Cowboy Christmas is coming fast! In fact, the professional rodeo cowboy contingent is busy entering the flurry of Fourth of July rodeos right now, including the richest one of all in St. Paul, Oregon. There’s something that makes every rodeo its own, and at the St. Paul Rodeo that special something is trees in the arena.
Yes, Cowboy Christmas trees! They’re Arborvitrae trees, to be exact, which technically makes them evergreens rooted in the Cypress family. Practically speaking, they’re a fun twist for the fans. And at times, the trees are also a hurdle the cowboys have to contend with in the arena that each fall serves as the football field for the St. Paul High School Buckaroos (that’s Bucks for short).
Eight-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo heeler Cody Cowden of Atwater, California (shown here heeling one for Joel Bach at the 2016 St. Paul Rodeo), knows a thing or two about the flora and fauna—as in trees and team roping steers—on this particular arena floor.
Cody Cowden at St. Paul Rodeo
“Joel had it on that steer quick, to maybe place in the day money,” said Cowden, whose NFR qualifications spanned 1992 to 2005. “I was so focused, and beared down to try and throw fast. I was already in time with the steer, and measured off to heel him. Just about the time I was ready to turn loose of my rope, here came the tree. I didn’t see it until I was in the back of my delivery. So I took another swing. There goes the steer jumping over the tree. Then there I am in full-on attack mode, and over the tree goes my horse.
“I had to throw my rope to have a shot at winning anything, which is why we were there, so I went ahead and launched it. And sure enough, I caught him. Everybody was screaming and hollering, and in awe of that shot. They all thought it was cool, and talked about it for weeks. But I was disappointed. I wanted to win something.”
Cowden was riding Russell Cardoza’s bay mare, Mo, who made the moves of a reindeer to take the tree in stride.
“We all know she’s a great heel horse, but who knew she was such a good jumping horse?” continued Cody, 47, whose cowboy credits also include winning the 1997 Bob Feist Invitational Team Roping Classic (BFI) with Bobby Hurley. “Here’s the deal about the trees at St. Paul…For the money, there’s just that one tree. You’ve got two choices—you can rope your steer before it, or you can rope your steer after it. I do not suggest trying to go through it. That is not a good third option.
“Those headers are trying so hard to turn that steer before that tree, but if a steer takes off and runs, that’s not always possible. You don’t always get to pick where you take your shot. But if you run into that tree right there, you’re done.”
St. Paul is an old, career-long favorite for Cowden.
“I’ve been to that rodeo a lot over the years,” he said. “I won it heading for Matt Zancanella in 2000, and I’ve placed and won a lot of money there in my career. Until a couple years ago, that tree hadn’t ever cost me any money. But there was no present for me under that tree that year, I promise you. I guess I should feel lucky—I’ve had a lot of weird things happen heeling steers over the years, but I’d never had a tree take me out of the money in my life—before or since.”
There are 13 trees in the St. Paul Rodeo arena. Their original function was to form a race track around the outside of the arena.
“In the late 1930s, we had five different races every performance—the Shetland Pony Race, Cowgirl Race, Cowboy Race, Pony Express Race, and the St. Paul Derby,” said St. Paul Rodeo General Manager Cindy Schonholtz. “The trees are tradition in St. Paul, and they get planted right before the rodeo to keep the tradition alive. They plant the grass for the high school football field the day after the rodeo every year.”
“They” is the volunteer army that transforms the tiny town—population 425—into a Cowboy Christmas main event. Some 53,000 tickets were sold to the six performances of the St. Paul Rodeo last summer.
“This town and this community take great pride in this rodeo,” Schonholtz said. “The St. Paul Rodeo Association has over 400 members, and 300 volunteers work really hard to make it happen. We couldn’t do it without them.”
It all started for the St. Paul Rodeo in 1936, and this year’s July 3-7 83annual event will feature $28,050 added in each event—with equal money in the team roping.
“Equal money means everything to team ropers,” Cowden said with sincere appreciation. “It takes two guys to team rope, and we both pay dues and entry fees, we both buy horses, trucks and trailers, and we both buy food and fuel when we come to town. Team ropers generate a lot of money for the industry and rodeo towns. When a rodeo recognizes what team ropers bring to the table, they’re doing the right thing. It’d be great to see more rodeos follow suit. It’s the right thing to do. Thank you, St. Paul.”