The buck stops: Cowboys hanging on until rodeos start again

Rodeo cowboy Leighton Berry. (Photo by K.P. Wilska)

By PAT GRAHAM AP Sports Writer
On the back of a bucking bronco, bareback rider Jamie Howlett tries his best to hang on for eight fierce seconds.
That’s how the cowboy from Australia feels at the moment. Only in this case, there’s no horn to signal an end.
Howlett and the rest of the rodeo riders remain in a holding pattern with events from Florida to Canada to Texas to California on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Constantly on the road, Howlett doesn’t have a home. So he’s bunking at his buddy’s ranch in Rapid City, South Dakota. He doesn’t have a side job, either (besides helping his friend to earn his keep).
Howlett is rodeo dependent. In a typical season, he logs about 55,000 miles (88,514 km) along dusty roads to compete in as many as 100 events and hopefully earn enough to break even (about $45,000).
Cowboys like Howlett are trying to hang tough as best they can until they can climb back into the saddle. Here’s a look at how different riders are dealing with the downtime: From a star (reigning six-time bull-riding world champion Sage Kimzey) to the grinder (Howlett) to the weekend wrangler (gym teacher/track coach Eric Fabian ).
On his 1 0-acre property in Salado, Texas, the 25-year-old Kimzey stays plenty busy by clearing trees and building a garden for his fiancee.
This is strange territory. He’s rarely home this long.
Kimzey is a household name on the circuit — the headliner who everyone watches because he makes bull riding look so effortless. In 2016, he became the youngest millionaire in Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association history at just over 22 years old.
Last season, Kimzey won his sixth straight world title to tie Jim Shoulders’ PRCA record for consecutive bull-riding world championships (1954-59).
“My heart goes out to everybody who’s struggling right now,” said Kimzey, who has deep rodeo roots, with his dad a longtime barrelman/clown and his mother, sister and brother professional trick riders. “It’s definitely hard times.”
Kimzey has got lucrative sponsors (Wrangler, Polaris) and a nest egg (his career earnings are more than $2 million). He knows he’s fortunate with more and more events being postponed, rescheduled or in some cases canceled. Several rodeo events in May are listed as “planned” — for now, anyway.
“I tell everybody right now in these uncertain times: Just keep the faith and remain hopeful,” said Kimzey, who’s healing from recent ankle surgery. “Because without any pressure, diamonds can’t be made.”
To pitch in while crashing at his friend’s ranch, Howlett tends to the cattle and does some welding.
Howlett sold everything back home in Australia several years ago to relocate to America and pursue the rodeo life. It’s been a rewarding but pricey undertaking.
By his calculations, the 29-year-old needs to make about $45,000 in prize money over a season to cover his costs (including his visa). In 2016, his earnings were listed at $6,603. He’s steadily gone up since, collecting $58,747 in ’19.
He started this season on a roll and had already raked in $35,527.84. Currently fifth in the standings, Howlett has a chance to earn something he’s long dreamed about — a spot in the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Only the top 15 in each event are invited to the sport’s version of the Super Bowl, which is held in December.
“Having a year where you’re able to make money and live comfortably? That’s a huge success,” said Howlett, who counts his father — a bareback rider in Australia — as his rodeo idol. “You do this for the love of it.”
Through all the bumps and bruises — he has a stinger in his neck that flares up — he’s hopped into his minivan, or aboard a buddy’s truck, and headed down the road to the next event.
Now, he’s just biding his time like everyone else.
“You’ve got to grit your teeth and get through it,” said Howlett, who attended Western Texas College. “I love the sport, the rodeo family, the travel. I definitely love the feel of a bucking horse and all that power they’re trying to throw at you.
“You just try to hang on.”
Fabian teaches physical education at an elementary school in upstate New York and coaches high school track throughout the academic year. That way, his summers are free for rodeo.
Both are on hold for Fabian, whose signature event is team roping (two cowboys on horses working in tandem to rope a steer).
Between planning online lesson for his students, he’s building a roping arena on his in-laws’ property. It will serve as a practice facility for him and his wife, Emily, who’s a barrel racer/breakaway roper. Down the road, they envision giving lessons.
Fabian competes on the First Frontier Circuit, which is a series of PRCA events held in the Northeast. He’s successful, too, capturing several year-end titles. He and his wife are hoping to add even more events to their itinerary this summer.
Sure, he’s thought about traveling around and competing on rodeo’s biggest stages. But this way there’s a steady paycheck thanks to teaching.
“We just want to be able to enjoy the rodeo as much as we can,” Fabian explained. “And never really have it be that financial burden in the back of your head, where you have to win to keep going.”