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.
But Melby is quick to credit Oklahoma for easing that burden. She moved here two years ago, and, given the state's prevalent rodeo culture, travel has been easier on her.
“The move to Oklahoma was great because at least the winter months I'm just gone on the weekends. We all rodeo and Oklahoma is way more easy to use for what we do,” Melby said.
Family also is important to team roper Travis Graves, of Jay. His father and grandfather team roped. This is his fifth time to qualify for the NFR, and now he has a family of his own.
The travel time required to make it to the top would not be possible for Graves if his wife and young son did not come with him on the road.
“They go with me pretty much all year. It makes it a lot easier, or I wouldn't enjoy it very much,” he said.
Team roping is clearly a responsibility for Graves.
“It's my job. It's how I feed my family, Graves said. “I work at it every day, just get up like it's a job. I just do whatever I can to get better. It's not like you can just show up to the rodeo and rope. When I'm home, I practice all the time.”
Another team roper, Kollin VonAhn, explained the challenge of finding a balance with his chosen career.
“It's hard to have relationships with family and everything else if you don't have the balance to it, but for me it's harder making sure I keep a balance than it is worrying about the roping side of it, because that's all my mind thinks about,” VonAhn said.
As the only bull rider in Oklahoma headed to the NFR, Trevor Kastner understands the danger involved.
“It would be like a NASCAR race. They don't want to see anybody get hurt, but if somebody gets hurt they don't want to miss it,” he said.
“I think inside of everybody, even if they don't know it yet, there's a part of everybody that wants to be a cowboy,” VonAhn said.