates an atmosphere that pushes the competitors toward [the world championship]. When you look at the rodeo industry — fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not sure which — it’s 365 days a year.”

Along the way are plenty of other memorable rodeos with a century or more of history, tradition, and pageantry. From Denver to Fort Worth and Cheyenne to Pendleton, the PRCA sanctions some of the most prestigious rodeos in the world. But some of the top-rated rodeo athletes also log miles traveling south to RodeoHouston and north of the border to the Calgary Stampede — ​two world-renowned independent rodeos.

The following is a mini-guide to some of our favorites that deliver the romance of rodeo to everyone from dyed-in-the-wool loyalists to casual city slickers.

Photography: Courtesy National Western Stock Show
Photography: Courtesy National Western Stock Show

National Western Stock Show

Next One: January 9 – 24, 2016
Venue: Denver Coliseum
Established: The rodeo came about in 1931, 25 years after the livestock and horse show began in 1906.
Noteworthy: The PRCA stock contractors have included none other than Gene Autry.

“I always looked at Denver as the first rodeo of the year,” says nine-time world champion Ty Murray, who admires rodeos like the National Western that are steeped in tradition. “That was the first big one that started every year off. It was usually snowy and cold. We rodeoed for a living and we were going to go no matter what, and I remember Denver was the place that was like a New Year’s resolution. That’s where everybody was starting out the New Year and that was the year they were really going to go for it. Everybody and their dog went to Denver because they were all going to see what kind of luck they could have, but, for us, it was just the first in a year of rodeoing. It’s always nice to go do good at Denver because that just meant you had a little bit of a head start in the race.

“[Denver’s] always a knowledgeable crowd and a nostalgic crowd,” Murray says. “With the livestock show and everything connected to it, it felt nostalgic. When you’re competing there, it’s one of those things where you feel like all the greats that have come before you have been there, and you feel that in the building. In music, you could compare that to the Austin City Limits Music Festival or the [Grand Ole] Opry. It has that feel. You know there’s people that you looked up to that have been there before you.”

Photography: Courtesy Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo
Photography: Courtesy Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo

Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo

Next One: January 15 – February 6, 2016
Established: 1896
Venue: Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth, Texas
Distinguishing Characteristic: The “World’s Original Indoor Rodeo” hosts seven “specialty rodeos” along with 29 PRCA competitions.

“My husband [Billy Minick] used to have a rodeo company,” says rodeo personality and 1973 Miss Rodeo America Pam Minick. “He was born and raised in Fort Worth, so when he got the contract and came back, he said his proudest moment was leading the grand entry when they said, ‘Produced by Billy Minick.’ So my proudest moment at the Fort Worth Stock Show doesn’t even involve me, but it makes me so proud for him because I can only imagine how proud we would have felt having grown up as a kid watching the Fort Worth Stock Show and then riding in it.

“They used to have entertainment, and [Billy] remembers Gene Autry riding his horse up on the piano, so the history goes deep,” she says. “They still have zero signs in the arena — no sponsor signs in the arena at all. That arena wall looks the same now if you were to compare it to 1966. The only difference is, it was in black-and-white.”

Make sure to walk through the livestock barns, where there are 28,000 head of world-class livestock on exhibit. The Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show 60th Annual Select Breeders Quarter Horse Sale will take place on Saturday, February 6. In addition to the barns, everyone has 23 days to experience Western history, tradition, and heritage spread out over 4 acres of exhibition and shopping space.

Photography: Courtesy Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo
Photography: Courtesy Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

Rodeo Houston

Next One: March 1 – 20, 2016
Established: 1932
Venue: NRG Park
Most Memorable Moment: George Strait drew a crowd of 80,000 fans for his concert in 2013.

“In 1997, I was 14 years old and I won that rodeo,” says reigning world champion barrel racer Fallon Taylor. “It was my first major rodeo win, and it was actually in the Astrodome. It was the most exciting thing I had ever accomplished in my career, at that time. At 14, you have no fear and you really don’t know the consequences of if you do good or bad, so I was just kind of looking around for my mom up in the stands after I ran. I saw her working with her calculator and a pencil at the same time and she just threw her program up in the air and started crying, so I knew I had done really well. I had only beat Sherry Cervi by .01 of a second. I knew it was close, and it was really exciting.”

Don’t miss the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, held since 1974, which features more than 250 teams competing in a traditional cook-off. The competition tents are mostly by invitation only, but the public can hit the Chuck Wagon for complimentary chopped beef sandwich plates. If you really want to drink it all in, winning wines from the Rodeo Uncorked! International Wine Competition are featured at the Champion Wine Garden.

Photography: Cornelius Photography
Photography: Cornelius Photography

Reno Rodeo

Next One: June 16 – 25, 2016
Established: 1919
Venue: Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center
Most Anticipated Event: A five-day cattle drive that culminates with the cattle being driven through the streets to the rodeo grounds.

The fourth-richest PRCA rodeo of the year unofficially kicks off what’s affectionately known as “Cowboy Christmas.” The period starting at the end of June and extending through the Fourth of July (or all the way through July, depending whom you talk to) is considered Christmastime by pro rodeo athletes because of the big winnings to be earned at dozens of rodeos, which include some of the biggest events of the summer. Over the week of Independence Day alone, there are usually more than 30 rodeos going on throughout the West.

“In my rookie year, I went to Reno and I won it,” says Charmayne James, an 11-time world champion barrel racer. “That was just a really special time because it was my birthday and I was turning 14. My dad had flown in from New Mexico. He ran a commercial cattle-feeding operation and that’s just one of those jobs you can’t leave very much, so to have him come there on my birthday and win the rodeo was amazing.

“The girl who ultimately wound up finishing second, Brenda Tyler, came out and ran a fast time, and she was whooping and hollering because she kind of thought she had it. Then [my horse] Scamper and me just went out and made a great run. We ended up outrunning her that day, and I can remember the crowd was just going crazy. That was just one of those times in my 19 years that I’ll just always remember.”

Photography: Chris Bolin/ Calgary Stampede
Photography: Chris Bolin/ Calgary Stampede

Calgary Stampede

Next One: July 8 – 17, 2016
Established: In 1912 by Guy Weadick
Location: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Claim to Fame: It's the world’s richest tournament-style rodeo.

“I don’t know if people realize the rodeo is just a part of the whole experience,” says rodeo entertainer Flint Rasmussen, who has worked 15 Stampedes since 1999. “There’s over 100,000 people through the gates every day, night shows, concerts, chuck wagon races, and the rodeo. And it’s so international. The percentage of people at that rodeo every day that have never seen anything like it makes it great and makes it difficult work as well. You’re entertaining and educating all at the same time. That makes it unique, but I also think the arena, where the rodeo is held, is like this little island of the West in this modern facility. Everything else is modern. It’s right in the middle of the city and the river runs right through there. It’s beautiful. The grandstand is like a modern baseball stadium, but there’s that patch of dirt out there where we go do our thing. ... It’s a destination for Europeans and people from Asian countries, and you see large groups. They’re in tour groups. They all sit together, and it’s almost like a big convention.”

The greatest performance in the 103-year history of the Calgary Stampede doesn’t go to an athlete in a particular event, but to the people of Alberta. Two weeks prior to the 2013 event, southern Alberta suffered widespread flooding. Much of Stampede Park, including the entire rodeo arena and racetrack, was underwater. Volunteers worked round-the-clock to ensure the show would go on. According to Stampede officials, “The teamwork and incredible effort it took just to be ready for the Stampede that year is our most memorable performance in recent history.”

Photography: Phillip Doyle
Photography: Phillip Doyle

Rodeo Salinas

Next One: July 21 – 24, 2016
Established: 1911
Venue: Salinas Sports Complex in Salinas, California
Good to Know: It’s not rodeo. Like the famously exclusive shopping street in Beverly Hills, it’s pronounced roe-DAY-o.

“It goes back to the old style of rodeo,” says legendary rodeo producer Cotton Rosser, who provided all the stock for California Rodeo Salinas from 1968 to 1980 and has been hauling stock there since 2010. “It’s a big arena with the racetrack, and they run two arenas at once. They’ll have the roping stuff going on in the arena and then they’ll have the horse races on the track at the same time.

“They’re trying to reenact the rodeos like we had in the past and keep that alive. Salinas is like Cheyenne and maybe even like Pendleton or even like Calgary. Salinas has the atmosphere. It’s kind of old-fashioned — they have senior citizens Gold Card roping. It’s like a family reunion. It’s like a reunion of all the old-timers — the ones that are left. It used to be called Big Week many years ago, but I don’t think they use that term anymore.”

Each night closes with a freestyle bullfighting event, wherein six bullfighters go head-to-head with Mexican fighting bulls that are known to get smarter with every confrontation. The freestyle bullfighters compete for 70 seconds full of athletic jumping and juking — and bravery.

While in Salinas, be sure to visit the California Rodeo Heritage Museum, which is home to a unique collection of rodeo memorabilia from the past century — saddles, tack, outfits, awards, and an authentic Wells Fargo stagecoach.

Courtesy: Cheyenne Frontier Days
Courtesy: Cheyenne Frontier Days

Cheyenne Frontier Days

Next One: July 22 – 31, 2016
Established: 1897
Venue: Frontier Park in Cheyenne, Wyoming
Claim to Fame: Known as the “Daddy of ’em All,” it's the largest outdoor rodeo in the world.

“I’ll never forget the first time I went to Cheyenne,” says reigning world champion tie-down roper Tuf Cooper, who started competing there in 2008. “I can’t recall what I did last year or the last couple times, but I’ll never forget that first year. First off, I grew up watching every rodeo with my dad, that being the big one. It had so much history behind it. I thought I knew what to expect, and I thought I knew what was going on. I back into the box and it’s so different. You gotta let the calf out so far, and they’re fresh and just walking out there. You gotta be so patient. My dad was in the box with me, and the calves were a little stronger than most. I got my lunch ate. I got the whistle. I was a little 18-year-old kid out there trying to rope with the big guys. I was out of breath. I didn’t win anything, but I remember it was the most fun that I’d ever had roping. I’d wanted to rope there forever, and I finally got to do what I always wanted to do.”

“It was awesome to win the all-around,” says Cooper, who won it in 2013, 20 years after his legendary father, Roy, last won it in 1993. “I got to go in that room and have my picture put up with all the other all-around champions. It’s this special room they have there for all the all-around champions. It’s — what? — almost 120 years now. It’s all the guys I grew up watching and reading about — guys from the ’30s and ’40s. And seeing some of their pictures for the first time, it was awesome. My dad’s won the all-around plenty of times, and my brother-in-law Trevor [Brazile] has won it a thousand times over there.”

Photography: Bill Lawless/Courtesy Ellensburg Rodeo
Photography: Bill Lawless/Courtesy Ellensburg Rodeo

Ellensburg Rodeo

Next One: September 2 – 5, 2016
Established: 1923
Venue: Ellensburg Rodeo Arena in Ellensburg, Washington
Most Anticipated Event: The PRCA Xtreme Bulls Tour finale is held here.

“There’s a lot of added intensity,” says Justin McKee, who announces at Ellensburg, one of the last opportunities to qualify for the NFR. “When that thing’s over, there are exactly 25 days left of the season. It might as well be the playoffs because if you don’t do something there, for most of them, it’s not going to happen. It’s the beginning of the homestretch to the finish line, so what it does is set the momentum or takes the momentum away on somebody that’s making the mad dash. It’s big enough that it could carry you clear across the finish line [in terms of the Top 15]. Everybody is there that has a shot, so between there and Walla Walla [Washington], they stay pretty close that week.”

“It’s known as Rodeo City,” says McKee, who appreciates the fact that all the residents of Ellensburg are personally involved in the rodeo. “It’s my favorite stop of the year. It’s off the charts. It’s a small town, but it’s a humongous rodeo. It has a lot of ranching heritage in it.”

Don’t miss the annual Ellensburg Rodeo Hall of Fame induction ceremony held in the Western Village. The 2015 inductees include steer wrestler John W. Jones Jr. and roper Vern Castro.

Photography: John Laptad
Photography: John Laptad

Pendleton Round-up

Next One: September 14 – 17, 2016
Established: September 29, 1910
Venue: The Pendleton Round-Up arena seats approximately 17,000. In addition to a track that accommodates the court entry and Indian relay races, the grass infield doubles as the local high school’s football field in the fall.
Distinction: It's known as the rodeo where “the chutes are made of wood and the men are made of iron.”

“That was the ultimate, and all us young guys just dreamed of being able to ride in the Pendleton Round-Up,” says eight-time all-around world champion Larry Mahan, an Oregon native. “I had some great years there and was very successful during my competitive years. It’s a very special event that’s been going on for a very long time, and, in my opinion, it’s one of the all-time great rodeos. It’s one of the greatest timed-event rodeos that you’ll ever see because of the way they start the cattle down off that hill and they’re running them down through there on horseback. They are moving when they clear that box there. It certainly is an amazing event.”

One of the more historic moments took place in 1911, when the Round-Up hosted the buck-off for world champion. The event featured George Fletcher, an African American; Jackson Sundown, a Native American; and John Spain, a Caucasian. Even though Spain allegedly had a foul for touching his horse and Fletcher was the crowd favorite with two spectacular rides, Spain was awarded the win. In protest, Sheriff Til Taylor tore up Fletcher’s hat and auctioned the pieces to raise $350 to buy him a saddle like the one awarded to Spain. Two books — Last Go Round: A Real Western by Ken Kesey and Ken Babbs, and Red White Black by Rick Steber — have been published about that September day.

Photography: Greg Westfall
Photography: Greg Westfall

Wrangler National Finals Rodeo

Next One: December 3 – 12, 2015
Established: 1959 in Dallas. Three years later it moved to Los Angeles before moving to Oklahoma City in 1965, where it remained until moving to Las Vegas in 1985.
Venue: Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas

“If you look at the production of the Wrangler National Finals under Shawn Davis’ direction,” says PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman, “it runs so quickly that you can’t look away. You can’t not pay attention or you’ll miss something, so that creates another piece of anticipation and excitement. When you get done with a two-hour production, 15 guys in each event, with the action as quick as it is — that creates another brand of excitement.”

Don’t miss the grand entry to each performance, in which all 120 contestants ride into the arena on horseback behind their state or national flag. Following the performance, round winners receive their buckles each night in a lively onstage presentation on the ground floor Dance Hall at the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa. Outside the arena, there’s massive shopping at Cowboy Christmas at the Las Vegas Convention Center and free concerts by top country talent at the annual Downtown Hoedown on Fremont Street.

From the November/December 2015 issue.