OR: I’ve Been Putting on a Ranch Rodeo for Ten Years So I Feel Qualified to Address This
© Tami Blake
Cowboys are a prideful, independent, and competitive bunch, so it’s no wonder they resist organization into any sort of cohesive statewide or national association.
I like working cowboys as much as the next gal. I was raised by ‘em and among ‘em and I’m married to one now, and maybe that’s why I’m not afraid to pop the whip and try to line these guys out. Here’s the history:
When I founded the Custer Ranch Rodeo back in 2007, there was no association to “sanction” with — sanction meaning the Custer Ranch Rodeo would pay a fee to be associated with the larger ranch rodeo, then send its winning team to compete at the larger ranch rodeo — other than the Working Ranch Cowboys Association (WRCA) in Texas. That first year, I wasn’t interested in sanctioning anyway… only in surviving my own event.
Less than a year later, the annual Northern International Livestock Exposition in Billings started making plans to host a “finals” ranch rodeo in October. I thought it was a great idea, and spoke with then-NILE manager Justin Mills many times as he set up the structure for the NILE Ranch Rodeo Finals. I believe the vision we shared was that ranch rodeos from all across Montana would sanction with the NILE, sending their top teams to Billings each October so that the best of the best could compete and so that one team could be named the statewide champ… year-long bragging rights included. In turn, the NILE sanctioned with the WRCA out of Texas… so that the NILE champ could advance to the prestigious finals in Amarillo.
The NILE Ranch Rodeo Finals ran into trouble right out the gate. Many of the ranch rodeos in Montana — established or newly minted — have refused to sanction with the NILE for various reasons that mostly stump me. Some folks carry old grudges against the NILE (as in: Remember that one time in the 3-year-old futurity at the NILE when I didn’t win but I should have? I’m taking my ball and never going back there). Other committees were turned off by the NILE reps that visited meetings across the state trying to convince ranch rodeos to sanction. Still others were repulsed by the NILE ranch rodeo rules, actually WRCA rules which the NILE had to follow under its sanction with the WRCA. Admittedly, the WRCA rules are very “Texas.” For one thing, Montana cowboys aren’t real inclined to jump off a perfectly good horse and wrestle a wild cow, as Texas cowboys apparently are. For another, the WRCA sets forth some pretty ridiculous guidelines for what qualifies a true “working ranch”… and even requires pay stubs as proof of a cowboy’s status. The WRCA tries hard to make all the ranch rodeos under its large umbrella follow its events and its rules, which the NILE did for several years. Many Montana ranch rodeos simply refused to do what a bunch of Texans wanted them to do and so snubbed the NILE. From the beginning, I told the NILE that I wouldn’t follow NILE or WRCA rules OR events, but was happy to sanction otherwise, and it’s always worked out for me. I continue to sanction Custer with the NILE to this day, because I continue to believe in that original vision for a Montana championship… and because I’m apt to dance with the one who brung me.
In the meantime… the folks from Eastern Montana who refused to participate in the NILE decided to create their own sanctioned finals ranch rodeo. All of a sudden it seemed like every two-horse town in Eastern Montana was hosting a ranch rodeo as part of a series that culminated (continues to culminate, actually) in one big Eastern Montana finals in the early fall.
Things got even more complicated this spring when a few folks recently disgruntled with the NILE and a few folks recently disgruntled with the Eastern Montana series joined together and decided by golly to create their own regional ranch rodeo finals. This new finals with which one may sanction her ranch rodeo is set for late August or early September in Forsyth. Last I knew, this newest series did not yet have a name… but I have heard it suggested on the cow trail that it call itself the Elite Ranch Rodeo Association, which I think has a real ring to it. Ha! I did, in the end, sanction Custer with this Elite bunch because an old friend made it easy for me to do so, and I did it to show support to him, but still I wonder: What good is another Sanction That Leads To Nowhere doing for any of us? Isn’t it just creating more competition in an already-groaning pool of sponsors?
I guess I have two bones to gnaw on here:
1 For one thing, I grow weary of creating awesome prize packages for the teams that win the ranch rodeo I organize. I have worked hard for the last decade of my life to gather up sponsors each year (which is not a job for the faint of heart, but that’s another blog for another time), and I faithfully order great prizes for the winning teams, and I always pay our sanctioning fee so our first place team can go to the NILE and compete in front of a huge crowd in a wonderful indoor facility in an event which my young family and I look forward to attending each fall because it’s easy for us to get there. Yes, I want to make sure that the contestants who come to Custer have a good time and are treated fairly and keep coming back both for fun and for good prizes. But honestly, as a ranch rodeo organizer, you eventually figure out that these contestants are not your flesh-and-blood children and you don’t have to kill yourself trying to make sure they have every opportunity when they leave your nest. You know what I mean? It’s like this:
You won my ranch rodeo? Awesome! Please ride your horse right up to the front here so we can award you with riches beyond measure. Stirrups and conches and jackets and cash, oh my! A trip to Amarillo! A trip to Winnemucca! You’ll have such fun! Oh, don’t worry about me, I have no interest in beautiful things like buckles and bits… you just git yourself on to the next ranch rodeo so I can get on with cleaning the outhouses around here and picking up trash, and — oh yeah — then I have a zillion thank-you notes I need to get started on…
2 In my opinion, all these regional finals would be fine and dandy if they led to something. Okay, you’re a big fish in Eastern Montana… but now where do you advance to? Shouldn’t this all be organized in a cohesive pattern of increasing difficulty for the best teams — or does my mind just work funny? I think that Montana needs a Montana State Championship Ranch Rodeo, and I believe the original intent that so many folks missed was that the NILE would be that. Somebody — the NILE, or the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame, or this new Elite deal, or maybe me (if I can ever get all these kids raised and all these branding crews fed) — needs to organize a Montana State Championship Ranch Rodeo. Oh, sure, the whole deal will have to be handled with kid gloves because there will be a lot of dealing with fragile egos. A thorough dignitary will have to travel to visit with every ranch rodeo committee in the state, sweet-talking the committee members into participating and winning back lost souls. Then an advisory board with a representative from every participating ranch rodeo will have to come up with some rules that everyone can sort of agree on (even here in Montana, rules across the state vary greatly and everyone thinks their own are the best). Finally, the State Championship will have to be really attractive so that cowboys and cowgirls will want to come to it. I’m talking about low entry fees and generous payouts here. It’s all very simple. All we need is a $50,000 sponsor. We just need to get started!
In an ideal world, which of course I know we’re not living in, the Montana Champion Ranch Rodeo Team would then advance to a National Finals Ranch Rodeo. The top two, three, even four teams from each state (ranch rodeo in New York, anyone?) could meet at a big indoor arena somewhere and compete for national bragging rights each year. Again, all it would take would be somebody picking a central location, setting a date, and doing a lot of talking to committees and sponsors across the country. I think I will get on this just as soon as I get to the bottom of the laundry pile.
Is there a possibility that a ranch rodeo in existence could become the National Finals Ranch Rodeo? Maybe the WRCA in Texas? Hmmm… I’m not sure; those Texans are pretty persnickety about their rules. But what about the fledgling Western States Ranch Rodeo Association, which holds yet another “finals” in Winnemucca, Nevada each fall?
You know, I have been thisclose to sanctioning Custer with the WSRRA a couple times, but something always holds me back. Just this year, the NILE has dropped its WRCA (Amarillo) sanction and picked up a WSRRA (Winnemucca) sanction instead, which in my opinion was a step backwards for the NILE for this reason: anybody and their dog can sanction with the WSRRA. Custer, Hardin, Ingomar, Forsyth… any and all Podunk ranch rodeos are apparently qualified to sanction directly with the WSRRA. You could win Custer and go straight to Winnemucca. OR you could win Custer, go to the NILE and win it, and qualify for Winnemucca in that way. Jeepers! Ranch rodeo is like an oilfield town that grew crazy fast and now has roads going every which way and is badly in need of some infrastructure. We need an engineer here, people!
Here’s my suspicion with the WSRRA: they’re making money off of sanctioning fees, and that’s why they take so many sanctioned ranch rodeos. What’s more, they require membership fees from the actual contestants on top of sanctioning fees from the ranch rodeo. And if a first place team from a ranch rodeo doesn’t want to go to the finals in Winnemucca (because admittedly, the WSRRA finals are in early November, right in the middle of weaning, and that’s a terrible time of year for a Montana cowboy to be leaving the state), then the second place team can go, or the third place team, and so on. So going to Winnemucca actually becomes representative of nothing, other than that you participated in some ranch rodeo somewhere at some point and can now say, with some amount of smugness, “Yeah, I qualified for Winnemucca.” Maybe they’re just trying to be the biggest ranch rodeo in the country (side note of interest: sometimes Winnemucca claims to be the World Finals Ranch Rodeo, which seems a little presumptuous to me. I mean, is the top ranch rodeo team from Afghanistan invited? What about Brazil? Sweden?).
What, exactly, is the goal here? I can discern from the posters that the WSRRA claims to be “wilder than the rest.” Okay…
Maybe they’re trying to be the richest ranch rodeo in the country; I see that they’ve got some prestigious national sponsors backing them. Great! They’ve got the support; now I challenge them to use it responsibly and serve the common good here by organizing themselves into a NATIONAL finals. I could get behind that. If the WSRRA truly wants to be the richest and biggest in the nation, fine, but why not lend some cohesiveness to it? Help the states get organized and take the top few teams from every state? Because making a sanctioning fee off of every single ranch rodeo in a five-state area is a little shameful in my opinion.
One more thing and then my rant is over: I am also perplexed by the huge amounts of money added to WSRRA-sanctioned ranch bronc rides. Where does that money even come from? Is there real gold backing that money up? I joke, but honestly, people. Ridiculous amounts of added money elsewhere make it difficult if not impossible for me to attract bronc riders to our own small event. I don’t understand: why would you get on a bronc for a chance at a lot of money if you wouldn’t get on a bronc otherwise? Why does it all have to be about money, money, money?
Yes indeedy doo, one of these days when I get the dishes done and the kids are all sleeping through the night, I’m going to make some real strides toward straightening all these cowboys out. Because I need another job that doesn’t pay like I need a hole in the head. Maybe if I’m bored when the kids are grown and if things still aren’t straightened out by then, I’ll try my hand at organizing a Montana State Championship Ranch Rodeo and a National Finals Ranch Rodeo. If you run a ranch rodeo in Montana or any other state, consider this your official invitation to be on the committee. Here’s a warning for you, though: I run my ranch rodeo less as a committee and more as a dictatorship. I’m not much one for working with committees. I find that committees do a lot of talking, not much deciding, and a whole lot of coming up with ideas that make more work for me. It’s true, folks: the only reason I’m still in charge at Custer is because I set it up as a corporation, and I am the president and sole shareholder (not that there are any shares to hold). I can’t be kicked out. I knew it from the start; I’m just too independent to play well with others.
I am a cowgirl, after all.
© Tami Blake