Saddle up, ride'em high at amateur rodeos in Oregon

Saddle up, ride'em high at amateur rodeos in Oregon
Tommy Jack Rose, 3, rides a sheep during the Paulina Rodeo, Sept. 5, 2009, in Paulina, Ore.
PAULINA, Ore. (AP) - In an isolated stretch of sagebrush and rimrock 91 miles east of Bend, a 21-year-old cowboy with big dreams climbs into a narrow chute and sits on the back of a squirming bronco, as cowboys have done in this part of central Oregon for decades.

The chute flies open. The horse, called Street Dancer, careens into the open arena, kicking up clouds of dust. It rears and bucks as the cowboy hangs on with one hand.

Then the ride's over in a few seconds. The bronco jerks one way, the cowboy flies off in another. He lands on his face with a heavy thud as the crowd winces and groans.

What just happened out there?

"It was just a young horse," Zeb McLean explains minutes later. "He ducked and dived on me and didn't give me much of a chance. I broke the hell out of my nose; blacked my eye good, too. I got to quit landing on my face."

Rodeo organizers say it's getting harder to find cowboys like McLean who'll risk injury to be a bareback rider. If the number is shrinking, the number of rodeos - a summer staple in the Northwest - is not, according to organizers at events big and small.

Want a fast-moving rodeo with nationally ranked professional cowboys? Oregon has plenty, like the ones in St. Paul and Pendleton. Prefer a small rodeo attached to the county fair? Oregon has its share of those, too. What the state doesn't have much of anymore is the old-fashioned amateur kind.

The Paulina Amateur Rodeo, which celebrated its 60th year Labor Day weekend, is among the last. It's one of the few places left where any man, woman or child - experienced or beginner - can walk up to the chutes, pay an entry fee and climb on the back of a horse, a sheep, a steer, a calf or a bull.

Once a year in Paulina, anybody, as they say, can "cowboy up."

Why didn't Paulina ever go professional like so many other rodeos?

"We just kept it a family affair," says Carl Weaver, a 70-year-old former Paulina rodeo board president who competes in the team roping event with his grandson. "We've got the mutton busting for the little kids and the barrel racing and calf riding for the little kids, and if we were to go into one of them affiliated jobbies, well, maybe we're not the boss anymore. We want to be the ones to determine what goes on."

In today's rodeo world, where associations govern most events, the word amateur is slippery. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has more than 6,000 cardholders nationwide and is the Major Leagues of rodeos. Some of its members rodeo for a living, and some chase their dreams only on weekends. To further blur the line, dozens of small regional associations use the word "professional" in their titles, too.

One such group is the Northwest Professional Rodeo Association, which has 1,000 members and sanctions 40 rodeos in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Northern California, in communities the size of Spray, Philomath and Heppner.

"As far as the difference between professional and amateur, there's less difference than there used be," says Rita Rattry, secretary of the Northwest Professional Rodeo Association.

The difference comes down to which card or permit you carry - if any.

McLean, for example, is a professional because he's a member of the Northwest association, though he doesn't get paid to rodeo and isn't doing it to make a living. He's a full-time college student who earns money as a horse trainer.

Unlike professional football players, for example, being a professional cowboy doesn't guarantee a paycheck - unless you win rodeos.

In Paulina, anyone can enter. While the two-day rodeo attracts card-carrying professionals, organizers make sure there's always room for amateurs, especially kids, who can ride sheep, calves and steers before growing up to ride broncs and bulls.

Bobby Mote, perhaps Oregon's best-known professional bareback rider - ranked second in the nation - got his start at small rodeos. Mote, who grew up in Redmond, wasn't at Paulina recently but remembers rodeos like it well.

"The way I got started is I wanted to compete in more than high school rodeos, so I started going to the amateurs," he says. "It gave me a chance to get my feet wet. There was enough of them you could go to one or two just about every weekend during the summer and stay pretty busy."

Mote, who made bareback riding his full-time job in 2000, said he used to work all week to pay his weekend entry fees. "I remember Fossil is where I won my first big check. It was something like $175 and so right then and there I thought there was never going to be another poor day."

One reason Oregon doesn't have as many amateur rodeos as it used to is the way rodeo cowboys are trained. Today there are more ways to get experience than small rodeos. High school and college programs are fed by a thriving peewee system that is to rodeo what Little League is to baseball. Training camps, like the one run by Mote, also give young cowboys plenty of opportunities to get used to being bucked.

That said, there is still a smattering of amateur events. Lakeview held its 90th annual Round-Up on Labor Day weekend with both a pro and amateur rodeo.

Why did Lakeview keep the amateur piece?

"It's because we still have cowboys that go to work every day," says Caro Johnson, executive director of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the event. "A cowboy hat is not a costume here. Most everybody has horses, cows, dogs and guns, and that's the way we like it. We still live those Western values. It's not like the movies to us - it's our lives."

The region's remaining amateur rodeos operate in much the same way they did as when they started, though budgets and crowds have expanded as ranch families have grown. It's not uncommon for three generations to rodeo on the same day in Paulina.

The Paulina rodeo began in 1949 when a rancher bet the area's cowboys they couldn't ride an unruly horse. Paulina cowboys still come primarily from a roughly 60-mile radius, but the crowd surges to 700 these days and arrives in a sea of campers, horse trailers, and motor homes to spend the weekend. The homestead shack hauled to the first rodeo to serve as office has morphed into a group of buildings set on 20 donated acres. The timber poles cut for the first corral are now metal. A few sets of bleachers make up the stands, though a favorite place to sit is a camper chair set out in the bed of a pickup.

Donations still cover many services, but program advertisements raise about $15,000, and an $8 spectator fee helps pay costs. Entry fees go into the purse for each event.

Organizing the event is "a volunteer part-time kind of deal," says rodeo board vice president Mike Sturza. Miss a planning meeting, the way Sturza did, and the board lists your telephone number as the one to call for information. "It's one of them deals where you don't want to miss a meeting," he says.

While some things have changed over the years - the buffalo brought in one year to ride was never brought back - many have stayed the same. Cowboys still rest on benches made from stumps and planks. Trash cans still overflow with empty Coors Light cups by midafternoon. The smell of tri-tip steaks cooking on a smoker still drifts across the grounds before the annual Saturday night dinner and dance.

Have the kinds of cowboys who enter changed?

Weaver, who has watched contestants come and go for 50 years, says no.

"They're the cowboys that go up and down the road," he explains. "And there's this one or that one that wants to see whether or not they can ride a horse or rope a calf and see if they got what it takes to go up and down the road."

McLean, after losing the bareback event at Paulina, piles his riding rope, tape and gloves into a beat-up suitcase. He leaves the rodeo grounds lugging his suitcase on wheels behind him through the dirt and the dust. He takes with him no money or prize buckle.

McLean, who lives in Prineville, leaves Paulina with a throbbing purple nose, a swollen black eye and a bruised ego. He's disappointed, he says, but not discouraged. "Just as long as I don't knock any more teeth out, I'm doing good."