This Is My First Rodeo (Literally!)

The Dodge City Roundup Rodeo arena. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)

We all know the saying, “This isn’t my first rodeo.” But for me, this was literally going to be my first rodeo. I was heading to Dodge City Days in Kansas, and I had no idea what I was doing. I borrowed a pair of cowboy boots from a friend, so I knew I would look the part, but as I looked over my itinerary for the weekend, I started to get a little confused. What exactly was barrel racing? And is a bull a steer? Or is a steer a cow?

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Doc RC Trotter: Knower of all things rodeo (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)

All of my questions were put to rest when my host for the weekend introduced me to Doc RC Trotter. Doc is an actual family-practice physician who simply has a love for rodeos. Twenty years ago, he started stitching up cowboys after wild rides, and today he is president of Dodge City Roundup Incorporated. And this is definitely not Doc’s first rodeo. He’s been to every rodeo in historic Dodge City since 1982 (except one, because his daughter was getting married) and estimates that he’s seen 80,000 to 90,000 rides. 

So, after he gave me a tour of the rodeo arena, I asked Doc to break down the top three things I needed to know in order to survive my first rodeo. 

Here are his tips: 

1. Grab your friends, buy a drink, and listen to the announcer. He’ll tell you everything you need to know. 

2. Know that the animals are having fun. These animals are bred to buck — they love it. 

3. It’s your time to be a cowboy. Dress the part. 

So armed with my new knowledge, I threw on my denim shirt and cowboy boots and cracked open a Coors Light. Needless to say, I had an amazing time. The Dodge City Roundup is a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) rodeo and is filled with some of the best cowboys in the game. As a matter of fact, performing well here can mean entry into the Wrangler National Finals in Las Vegas, which, according to Doc, “is the Super Bowl of Rodeos.”

Picking up some cowgirl gear (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)

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I’ve obviously heard of bull riding, but I was nowhere near prepared for what I was about to see. First of all, those bulls are massive! Some weigh up to 2,000 pounds, and their horns are definitely not dull. At the same time, I realized that cowboys are quite small … like, really small. The ideal size for a cowboy is 5’6” and 150 pounds — I guess good things really do come in small packages. It barely seems like an even match, but maybe it’s the David vs. Goliath fantasy that gets the crowd so riled up.

A bull rider seeking out the perfect eight-second ride (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)

Our seats on the first night were directly above the loading gates, so we could see the riders and animals going through their pregame rituals. The buildup was palpable as the cowboy mounted his bull, tightened his rope, and waited for the gate to open. Then, as soon as that gate opened, all hell broke loose! 

Saddle Bronc riding is the event that took me off guard the most — and had me on my seat the entire time. Doc informed me that a perfect ride had as much to do with the horse as it did with the cowboy. I was told to look for a horse whose back legs kicked almost straight up in the air. Combine that with a cowboy who can stay on for eight seconds, and you have a perfect ride. On Thursday night, there was one rider who totally nailed it. Seeing a flawless ride was like watching Susan Boyle sing for the first time — my jaw dropped. 

But my favorite event of the night was barrel racing. Forget the cowboys, throw on some Miranda Lambert and let the girls take over for a bit! This women-only event is the perfect combination of speed, precision, and guts. Everyone in the crowd was on their feet watching these women on horseback dart around and narrowly avoid knocking over the barrels. For a brief moment, I imagined myself racing through the arena, wind blowing through my hair and the crowd chanting my name. Then I snapped back to reality when I realized that I live in New York City and the only horse I have room for is a stuffed one from FAO Schwartz.

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A cowgirl races toward the finish after clearing all three barrels. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)

I got really into this rodeo. In fact, I caught myself standing up and cheering after a good ride, booing the judges for making a bad call, and yelling “Go Huskers” every time a rider from Nebraska was in the gate. But I’ll be honest, not every event got me on my toes. I found it pretty hard to watch the steer wrestling. It just wasn’t my bag. Instead, I took that time to grab a deep-fried Oreo from the concession stand, because who can pass up a fried cookie?

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On the second night of the rodeo, there were close to 10,000 people crammed inside the arena, with spectators ranging in age from 1 to 100. As in a circus, every moment of the show is orchestrated by a host who narrates what’s happening and partakes in regular gags with rodeo clowns. There are even events in which kids can participate.

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It’s all fun and games until someone makes a bull mad. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)

Imagine this: A barely coordinated 4-year-old draped in a helmet and protective vest, clinging to a sheep who is running aimlessly around an arena. It’s called mutton busting, and it’s the most adorable thing ever. The kid who hangs on the longest is the winner. It was so much fun to see the look of accomplishment on their faces after their rides. The sheep just looked like sheep.

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A mini-mutton buster holding on for dear life. (Photo: Brittany Jones-Cooper)

From Cheyenne, Wyo., to San Bernardino, Calif., the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association hosts rodeos all over the nation. And some cowboys are on the road up to 300 days a year, competing and growing their winnings. By the end of the weekend, I had a newfound respect for the sport, the cowboys, and, most importantly, the animals that make it all happen. So as you’re planning your next road trip across the U.S., check out the PRCA schedule, and look for a rodeo to stop at along the way. 

And if you don’t like rodeos, then get the heck out of Dodge!

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