Keeping their heads in the game
When you make a living tying fast and spurring hard, sitting on the sidelines is hard to do.
But the COVID-19 virus has affected the rodeo world in much the same way as the rest of society.
Approximately 45 pro rodeos have been canceled, from mid-March through the end of May, with about nineteen rodeos postponed to an unknown date and eighteen rescheduled.
For the average fan, they’re only missing out on a good time at their local rodeo.
But for the contestants, stock contractors and committees, they’re losing money.
Barrel racer Jessica Routier, a two-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier, says the cancelation of rodeos has stopped the rodeo world. “It’s put it on a standstill,” she said. But she and her husband, Riley, and their five children: son Braden and daughters Payton, twins Rayna and Rose, and Charlie are staying busy.
It’s calving season on their ranch near Buffalo, S.D., and Routier has new baby colts coming, so she’s been occupied with ranch life.
She has qualified for the WNFR the past two years, giving her less down time, so she’s put the unexpected rodeo hiatus to good use. “Going to the Finals is an opportunity you don’t want to pass up, but it makes it difficult to give your horses any extended time off,” she said. “So when I found out the rodeos were canceled, I pulled her (mare’s) shoes and haven’t ridden her. She’s on vacation. I like to give her a full month off, and right now she’s at three weeks. A couple more weeks and I’ll get on her and exercise her again.”
Her horse may need a break, but Routier needs to stay sharp. “I feel like if I’m not making runs, I get out of tune.” She has several young horses she’s practicing on. “I haven’t had much time to spend on my young horses the last few years so that part of it has been really fun.”
Routier was scheduled to run at Rodeo Houston but on March 12, it was canceled. She had taken her horses to Nebraska, then traveled to Wisconsin for her grandma’s funeral. On the way home from the funeral, she competed in Grand Island, Neb., which was her last rodeo.
Since the Routiers are calving, “social distancing” isn’t too difficult. “It’s calving season and you’re stuck at home that time of year, so we’re just calving and riding young horses.” Their three youngest girls, four-year-old twins, and a three-year-old, are missing the travel, however. “The little girls are all upset because they haven’t gotten to sleep in the trailer lately,” she laughed. “They like to go places. They’re anxious to get back to rodeos. This is probably the longest span of time in their lives they haven’t gone anywhere,” Routier said.
She guesses that the barrel racing competition will be even tougher after the break.
“I think that rodeos will be wicked tough because everyone’s horse will be well rested. I think you’ll see some really tough barrel racing and tough competitions in the other events.”
For Steven Dent, the Covid-19 virus means he has help in the calving pens.
After his wife Kay, teaches their oldest child, son Cylas, who is a kindergartner, he’s ready to help dad outside.
The two- time reserve world champ and ten-time WNFR bareback rider ranches north of Mullen, Neb., and, like Routier and most other ranching folks, is in the thick of calving.
“My dad always told me, it stinks because when your kids get to be worth a darn (as help) they have to go to school.”
Dent never competed much in the spring, so the cancellation of rodeos doesn’t affect him much.
“There’s (no rodeos) that make or break you in the spring,” he said. “That’s why I take the spring off.” His usual schedule is to go to the big winter shows, then, after Rodeo Houston, come home and calve till June, when his first rodeos back are North Platte, Neb. and Reno, Nevada.
The big spring run is in California, and when he was in college, he competed at those rodeos. “You spend more money than you make unless you win first at those” rodeos. Not going to the spring rodeos “probably saves you money, to be honest.”
The summer is the big push for rodeos and making money, he said. “There’s so much money to be made in the summer time,” he said. He remembers years where he had only won $2,500 by the Fourth of July yet he made enough over the summer to qualify for the WNFR. “The rodeo season, in my opinion, is July and August. You can win $100,000 or $150,000 in those two months.”
He and J.R. Vezain, a former bareback rider in Wyoming, discussed the COVID-19 rodeo shutdowns, and they think the cancellations offer an advantage to the cowboys in Texas. Instead of using their official rodeo count on the spring shows, the shutdown will force contestants to not use up their official count, allowing for them to have shows to compete at, at the end of the season, Sept. 30, in case they’re needing to be in the top fifteen to qualify for the WNFR. “I’ve had to ‘bubble rodeo’ before and a lot of times you’ll be seventeenth in the world standings and the Texas guys are out of rodeos (for their official count) by September first. This will help them save rodeos for the end of the season.”
With it being calving season, “I don’t have to be anywhere, so why go anywhere?”
It’s a different story for Jim Korkow.
The stock contractor from Pierre, S.D. had a busy spring and summer lined up, but any rodeos he’s been scheduled to bring bucking horses and bulls to have been cancelled through the middle of June.
And there are bills to pay.
“I’m a little different than the guy with the clothing store,” he said. “The jeans and shirts he has hanging there, they’re not eating. I have 400 head of horses and 100 head of bulls that need to eat every day. (And with the virus shutdown) none of them are bringing in income.”
The expenses of a stock contractor aren’t obvious to the average rodeo fan, including hired help, equipment to feed and care for livestock, property taxes, diesel fuel, licensing trucks, insurance, and “the feed these horses and bulls have eaten for the last 365 days.”
The Korkow family has always had supplemental income, in addition to rodeo: driving truck, pheasant hunting, and selling bucking horses, which has been a big bonus. “We raise quality bucking horses and other people like to have them,” Korkow said. “They pay the bills. If we didn’t sell a couple of horses every year, we’d be done a long time ago.”
Korkow is also cognizant of the stress the virus is causing to rodeo committees and sponsors.
Rodeo committees “need mom and pop sponsors to make the rodeos work, and these sponsors have had their doors shut since the middle of March. They don’t have any money to sponsor. And people have been out of work so they don’t have the extra money to spend on entertainment.
“It’s tough on rodeo committees that work so hard all year to put on an event for their community.”
The pro rodeo scene in the northern U.S. is slow in the spring.
Except for a few indoor rodeos, the calendar doesn’t get busy till June.
The next Badlands Circuit event is the Adrian Foote Memorial Rodeo in New Town, N.D. June 19-20 and the Crystal Springs Rodeo in Clear Lake, S.D. June 24-27.
Chuck Atyeo, committee member for the Crystal Springs rodeo, said the decision hasn’t been made as to cancel or postpone their rodeo this year, which would be their 75th anniversary.
The committee has already done some advertising, which would need to be paid, whether the rodeo takes place or not. Atyeo said that if the rodeo canceled, they would probably refund sponsor money or ask if it could be held for the 2021 event.
Right now, they’re waiting. “We’re holding off, seeing what happens in the next two weeks,” he said. A committee meeting will be held in late April.
While the rodeo world is in limbo, like the rest of the world, they’re ready to go as soon as the word is given.
“We’re hoping,” said Korkow. “We’re ready to go. All we need is a ‘Yep, it’s going to happen and we can pay you.’”
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