The sport of rodeo, which grew from real life skills needed on ranches, has become a lifestyle that is envied and infamous.
But for the cowboys and cowgirls who make their living competing, it's a job. This year, eight Oklahomans will head to the National Finals Rodeo on Dec. 5-14 in Las Vegas, to compete for championships.
The NFR began in 1959 and, after brief stints in California and Texas, had residence in Oklahoma City for more than 20 years, said Jim Bainbridge, senior public relations coordinator for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. But in 1985, the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip beckoned, and the NFR headed west.
“It's been sold out all 10 nights for more than 25 years, so it's loud and very intense. It's been called the World Series. People come for two weeks to take in the spectacle of it,” Bainbridge said. He said there is a $60 million economic impact to the city, not including gambling.
The prize money goes up every year and tops out at more than $6 million this year, Bainbridge said.
Each event, from barrel racing to bull riding, awards round winners each night and then an overall champion at the end of the 10 days. The winners of each round make $18,000.
“The people who do really well over that 10-day period can make over $100,000, so the big chase is to get to the NFR,” Bainbridge said.
Three team ropers, a steer wrestler, two tie-down ropers, a barrel racer and a bull rider will represent Oklahoma this year.
Jane Melby, a barrel racer originally from Minnesota, now, almost reverently, calls Burneyville home. She has been to the NFR before, but this year she's without a horse. Her horse was injured this summer and she has had to borrow horses to keep up with the competitive rigor of the rodeo circuit.
The circuit is not just a string of rodeos to attend. It's a strategic game where every dollar won counts in the standings, and only the top 15 contestants in each category qualify for the NFR. An injury to horse or rider can put a competitor completely out of the running.
“When he went out, I was sitting fourth in the standings, and I had a choice. I could go home, give it up or try the road of hard knocks and see what I could get done, and I got it done,” Melby said. Added to her stress is the strain of being away from family. She is a wife and mother.