Now people ask Cavaness if he’d rather rodeo full-time. His common sense says no. “How can you, with a good job, good retirement?” he asks.
How can he, knowing firsthand what can happen in a flash? In 2003, fresh off back-to-back circuit championships, he was having another great year — until he got to Corpus Christi, Texas. There “the ground was bad; the steers were bad,” and when Cavaness leaped off his horse, he landed badly: “My knee popped completely out of the socket. I tore everything.” He had surgery and sat out the rest of the year and all of 2004. “I wasn’t sure if I’d ever bulldog again,” he says. “The way I look at it, God must want me to do it, because if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be bulldogging today.”
Over Cavaness’s shoulder, in the barn, there’s a black-and-white photo of him leaning out of the saddle, arms extended toward a wide-eyed steer running alongside his horse. Frozen in time, he seems to be floating on air, though it’s the interplay of gravity and momentum that is carrying him toward the steer. His face is perfectly placid. Some people work for years to find their place in life. Cavaness found his in a precarious balance between horse and steer, rodeo and work, family and farm, momentum carrying him through all-but-sleepless nights, gravity keeping his feet fixed firmly to the Austin County earth.
Kelly Maben isn’t secretive about herself, but she definitely prefers talking about her horse. Barrel racing is one of the rodeo events that tests the horse as much as its rider, and to hear Maben tell it, Bubba is quite an athlete. He can run the cloverleaf pattern around those barrels in under 14 seconds.
In a sweet, Panhandle-accented voice, she discusses Bubba’s likes and dislikes, his quirks, his strengths. He’s lazy, but he’ll work hard if she pushes him. He prefers Cheyenne’s Frontier Days to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. His best weeks of the year are in July, when his favorite rodeos come all in a row. “I tried Houston a couple of times, but he doesn’t like it,” Maben says. “He wouldn’t turn at the first barrel both times, the same mistake, so I know it wasn’t the ground. He just doesn’t like it. There’s no sense going if he doesn’t.”
Maben’s parents, who are professional horse trainers, bought Bubba off the racetrack when he was three, and Maben has been racing with him since he was seven. From the start, she knew he was the kind of horse who could win. She knew, too, that if her parents hadn’t been in the business, they probably couldn’t have afforded to buy a horse like him, who might be worth six figures.
Taking care of Bubba is a big job: He has to be groomed and exercised daily. He’s fed twice a day. His stall has to be mucked just as often. He’s reshod every six weeks or so. He gets regular shots and deworming treatments. Sometimes he takes acupuncture. He takes his glucosamine and MSM daily.
Then there are Maben’s other two horses, whom she’s training to take Bubba’s place someday. They need much of the same care, and they need practice, so Maben takes them to barrel-racing contests near Spur.
And, of course, there’s Maben’s husband, Tye, and her daughter, Macye. And her job.
To squeeze it all in, Maben gets up at five a.m. to shower and dress before Macye wakes around 5:45 to be fed and then handed over to Tye. Then Maben feeds the horses. She leaves the house at 7:30 to get Macye to the babysitter before the school bell rings at 7:50. Maben teaches all day, leaves school at 3:45 p.m., picks up her daughter, and, at home, feeds her a bottle. Another babysitter arrives at 4:30, when Maben rides and feeds the horses again. She comes in for dinner and plays with Macye until it’s time to get ready for the baby’s 8:30 bedtime. Once her daughter is asleep, Maben tidies up and washes baby bottles. She gets into bed about 10:30 or 11 and then does it all over again the next day. Luckily, she has plenty of stamina. “Maybe a few days at school, I might be grumpy,” she says. “But that’s all. I’m not one to slack off.
“About the only thing I’ve totally cut out of my day is cooking supper,” she adds. “I’m not a big eater; I don’t care much about what I eat, so we get lots of stuff I can throw in the microwave. I guess my husband is the one suffering for it. But I’m not sure when or how I’d be able to cook.” A housekeeper also cleans house for her: “I never did like doing that anyway,” Maben says.
Now Maben knows her successful balancing of rodeo, teaching, and family life depends on Bubba: Because he can win a solid chunk of cash at each rodeo, she doesn’t have to travel as much as she might with a less-talented horse. He can help her qualify quickly for the NFR, which typically takes about $50,000 in winnings. “He’s one in a million,” she says. “I only had to go to 30 rodeos to get to the NFR the last two years. I’ve won $70,000 this year and am headed back to the National Finals Rodeo in third position.”
During the school year, Maben doesn’t travel much; she makes the big contests in San Antonio and Fort Worth, and she’s here in Austin because it’s spring break. She hits the road hard during summer vacation, traveling with her stepmother and, this year, with a babysitter who’ll keep Macye while Maben trains and competes, sleeping in the living quarters tucked into her horse trailer. “The bad thing is, the good rodeos are a long way off,” she says, ticking off the cities she’ll visit in a few months. Greeley, Colorado, and Pecos, Texas, over the Fourth of July weekend, and after that, a couple of “good money weeks,” she says, in Wyoming and Utah.
Maben is also conscious of the fact that Bubba can’t win forever, so she needs to take him to as many rodeos as she can while he’s fit and able. People ask whether she’d like to quit her job and take him on the road full-time, but she’s wary, and not simply because teaching jobs like hers are hard to come by in Spur. Mostly, she fears that rodeoing wouldn’t be as enjoyable — or as profitable — if she had to view it as a job. “I worry about things all the time,” she says. “Now I know I can pay my bills, because I teach school for a living. If I had to pay my bills off the rodeo, I might be too worried to win.”
The first time Maben went to the NFR, she felt a bit overwhelmed. But soon her no-nonsense work ethic took over. She went out into the arena to take a look at the ground. She walked the barrels. She took Bubba out for a dry run. She wouldn’t prep this way for a typical rodeo, but she knew that she would run 10 times in that arena, so getting Bubba accustomed to the place made sense. If he made a mistake on one run, she’d take him into the arena and school him for the next. She even let him roll in the dirt. It paid off: She won $32,000. Her second time at the NFR, in 2005, she netted $58,000.
“I don’t like to do anything halfway,” she says.
Maben is feeding Bubba now, in preparation for her run at seven tonight. When she opens his stall, he comes to the threshold and stops, calmly. His mane is tied up in rubber bands to keep the hair off his neck so that he won’t sweat in the Austin humidity, which is so different from the dry air in Spur. He stands still, perhaps listening to Maben praise him again. “He’s a sweet horse,” she says, patting him. “He’s really a good horse.”
Does Bubba know he’s a $100,000-plus creature? Does he know his sprint around those barrels is money in the bank? If he does, he shows no sign of it. He’s no prima donna thoroughbred with brittle nerves. He’s Maben’s partner, her workhorse. She might be saddling him, not for performance before an audience but for a long trail ride with a herd of longhorns. Watch her with Bubba, and a hundred-plus years simply fall away. All you see is a cowgirl and her horse, ready to ride off into the sunset, whistling gratefully.