When I was a teenager hanging out on a quarter horse ranch, country singer Chris LeDoux was something of a rodeo cult icon. Radio stations weren’t playing his music, but real cowboys knew most of his songs by heart. That loyalty developed because LeDoux sang for and about real cowboys – no rhinestones allowed.
When a song about a rodeo cowboy wanting to get out of bull riding and into – well, anything else – includes a line like, “With his feet on my belly/Standing in place/That dirty old bull/Blew snot in my face,” you can pretty well assume the songwriter has eaten his share of arena dirt. LeDoux rode bareback broncs, winning the 1976 national title. Until then, he mostly recorded and produced his own records, selling them out of the back of his pickup truck on the rodeo circuit.
If you are into this kind of authentic experience, here's a sampling of some of the top rodeo events across the state.
The International Professional Rodeo Association is based in Oklahoma City, so it fits that they hold their annual championship at State Fair Park. The IPRA is smaller than the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, developed for cowboys who could not compete in rodeos on a full-time basis. As a result, 15 of the best North American rodeo riders in each event gather for the International Finals Rodeo, many of them working cowboys who rodeo part-time. Trust me, no one on the ticket is working a 9-to-5 office job.
Catch and rope a steer in four seconds? Sure. It takes two to team rope, a header and a heeler. The steer gets a head start, the header rides out to rope the steer’s horns or neck, turns the steer while running, giving the heeler a target to rope both hind feet. A five-second penalty is assessed for roping only one hind foot, and considering the typical times are eight to 12 seconds, a five-second penalty all but puts the team out of the running. This is another standard rodeo event separated out so team ropers don’t have to share the stage with bull and bronc riders. The best in the world show up for USTRC Team Roping Championships.
The International Finals Youth Rodeo is the richest youth rodeo in the world. There’s more than $200,000 available, so it draws more than 1,000 entrants from the United States, Canada and Australia. There are 11 performances over six days in July. It’s the pinnacle of rodeos for high-school age cowboys and cowgirls, produced under parent organization, the International Professional Rodeo Association.
Cleo Hearn, a calf roper from Seminole, Okla., had a fine rodeo career in the days when white cowboys dominated the sport. By and large, they still do; of the 10,000 or so Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association members only about 120 are black. Hearn founded the Cowboys of Color rodeo series as an outgrowth from the Texas Black Rodeo Cowboys Association to prepare black, Hispanic and American Indian cowboys to compete in professional rodeos. He turned a single event into a tour that has performances in Oklahoma City called the Cowboys of Color Rodeo and Tulsa called the Green Country Cowoys of Color Rodeo. His goal is to graduate five to 10 cowboys per year to the pro ranks.
The Professional Rodeos Cowboys Association has put on the Chisholm Trail Stampede Rodeo that’s part of a weeklong celebration in Duncan for more than 20 years. The city of Duncan is the star of the Chisholm Trail, and the area’s history of cowboys pushing millions of cattle up the trail in the late 1800s is about as western as it gets. The city’s celebration of its western heritage and the cowboy lifestyle includes a parade, 5k run, car show, art show and other events, but the centerpiece is the rodeo, with performances the final weekend of the celebration.
Some claim the Miller family’s infamous 101 Ranch was the birthplace of rodeo. The Miller brothers put on a show for the National Editorial Association Convention and played to a reported crowd of 60,000 who arrived by train to see what ranch life was all about. There were bronc riders and ropers and the eventually famous movie cowboy Tom Mix made his debut. That performance turned into about 20 successful years of the 101 Ranch Real Wild West and Great Far East Show. The 101 Wild West Rodeo was revived in 1960 and shouldn’t be missed on the Oklahoma circuit.
One mission of the Oklahoma City-based International Professional Rodeo Association is to take professional rodeo to small towns. In the places the super-sized PRCA can’t justify, the IPRA puts on an event. Pryor’s annual 4-Way Rodeo is one of those, a hometown favorite that comes around every Memorial Day weekend. If Norman Rockwell painted rodeos, he would have used this one for a model.
In 1934, Will Rogers told the folks in Vinita that if they’d have a rodeo the next year he’d come back. The American Legion put one together, but Rogers died shortly before the rodeo was to take place. They went on with the show in Rogers’ honor and have kept it up annually since that first one in 1935. The Will Rogers Memorial Rodeo is in late August, but if you can stick around a few extra days you can catch the Big Country Weekend a week later. That festival includes a bull riding competition, but the spotlight is always on the World’s Largest Calf Fry Festival – 2,000 pounds worth.
Oklahoma’s longest-running rodeo is the Woodward Elks Rodeo held in July. This PRCA sanctioned event has been around nearly 80 years and has attracted some of the biggest names ever to compete in the sport, including Larry Mahan, Donnie Gay and Ty Murray. That’s helped the event earn a reputation as the toughest rodeo in Oklahoma.
The rodeo includes all the usual events: bareback riding, bull riding, calf roping, barrel racing, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, team roping, steer roping and bull riding. But part of what makes the Woodward Elks Rodeo special is all the extra events that go with it. Rodeo week festivities include a noontime longhorn cattle drive down Main Street on Tuesday, a hamburger feed to start the show on Wednesday, a barbeque Thursday night and a Saturday parade followed by a Chuck Wagon Feed.
Held in March at the Lazy E Arena, the Timed Event Championship really is something of an Iron Man competition for cowboys. Traditional rodeos include events in which winners are determined by how fast they can do something. Five of those elements are represented here: tie-down roping, steer wrestling, steer roping, heading and heeling. But steer wrestlers don’t usually compete as ropers or vice versa. They do here. Every entrant competes in all five events, and the contestants come with big credentials. You can expect to see 39 cowboys with “World Champion” attached to their names at this one grueling event.
The National Barrel Horse Assocaition Finals in Shawnee is the Oklahoma state championship event for the NBHA, where riders earn points to qualify for the world championships in October. Like the Better Barrel Horse event in Oklahoma City, there’s nothing but barrel racing by some top local talent.