Jeff Brady, NPR
Kirt Jones waits in a paddock just before the steer is released into the arena.
Jeff Brady, NPR
A team roper warms up by swinging his rope a few minutes before competing in the National Western Stock, Rodeo and Horse Show in Denver.
The 2007 professional rodeo season recently got under way in Denver. The National Western Stock Show and Rodeo is the biggest event of the year in the Mile High City, drawing cowboys and spectators from all over the country.
Kirt Jones, 33, is a team roper and a 21st-century cowboy. He has the hat, the boots, the jeans... and some very nice Versace glasses.
"These were on sale," Jones explains. "And I thought they were awesome so I bought 'em... I've caught a little heck from my buddies."
Jones grew up on a ranch in New Mexico. The third-generation roper started displaying good roping skills around the age of 7. After college, Jones decided to become a professional cowboy. He hits about a hundred rodeos a year and doesn't make a lot of money.
Like most rodeo sports, team roping evolved out of ranch life. The goal is to tie up a steer. On the ranch, team roping is usually done to wrangle animals that are too large for one person to handle. In the arena, however, the two cowboys are working against the clock.
The roping team involves the header — he lassoes the horns — and the heeler, like Jones, who lassoes the hooves.
Just before the event, Jones and his roping partner sit on horses, ropes in hand, as they wait in a paddock at the edge of the arena. The steer is between them. The announcers play loud, dramatic music once the steer and the two cowboys explode onto the dirt floor
The entire event is over within 10 seconds. Jones and his roping partner don't succeed in tying up this steer. In fact, the first couple of teams all fail to do this.
Jones couldn't get his rope around the steer's legs. He says that a life lesson from the rodeo is humility — and learning to picking yourself up after a loss.
Outside the arena, vendors are selling everything from pink cowboy hats to kettle corn. High school sophomore Hanna Wiens is here with friends. She competes as a barrel racer in rodeos, and says that working the rodeo or the ranch has a lot to teach people about life.
"You can't run a ranch without working together," Wiens says, "and you can't accomplish anything because there's different skills that everyone has."
Relying on other people is a common rodeo theme among those inside and outside the arena. Spectator Johnnie Mayhan of Kim, Colo., says he found a close-knit community as a young cowboy that persists today.
"Us rodeo people, we got friends all over the United States," Mayhan points out. "I can go from here to Seattle and never spend the night in a motel."
Mayhan says the most important thing about rodeos, is that they keep Western history alive, and they give a 21st-century cowboy a way to make a modest living. And for most, the money is modest. Team roper Kirt Jones says the pay all depends on how many steers he successfully ropes and how much individual rodeos pay.
When he's not doing well, Jones earns almost nothing. But in the good years, when he makes it to the national finals in Las Vegas, earnings can top $100,000.