It happened in seconds. Bobby Mote was already sitting astride the chestnut in the cramped quarters of the bucking chute when the horse, a nervous creature named Diaper Duty, reared up, its front hooves pawing at the air. Mote’s rigging — thick leather straps and a wooden handle that allow him to ride without a saddle — locked him in place as the horse teetered on his back hooves and then went over, sandwiching the bareback rider between the back metal wall and the bulk of more than 1,200 pounds of horseflesh.
Diaper Duty righted himself and Mote scrambled out of the rigging, wedging himself in a corner of the bucking chute while he gasped for air. His ribs were probably cracked, he thought, but the purse for this competition, the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo in San Juan Capistrano, California, was large enough that winning would help him increase his standing in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rankings. It’s the tally of dollars earned on the PRCA rodeo circuit that determines who will go to the association’s National Finals Rodeo, held every December in Las Vegas. Mote had already won four bareback competitions in August 2011, and this was to be his fourth ride in four days, a typical schedule for professional cowboys during the regular PRCA rodeo season.
Figuring that there was a chance his broken ribs would keep him off the rodeo circuit for a week or two, after about a minute, Mote climbed back aboard Diaper Duty, slid his heavy leather glove into the rigging, slipped on his neck support to keep him from getting whiplash and made a sharp signal with his bare hand.
Seconds later, the pair streaked across the arena. Diaper Duty stamped and kicked up dust and threw his hindquarters into the air, a wild, frantic dance that jerked Mote’s body like a rag doll. He doesn’t remember much of the eight-second ride — after more than 20 years as a professional bareback rider, he was performing based on muscle memory, even as he struggled not to black out from the pain. It never occurred to him not to ride. “We’re not wired that way, to quit. Even though it doesn’t make sense now, at the time I was there for a reason, to win so I could get more points and so I could put food on the table. This is how I provide for my family, and I can’t do that if I don’t compete,” he says now.
Afterward he boarded a plane for Seattle, intent on catching a connecting flight to make the next rodeo in Idaho. The adrenaline had kept the pain at bay but as the plane took off, the cabin pressure increased and Mote’s entire body broke out in a cold sweat. He knew he was about to pass out, but he couldn’t speak or move. As everything faded to black, he noticed the woman in the seat next to him wriggling as far away as she could get and sticking headphones in her ears. “I thought I was done. I thought I was dead right there,” he says now.
When he came back up, they’d landed in Seattle and he got in a cab and went to a doctor. Eventually the doctors figured out that not only had Mote cracked his ribs, but the pressure of the horse’s body had shoved his vital organs up against the knife-sharp bones of his spine, causing internal bleeding and slicing into his pancreas, which started leaking bile. He was within minutes of bleeding out when they finally diagnosed him. Still, by December, five months later, he was riding in the rodeo finals. He couldn’t afford not to compete.
“The crazy thing is that anybody who’s been around very long in the sport has got a story like that, because it really is a dangerous sport,” Mote says now. “That reason alone is why I don’t understand how the PRCA has reacted to some of us pros getting together to start something new, to give ourselves a chance to ride less and make some money while we can. Most rodeo careers aren’t long, and if the best guys in the world are ending their careers and they still have nothing tangible to show for it but broken bodies, that’s a broken system.”
The PRCA is a not-for-profit organization that develops the rules and procedures that govern most of the rodeos in the United States. The association makes contracts with rodeo organizing committees to sanction and support multiple-event rodeos of all sizes, and anyone who is a member of the PRCA and who pays rodeo entry fees can compete. Because of its size — the PRCA oversees 600 rodeos each year, and the National Finals Rodeo, styled as the world championship of the sport, and has more than 5,000 rodeo athlete members — it is the largest and most powerful single organization in the world of modern rodeo, as well as the oldest. But critics complain that the organization’s unwillingness to change is driving away both cowboys and audiences.
Last fall, when a group of about 80 professional rodeo cowboys announced they were creating a new cowboy-owned, cowboy-run rodeo organization that would offer a nine-city tour and a world championship involving some of the top athletes in the sport, PRCA officials took the announcement as a threat. The older rodeo board voted to create two bylaws that effectively banned anyone who is heavily involved in the Elite Rodeo Association from belonging to the PRCA. “We were never competing with PRCA. That was never what this was about,” famed 23-time world champion cowboy Trevor Brazile, often described as the LeBron James of the sport, says now. (Cowgirls are governed by the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association and are allowed to appear at both ERA and PRCA rodeos.)
In fact, many in the industry have been pushing to change the way competitions are run. Back in 2008, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was one of the crown jewels of the PRCA system. But audiences weren’t turning out to watch the rodeos the way they once had.
“I realized we were dealing with an urban audience, one that had increasingly short attention spans and needed a show that moved faster and was a little easier for someone not as familiar with rodeo to follow,” RodeoHouston General Manager Joe Bruce Hancock says.
Houston got special permission to try a new format for three years, one in which not all the PRCA-required rodeo events would be offered and a “shootout” would be held every few days, a fast-moving competition that featured the best-scoring athletes in the rodeo as they vied to win “playoff” matches. Even with the looser rules, RodeoHouston still had to give the PRCA a 6 percent cut of the overall purse, but the Houston organizers started gaining the ability to plan the events and coordinate when specific performers would be in the arena.
Before, RodeoHouston had been required to use the national organization’s registration system, so no one on the Houston committee could be sure about who was coming to the rodeo or when athletes would be competing. As Houston began to cultivate its own way of operating, although still within the PRCA system, it tracked its own registration so it knew when the top cowboys would be in the arena and could promote them accordingly.
That approach worked for Houston. Audiences started showing up to see the cowboys instead of keeping the stands half empty until just before the night’s concert was about to start. “It was exciting to be a part of because people were really getting into it. Finally we were performing for a real crowd in Houston,” Mote says.
But when RodeoHouston applied to renew its PRCA sanctions in 2011 and requested another exemption to keep offering the new format, the governing board refused to approve the application. The PRCA was going through a rough time, longtime rodeo reporter Ed Knocke noted in Western Horseman. The organization had had three commissioners over the past decade, one of whom had ended up in prison. Its finances were in the red, and the membership numbers for both cowboys and rodeo committees had been dropping steadily for the past 20 years.
When contacted by the Houston Press, PRCA spokeswoman Kendra Santos denied there was any tension between the PRCA and the cowboys who set up the ERA. In response to a Press request to interview PRCA Commissioner Karl Stressman, Santos said that he was traveling and unavailable. She also denied that the PRCA has had any problems. “The PRCA has not struggled in recent years. The PRCA has been stronger financially over the last few years than it has been in decades,” Santos stated via email.
Hancock says he believes these outside pressures played a role in the PRCA response to Houston’s bid to continue revamping how the rodeo was offered. “That was a difficult time for the PRCA. There was a lot of politics going on. They’re a membership-based organization, so it can be difficult for them to make changes when the changes don’t obviously benefit a huge number of the members,” Hancock says. “We were a conventional rodeo before, but conventional rodeo wasn’t entertaining our audience. We had to try something new, and when it worked we couldn’t go back to the old way.”
In the end, the PRCA made it clear that Houston wouldn’t be allowed to keep changing its format under the organization’s auspices. But Houston officials were determined to keep finding new and interesting ways to get more people invested in the sport of rodeo.
That’s why the PRCA gave Houston the boot.
Oddly enough, the PRCA started out as an organization run by and for professional cowboys just like Mote and Brazile, and it represented a huge shift in the rodeo industry when the group was created 80 years ago.
Back in the late 1800s, the rodeo profession sprang out of a dying way of life as the open ranges and long cattle drives of traditional ranching gave way to barbed wire fences and railroad lines crisscrossing the country. Nostalgia made spectacles like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows and rodeos popular. Men and women who had spent their lives working cattle started showing off their skills in roping, riding and wrestling steers and bulls, appearing in Old West shows and competing in rodeos for purse money.
In the early days, there were no strict rules or standardized safety requirements for the various events, and participants would show up to ride only to find the prizes were worth less than had been advertised. People were regularly injured and many were killed while rodeoing, and the free-for-all system gave organizing committees and show promoters a clear advantage over the disconnected cowboys and cowgirls who constantly traveled the nascent rodeo circuit to make a living.
In 1936, a group of around 60 professional cowboys rebelled. They were vying to place in the money at Boston Garden when someone realized the rodeo producer, “Col.” W.T. Johnson, was collecting more cash from ticket sales than he was offering in the purse and was pocketing most of the proceeds. The performers went on strike, stating they wouldn’t go into the arena unless the purses were doubled. Johnson was a Texas rancher who couldn’t see why he should pay cowboys more to perform than to work cattle. After trying to hold a show with hired hands in place of cowboys, Johnson gave in to the demands of the group. They dubbed themselves the Cowboys Turtle Association, because they moved slowly but surely.
The Turtles became the Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1945, and they renamed themselves the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1975. By the 1980s, rodeo had become a multimillion-dollar sport and the PRCA was the de facto regulatory agency and dominant governing body of the entire sport.
It’s a simple business model. From the low-level rodeos held in rural pockets of the country to the glittering affairs staged in Cheyenne and Houston, almost every rodeo was sanctioned by the PRCA. Sanctioning meant every competitor agreed to abide by PRCA rules, every rodeo committee would offer the advertised purse money and each event would be conducted according to PRCA safety standards. In return for the association’s role as the regulatory agency of the sport, every sanctioned rodeo committee today gives the PRCA 6 percent of its purse and every member of the organization pays annual dues.
For decades the PRCA has operated a fairly open system. Anyone who wants to join can pay the membership fee and sign up. Once an athlete has won $1,000 in prize money, he is considered a professional by the association’s standards. However, the bulk of competitors in the organization are “weekend cowboys,” enthusiasts with regular jobs who sign up for rodeos through the PRCA system, pay the entry fees and make the trek out to various rodeos on their days off.
But the PRCA has never tolerated competition well. In the 1980s, the board banned its members from competing in open rodeos, i.e., rodeos that weren’t sanctioned by the group. Some cowboys balked at the rule and sued in 1985, accusing the association of acting like a monopoly. The court sided with the athletes and issued a three-year prohibition against any such rule being put in the association bylaws. Once the prohibition was lifted, the board issued a new rule keeping rodeo athletes out of the National Finals Rodeo if they participated in any unsanctioned rodeos during the regular season, so athletes filed another lawsuit in 1991. Again, a court backed the cowboys, enacting a ten-year injunction against any such rule.
The next year, 20 bull riders gathered in a Las Vegas hotel room in the middle of the world championship. Each rider put in $1,000 cash, and the Professional Bull Riders, a new, independent organization owned and operated by the rodeo athletes, was created. The bull riders didn’t stop riding in PRCA rodeos, but they started offering their own shows, which featured the best bull riders in the field all competing on animals of comparable quality and all slated to ride at set times on specific nights. The PBR tours grew in fame and popularity over the following years. By the time the court injunction ended, in 2001, there was no point in trying to ban bull riders from participating in both systems — the bull riders would have simply walked away from the older organization.
It was the start of a new trend in the sport, a move toward offering shows that were quick and featured performers of the highest caliber showing off their skills. Rodeos in the PRCA were long, complicated and hard for the average person to follow. The bull riders proved there was another way.
Even PRCA officials saw how well the bull riders did with this new approach. In the early 2000s, the organization seemed to embrace the idea of creating true rodeo stars and trying different formats for its shows. First it created the Wrangler ProRodeo Tour, a televised tour with about a dozen stops. When that did well, the PRCA established Xtreme Bulls, another televised tour for bull riders, with a purse of more than $700,000.
TV spots meant more publicity, and the faster pace of the touring shows made the programs more accessible to audiences who were becoming familiar with the sport, the athletes and the organization behind them with each broadcast. The new approach was also pricey — it came out in 2004 that the PRCA was mired in more than $3.5 million in debt. Then-commissioner Steve Hatchell abruptly resigned and the next commissioner, Troy Ellerman, focused on traditional rodeo and regular members, scaling back on showcasing the stars, the tours and the television broadcasts.
(Ellerman also suddenly stepped down in 2007, shortly before pleading guilty to felony charges for leaking grand jury testimony on a former client, the founder of a California lab caught producing performance-enhancing steroids for athletes.)
Ever since Stressman took over, he has made it clear the organization is committed to serving its regular members, not catering to the wants and whims of professionals. Stressman told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in late 2014 that he blames unsanctioned rodeos — such as Houston, the Calgary Stampede and the American (held in Arlington, Texas) — and professional rodeo organizations like PBR and ERA for the steady annual 3 percent decline in membership. “The ‘Showdeo’ business,” Stressman called it, scoffing. “I don’t think in any way, shape or form it’s good for the PRCA.”
For years professional rodeo athletes have pushed the board to alter the points system that determines who will qualify for the annual world championship in Las Vegas. The system has every athlete in the organization technically competing for points. Although only a handful of the cowboys have the talent and skill to perform at the professional level, the star performers and regular cowboys are all lumped into the same category, earning the same number of points for each rodeo dollar won, even though the rodeos they enter vary widely in quality.
This requires many of the top performers to travel ten months out of the year, running up thousands of dollars in credit card debt and competing in up to 100 rodeos to ensure they’ll win enough money to make it to the world championship in December. The rodeo athletes have also asked for a voice in how decisions are made, at one point saying the stars of the industry would agree to limit themselves to only PRCA rodeos if the board would give one true professional cowboy a seat. The PRCA declined. Frustrated, the pros asked the board for a formal meeting in February 2014 in Waco.
But when Brazile, Mote and 12 other pre-eminent rodeo athletes, two from each event, gathered in a hotel conference room, they were met by assistants and PRCA employees who had no authority. Word came that Stressman’s flight from Phoenix, Arizona, had been canceled because of bad weather, even though the entire month was uneventful, according to National Weather Service data. (The Houston Press asked Stressman’s office for comment on why he didn’t attend the meeting, but the office never responded.)
By the time Tony Garritano, Brazile’s longtime agent, strode into the hotel lobby to meet Brazile for dinner, the men were furious and talking about breaking away entirely to form a new organization just for professional cowboys. Brazile pulled Garritano into the room — Garritano grew up in Las Vegas and has worked closely with the bull riders association for years. The cowboys wanted his advice. They stayed in the conference room and talked late into the night. Garritano bought a toothbrush and crashed in Brazile’s room. The next morning, he was in the meeting room for a conference call with the board.
“Cowboys will only be running the PRCA over my dead body,” one board member insisted.
After they’d hung up the phone, the men decided to create the ERA.
“We had a big-picture goal,” Mote says now. “We started and all we had was this idea of unity of the top guys, but we knew we wanted to do something to change things for the guys who are out there making a living this way. Anybody that rodeos full-time knows that things could and should be better, and that’s where we started, just making it better.”
Even as the pain shot through Steven Peebles’s rib cage like a spear the instant his body thudded against the arena floor last July in Livingston, Montana, he told himself it was nothing because he knew he didn’t have time to be injured. It was probably just some broken ribs, Peebles, then 25, thought as he peeled himself out of the dirt.
He was used to the feel of broken bones. In his short professional career, Peebles shattered his right leg in 2011, tore his hip muscles in 2012, underwent hip surgery in 2013 and heard the sounds of his backbone snapping as a horse nearly crushed him in 2014. Still, he and his traveling partner had a flight to catch, he was currently ranked eighth in bareback riding and he wanted to rake in more points to make sure he’d be one of the top qualifiers for the NFR. He could barely bend over to pull off his boots, but he shook off any thoughts of seeing a doctor, clambered into the rented van and they motored out of town.
“I make a good living, but I only make a living at all if I’m riding and if I spend all the money traveling and entering rodeos, but if I don’t get into the NFR in December, then the money gets really tight,” Peebles explains now. “It’s a good living as long as you win.”
When Peebles doubled over and turned ghost white, his friend turned around and rushed him to an emergency clinic. A pool of blood was gushing into his chest cavity, a doctor told him. In the ambulance taking him to the hospital, Peebles could feel the blood sloshing around inside him while he fought to stay conscious.
“Am I going to die?” he asked the EMT.
“I can’t answer that,” the man replied before turning to the driver. “We’re losing him. Move it or he’s not going to make it!”
When he got to the hospital, Peebles was within minutes of either bleeding out or drowning in his own blood. The next day, his doctor told him it was a miracle he’d survived.
“So when can I start riding again, Doc?” Peebles replied.
The doctor advised at least three months of rest, but after six weeks of bed rest, Peebles was already ranked 30th. He called his traveling partner and went back out on the circuit. For the next six weeks he rode through pain, and sometimes he’d dismount, stumble out of the arena and nearly collapse because he couldn’t catch his breath. “I got through each ride by pretending the last six weeks never happened,” he says now. “And then in December I won my first world championship at the finals.”
By then the PRCA had banned owners, officers or employees of the ERA from belonging to the PRCA.“I don’t understand the reasoning, though,” Peebles says. “We’re not getting rich off our sport, and I don’t see what the big deal is about having more opportunities. They’re pretty much the only opportunity for us to make money in this profession, and I think they wanted to keep it that way, that they liked us having to depend on them.”
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The professional cowboys filed a class action lawsuit against the PRCA last fall, claiming the organization was once again violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. However, the U.S. District Court judge on the case ruled against a requested stay to keep the bylaws from being put in place until the case had been decided. In late February Brazile, Mote and Garritano decided to drop the suit. “It was going to take so much time and money that it wasn’t worth it,” Brazile says. “Besides, we realized that people thought the ERA would only exist if we won the lawsuit, and that’s not true. It was better to go ahead and focus on getting our own organization going than on fighting with them.”
Brazile is still hoping the PRCA sees the benefit of a tour of professional cowboys who he says will inspire kids to start dreaming of turning rodeo pro the same way kids fantasize about being drafted for pro football. It will help the entire rodeo industry, starting with the PRCA, Garritano argues. “Those kids won’t be able to sign up for the ERA because that’s just the top, the best of the best, so they’ll end up at the PRCA, which means the PRCA will have more members,” he says. “It’s like that saying goes, ‘Rising tides lift all boats.’”
After Houston, the ERA rodeo athletes will convene in Redmond, Oregon, for the first of nine scheduled stops on the 2016 tour. Hancock says RodeoHouston supports what the ERA is doing. The ERA tour may even play Houston one day if it is a good fit, Hancock says. Houston won’t revert to the old ways of rodeo.
“I’m not going to say we wouldn’t entertain a partnership with PRCA, but it would only be that. Rodeo is evolving, and everybody doesn’t fit into the same box anymore. There’s no going back.”