Rodeo's Barrel Race Puts Women In The Saddle

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is one of the biggest rodeos in the world. Rodeo athletes come from all over the U.S. and Canada to compete for some of the biggest cash purses in the sport. And it's not just cowboys in the ring. Cowgirls compete in the sport of barrel racing, where they trace a looping pattern on horseback against the clock.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's rodeo time in Houston, Texas. For three weeks, the city's football stadium plays host to the world's biggest rodeo. And that means chili cook-offs, petting zoos, fried everything, and, oh yeah, there's also the rodeo. Big name performers competing for big money. And as Brenda Salinas reports, it's not just the cowboys getting the crowd riled up.

BRENDA SALINAS, BYLINE: Out of the eight events in professional rodeo, there's one just for women: barrel racing.

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SALINAS: Three empty oil drums are set up in a triangle 60 feet apart. The cowgirl, on horseback, darts out of the gate and runs tight loops around each barrel in a clover-leaf pattern. The turns are so fast that the horse looks like it's at a 45-degree angle. There's a five-second penalty for knocking over a barrel. The riders compete one by one, the fastest time wins. It's fast, and it's dangerous.

CHRISTY LOFLIN: It takes a tough person to rodeo.

SALINAS: That's Christy Loflin.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Christy Loflin, Frank Hills, Colorado.

SALINAS: She's a 39-year-old brunette with a strong, athletic build. She's wearing jeans tucked into western boots and a black cowboy hat. Loflin got into the sport 14 years ago. She had been showing horses all her life when she met her husband, a professional rodeo athlete. She wanted to compete too. She says it's hard work. There are long hours and a lot of losses before you get any wins.

LOFLIN: Not only do you have to have an amazing horse, but you have to be an amazing rider and be super talented. So, I think that is pretty inspiring to a lot of little girls, to try really hard and to keep come up through the ranks.

SALINAS: And there's something else Loflin finds inspiring. Rodeo might be a male-dominated sport, but in the ring, women get equal pay. A win in the first round will get you $1200. The grand prize winner walks away with $50,000. That's the same amount the ropers and bull riders get.

LOFLIN: We try just as hard as they do, and it's neat to see that respect for us for sure.

SALINAS: Loflin says it's a dangerous sport. You can get knocked off your horse, stepped on, it can fall over while you're still in the saddle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ooh, horse just (unintelligible).

SALINAS: But her hard work just isn't enough tonight. Her loop around the first barrel was a hair too wide and cost her a few seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Fifteen seventy-two. It's too long, my dear, too long.

SALINAS: So, she placed seventh out of eight. Christy Loflin has two more chances to advance to the finals here, but if she doesn't make the cut, she can earn money by winning smaller rodeos throughout the year or focusing on her primary source of income: selling horses to other barrel racers. For NPR News, I'm Brenda Salinas in Houston.

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MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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