It’s a Jungle Out There

Jake Barnes

I was 20 years old when Allen Bach cracked me out in the summer of 1980. I’d barely been out of New Mexico and Texas, and hadn’t done much traveling. Fact is, I’d never been on an airplane until I flew to Colorado Springs to get my first PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) card, so I could start entering rodeos. 

My very first professional rodeo was North Platte, Nebraska, and we went straight from there to Grand Junction, Colorado, then right into the Fourth of July run. I was overwhelmed by the realities of rodeoing for a living. The scores were longer, and the all-night drives, hopping on charter planes and sometimes competing at three rodeos in one day were brutal. 

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Any of you young guns who think roping for a living sounds sexy should hear the truth about the professional rodeo lifestyle up front. Seeing us in that NFR spotlight might look glamorous, but the truth is, you better be able to survive on very little sleep and truck-stop food. The perspective I have after 27 NFRs makes me tired just thinking about it. 

Factoring in the business of entering and trading that it takes to rodeo full time is important and exhausting itself. Allen was the master at scheduling, and after that first half-year, we went to 120 rodeos a year. It was crazy what we did.

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We didn’t have the winter rodeos in Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston back then. Team roping wasn’t a standard event, and equal money—which still isn’t everywhere—was not a thing. We were scratching and clawing for scraps, by today’s standards. 

We could enter and count as many rodeos as we wanted, so we roped at a lot of fair rodeos in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas in the summertime. It felt like running a marathon. I was wide-eyed and wiped out, and we didn’t have drivers back then. 

Professional team ropers today can count 75 rodeos per year as official toward the world standings. Anyone who isn’t sure there should be limits should think about how insane and expensive it was when Al Bach and the Camarillos were going to over 100 rodeos a year. The profit margin when you drive the wheels off of your truck, trailer and horses is extremely small. 

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When we were rodeoing for a living, a lot of the rodeos were averages, and if you made two good runs, they paid you. A lot of committees have now gone to one-headers or tournament-style rodeos that are sudden death. Guys are having to swing for the fences, and if you don’t draw good and blitz one, you’re done. 

When they started limiting the number of guys who could enter a lot of rodeos, it cut out a lot of entry-fee money in the pot. Rodeo committees haven’t been able to make up for all those other teams not being entered. Call me old school, but I hate to see limits on the number of teams that can enter rodeos like Salinas and Cheyenne. I miss the all-day slacks and 130 teams at Salinas. To me, limited entries mean the top 30 teams are basically just trading money. I’m almost thankful that Father Time has caught up with me. Sky-high fuel prices and so many one-headers are making it so hard on the best ropers in the world. 

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In our heyday, our strategy was to rope smart, make good, solid runs and keep consistent checks coming in. Guys today don’t have that luxury. They have to be like Babe Ruth and hit it out of the park, because I don’t see any room for smart runs anymore. I wish I had some helpful advice for how you young bombers can keep your horses working, especially with horse prices being so high. But I don’t. 

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Roping for a living has never been for the faint of heart, but team ropers today are really being tested. I know myself well enough to know that I’d be too hard-headed to take no for an answer if I was 23 now instead of 63. Where there’s a will, there really is a way. But no one said it would be easy, so you better buckle up.

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