One of the oldest and most successful college teams in the country gears up for its 79th annual rodeo spectacular.
Jane Wood has already taken care of her horse, cleaned its pen, and trained for barrels, breakaway, and team roping. Now she’s sitting, waiting for class to start at 8 a.m. As a member of the rodeo team, she is awake and working hours before the majority of her California Polytechnic State University classmates.
“You kind of realize how much of an impact it has on your life when kids in your class ask you, ‘Who takes care of your horse?’ ” Wood says with a laugh. Including the time she spends finding sponsorships for the team, Wood compares her daily schedule to having three full-time jobs — and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Featured Image: Jake Twissleman picks Jacob Lees off of a bareback horse during a previous edition of the Poly Royal Rodeo. Above: Thousands gather for the annual event at the Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
For Cal Poly student athletes, being on the rodeo team is about forging the strong competitive skills they can use in the classroom and in life after graduation. With the scents of the ocean, horses, and leather intermingling in the air, this isn’t the home of any average rodeo program. Located just 11 miles from San Luis Obispo Bay, the team’s practice grounds strike a fascinating and beautiful juxtaposition with traditional concepts of rodeo life.
The Cal Poly rodeo team dates back to 1939 and is one of the most accomplished programs in the country. The team has won six national championship titles over the years and 44 national titles with students ranked at the top of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association for both the West Coast Region and in the national standings. The school’s rodeo program is open to all Cal Poly students regardless of previous rodeo experience.
Wood says she knew two things when she decided to attend the selective public university in San Luis Obispo: She wanted a degree, and she wanted to rodeo.
“I did not grow up rodeoing,” Wood says. “I helped out with my family’s cattle ranch, and I always wanted to rodeo. ... It was kind of
always my dream to go and do it.”
Wood says much of her extraordinary daily motivation comes from the team’s coach, Ben Londo. A Cal Poly graduate and championship-winning college rodeo team member, Londo has been a member of the PRCA since 2003 with three Saddle Bronc Championships from the Columbia River Circuit. Londo says his students put in the hard training and academic work because of their passion for the sport.
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“Cal Poly has always been a pillar of college rodeo,” Londo says. “It has always been thought of as a college rodeo powerhouse, and it still is today.”
Londo says the team has its own practice facility and feedlot, and owns its own animal stock. From the feeding, the doctoring, and running the program to the day-to-day maintenance, budgeting, and marketing, everything is done by the students.
“It’s not just something they dabble in as a hobby,” Londo says. “They’re in it up to their necks, and they’re fully involved in rodeo.”
Over the years, Londo says, he has changed his views on coaching from just making rodeo athletes to preparing students for life after college.
“I don’t care how good a rodeo athlete you are, there’s only 5 percent or less that are going to go on and make a living out of it,” Londo says. Preparing his students for life after college is far more important to their futures, he adds. “We’ve set a standard, we’ve created an atmosphere, and these students seem to enjoy and flourish.”
Seth Niederhauser has rodeoed much of his life and is now in his third year in the school’s program, where he competes in team and tie-down roping.
“My family runs cattle,” Niederhauser says. “We’re just ranchers. I grew up on a horse.” Attending Cal Poly is also a family tradition — his parents and grandparents went to the school, and his uncle and sister all joined the rodeo team. Niederhauser admits it is tricky to balance both his academic workload and rodeo practice, but he does it for the joy of competition.
“Everybody out there has some deep connection with the rodeo, and it means a lot to them whether they’re just starting out or have been rodeoing forever,” Niederhauser says.
As the 79th edition of the school’s own Poly Royal Rodeo event draws near, Niederhauser says the excitement is palpable in the program. While he admits he tries to look at every rodeo competition with the same competitive mind set, he finds himself in the gym working just a little bit harder for the home-field event.
“It gives me a little extra strength to get those last sets in the gym or just practicing and getting my motivation going — yeah, I’d say it is a pretty big deal.”
The school’s rodeo is so popular on campus that in order to accommodate spectator demand, the school moved the annual rodeo to its Alex G. Spanos Stadium in 2017, making the Poly Royal one of the largest college rodeos in the country.
One person who will not miss it is JoAnne Switzer, a fixture in the audience.
“I’m sure they couldn’t have it without me,” Switzer jokes. “I’ve only missed one Poly Royal since 1948, and it was because I was in Oklahoma City helping someone get inducted into that rodeo hall of fame.”
Switzer is a founding member of the team’s booster club and makes it clear that supporting the program is a lifelong endeavor.
“I love Cal Poly. Always have,” Switzer says. “It has been a part of my life ever since I was a young child because I grew up in the community and we were cattle ranchers ... and I so believe in the program.”
Switzer says she plans to attend the April rodeo with “bells on.”
“I have always enjoyed working with young people and seeing them develop their potentials,” Switzer says. “I am definitely a fan through and through.”
The Poly Royal Rodeo is scheduled for April 12 – 13 at Cal Poly’s Alex G. Spanos Stadium. Find out more about the event and the team at cafes-rodeo.calpoly.edu.
Photography: Phil Doyle Photography/Courtesy Ben Londo
From the April 2019 issue.