Watching Lonesome Dove is the closest most of us will ever get to the Old West. But part-time rodeo pros find their inner cowboy every weekend. Buckle crafted by Max Lang and photographed by Pat Haverfield.
There’s something about a livestock show and rodeo that brings out everyone’s inner Texas Ranger. Walking up to the Star of Texas Fair and Rodeo in Austin, where the neon-lit Ferris wheel slowly spins and the smoky smell of barbecue floats on the unseasonably chilly breeze, people stand up straight and tall in their western wear. A few start to swagger. More than a few spit into the grass.
Amid the shiny boots and fringe worn once a year, Kelly Maben sits on a bench, wearing a T-shirt and sneakers, bouncing her baby daughter, Macye. In the barn behind her, her horse waits patiently for his four p.m. feeding. One more barrel-racing run in this arena 340 miles from her hometown of Spur, Texas, and Maben and family will be on the highway, heading home. If she wins, she’ll be $2,000 closer to a year-end total that she hopes will qualify her for the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) again.
Tomorrow it will be dark when she gets up in the morning, looks out of her bedroom window at the barn to check on the horses, and dresses for her twice-daily trudge out onto the high Texas plains to feed them. And it will be dark when, just before bedtime, she takes one last look out that window to make sure they’re safe.
There’s a lot riding, so to speak, on the safety of Maben’s horses, particularly her star 13-year-old gelding, Mystic Angela, a.k.a. Bubba. He’s been her ticket to the NFR two out of the last three years. He helped her supplement her salary as a teacher in Spur, some 40 miles from Lubbock, by more than $100,000 last year. If something happens to Bubba, Maben’s barrel-racing career could screech to a halt, at least temporarily.
“I could walk out to the barn tomorrow and find him lame,” she says. “It took me three years to get him used to rodeos. I’d have to start all over with a new horse, and it might be three more years before I won anything.”
It’s that uncertainty that keeps Maben teaching English and writing to third, fourth, and fifth graders in Spur instead of going on the rodeo circuit full-time. Her day job is like an accidental-death-and-dismemberment insurance policy, only it’s for Bubba instead of for her.
Hundreds of rodeo cowboys and cowgirls keep the same kind of insurance policy. They work during the week, and on the weekends, they hitch up the horse trailer and drive to the nearest Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rodeo. They keep their jobs because they don’t earn enough rodeoing to support a family. Or they fear that injury — their own or their horses’ — could sideline both them and their income. Or their day jobs have benefits they can’t pass up. Or they know rodeoing full-time would mean they’d spend more time on the road than with their families, and they don’t want to make that trade.
“Percentagewise, the majority of our membership are guys who don’t travel all over the place,” says Ann Bleiker, PRCA spokeswoman. She talks about an orthopedic surgeon in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, who rides broncos; a lawyer in Austin who barrel races; a real estate agent in San Angelo, Texas, who wrestles steers. “They’re circuit cowboys, weekend warriors.”
Top full-time pros are sitting for interviews on ESPN and CMT, and then hopping a plane or fueling up the F-350 for the next drive. Part-timers like Maben and Craig Cavaness are working, helping their children with homework, mowing the grass, feeding their horses.
Rodeo is sweaty, dirty, sometimes painful. Before and after can be mundane. But truth-in-myth notwithstanding, rodeo is like most things that inspire devotion: a little bit addictive, a little bit habitual, a little bit insane.