A recent afternoon at a rodeo planted Willie Nelson’s song “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” firmly in my brain.
Growing up glued to the T.V. watching Roy Rogers, My Friend Flicka, and Fury, along with every western that came out of Hollywood, I was sold on cowboy heroes from an early age. But thanks to Walt Disney, Mr. Ed, and various horse whisperers—rodeo? Not so much.
I routinely stayed away from the violence of rodeo, until the parent of one of my children’s friends convinced me to give it a try as a spectator. She said I’d love the harmless sport of mutton busting, which is an event where little kids ride bucking sheep. Yup, after watching those little buckeroos spit out mouthfuls of dirt, while tears made their cheeks muddy, and daddy told them to cowboy-up, I questioned her definition of harmless. But it was the child carried off by a helicopter, after he’d caught his hand in the sheep’s rope and been knocked unconscious, that really did me in.
Some years later, I began writing fiction, and guess what? My heroes were still cowboys. Like all good authors, I wanted to get into my characters’ heads, so when my now grown daughter asked me to go to a county fair rodeo, I agreed.
Sitting in the shadow of a ferris wheel and some other whirling ride, we ate gobs of stringy, continuous French fries with cheese, while dozens of cowboys tried to stay on numerous beasts for eight seconds. In the end, only one cowboy rode his horse past the buzzer. He rode it so well the horse galloped around the arena while the pick up-riders tried to get the cowboy off the horse. As the cowboy whipped by my French fries, I realized I’d seen this fellow at a local feed store the day he bought his sparkly, teal colored rodeo chaps. The thrill of victory on his face, as he raced along the rodeo arena fence, left a permanent impression in my mind, creating a need to know what drives people to a competition that almost always ends in with them being hurled into the dirt.
In order to get into a cowboy’s head, I had to find a rodeo where more contestants had success.
I watched another breed of hero and learned a different definition of success at the Professional Armed Forces Rodeo Association World Championships.
Men and women from four branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, active duty, honorably discharged, and spouses competed in ten events.
The organization and atmosphere at this competition run by military men and women was entirely different from the county fair. A cohesive spirit between competitors and spectators filled the coliseum. It was a pleasure to sit among people who honored our military.
The performance opened with the Mounted Color Guard from Fort Riley, Kansas, then each military branch galloped their horses around the arena, followed by the tribute to the fallen hero. And an induction ceremony was held for new recruits. Nobody organizes or produces pageantry better than military folk.
The competitors were not romantic rodeo cowboys focused on winning big bucks at National Finals Rodeo—or even a little prize at my local county fair. They were men and women who defend our freedom. Americans who shared a special bond to compete together in rodeo. People who were heroes before a leg was thrown over an animal or an animal was wrestled to the ground.
One man was on leave from Iraq and would return to the Middle East after the rodeo. Some Armed Forces cowboys brought horses for others to share. Ones without horses to use for roping or racing competed in events that supplied the animals, like bull riding, chute dogging, and broncs. Some competitors rode regularly, others rode on leave or when a horse was available, and a few were new to rodeo.
A competitor from Alaska had a heart softening story. A veteran, lost and without direction after discharge, was a suicide risk. He was sought out by another man who got him interested in rodeo. The veteran showed interest in chute dogging, an event where a man on foot wrestles a calf to the ground. When asked if he’d like to train to compete in rodeo he chose chute dogging and bull riding. W.A.R. , Warriors and Rodeo, made it possible for the veteran to participate in a bull riding training program. He competed in the PAFRA World Championships two weekends ago and won a rodeo buckle.
In their own words W.A.R. is, “a nonprofit organization designed to give back to those who are willing to put their life on the line for our country’s freedoms and safety.” W.A.R. Helps men and women in the military branches, law enforcement, EMS, Fire Fighters, and similar service branches.
The Professional Armed Forces Rodeo Association’s goal in their words is, “… to provide a venue where men and women who share the bond of military service can come together and compete in the sport of rodeo. We strive to provide a worthy morale and welfare outlet for our members.”
Both of these associations are nonprofit and strive to benefit our heroes through the venue of rodeo with the support of community and business. Find them on Facebook too. PAFRA on Facebook. W.A.R. on Facebook.
When you decide who you will support financially, maybe you would consider these good organizations. This is truly one time that our heroes are cowboys.
America is blessed to have them.
Barbara Ellin Fox
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