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Giddyup, cowboys and cowgirls

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Two cowboys show how team penning works. (Roswell Daily Record Archive Photo)

This year the 30th annual New Mexico Championship Ranch Rodeo takes place at the Bob Crosby Arena for one night only, Saturday, with a special presentation during the grand entry at 6:30 p.m. The rodeo starts at 7 p.m.

The Chaves County Sheriff’s Posse will provide a concession stand with hamburgers, cheeseburgers and hot dogs at a low cost. Judaun Prichard, who is helping with organizing the event, said, “They are reasonably priced so you can go and have dinner and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.”

This rodeo is the real deal with cowboys and cowgirls from working ranches participating. The teams competing show skills that are needed in everyday ranch life, which includes branding, penning, bronc riding, stray gathering and trailer loading.

Ranch rodeos are a throwback to the old days when ranchers came together to see who had the best hands. It was also a way for young cowboys to show what they were made of.

Benny Wooton is a member of the Chaves County Rodeo Association, which puts the rodeo together. Asked about the history of the ranch rodeo, he said, “It’s basically for the most part the same group of people — an association — that put the rodeo together and it evolved from there. We started with two groups. There was a 4H group for young ones and the ranch rodeo. We merged those groups into the Chaves County Rodeo Association.

“Our purpose is to promote the western way of life and we are about giving scholarships to ranch-type, country-type kids to go to school,” Wooton said.

Prichard has the numbers going back 12 years since the merger of the rodeos. “Since we formed in 2006 through this year, we’ve awarded $213,200 in scholarships,” she said. “We’ll be awarding $20,000 in scholarships on Saturday night.

“Starting in 2005 they started giving a Ranch Family of the Year Award,” Prichard said. “This year’s recipients are going to be Robert and Sara Armstrong of Salt Creek Farm and Ranch. Mr. Armstrong owns Armstrong Energy here in town.”

“On this particular rodeo we are going to have eight teams, some of them ladies,” Wooton said. “Each team can have a minimum of four and up to six members. The ranch has to submit to the Working Ranch Cowboy Association (WRCA) that they want to have a team for that ranch and the people on that team. They have to be owners of the ranch, heirs to the ranch, full time employees of the ranch or dayworkers — somebody who works part-time for them. They have to send in financial data, 1099s, W2s showing that they have worked for this ranch. Every ranch has to have a minimum of 300 cows or run 500 yearlings throughout the year. They are all authentic, legitimate ranch teams. And they are issued a team card and those are the only teams that we can take.”

According to Wooton, the rodeo is open to any team that received an official team card by WRCA. This year, five of the teams come from New Mexico, one from Arizona, one from Oklahoma and one from Texas.

“The events are designed to mimic what activities we have on a ranch. Then, we couple that up with speed,” Wooton said and laughed. Each team has only three minutes to master each event, with the exception of the bronco riding.

Laughter is guaranteed during the wild cow milking. Each team has to do whatever it takes to catch and milk a wild longhorn cow. Of course, if no milk is collected the team gets no points.

The team penning is today one of the favorite events in ranch rodeos nationwide. Only a real cow whisperer can read and judge the cattle’s behavior and a well-trained cutting horse is necessary to cut unwilling cows from the herd and then drive them to the pen. When the rider and horse are a good team, it almost seems as if they can read the mind of the cow before it moves.

However, during a ranch rodeo the challenge is not only between one man, one horse and one cow — the entire team has to be attuned to each other. The team is facing a herd of cattle and in that herd there are three cows to extract who carry the same number.

“We give them the number when the team comes to the herd. They have to go into that herd and cut out just the three numbers; get them out, into a pen and shut the gate. Every person needs to know where to be and work with the other team members to get the job done. It’s not as simple as I described it,” Wooton said and laughed.

Cutting became necessary as cows frequently mixed with other ranch cattle stock on open ranch land.

During the team branding three calves have to be put in position, but no branding irons are used. Instead, a flower represents the branding itself.

In reality, branding also includes giving antibiotic shots; if ear ticks are present they get medicine for that and the males are castrated.

During the stray gathering, a similar technique is used, but the cowboy has to handle an adult cow. “If you got wild cattle out there or cattle that need to be doctored and they are big cattle, it’s a two-person deal. They have to catch them by the head and the other by the heels, they get him (the cow) down and they can doctor it. Sometimes they swallow cactus and they can hardly breathe. They got to catch them and get in there and get the cactus out. Lots of times you have a 250-pound cowboy working on a 1,200-pound cow and they can do that,” Wooton said and laughed.

Another audience-favorite is bronc riding. Each team choses one member to ride a bucking bronco for eight seconds. The saddle permitted is a regular working ranch saddle — it takes a lot of grit to hold on for those eight seconds.

Asked where the animals come from, Wooton said, “We have a stock contractor that brings them and the horses that he has are born and bred to buck. That’s their purpose in life. They are pretty special animals that he brings.”

The newest event is trailer loading. “The team catches one (cow), cowboys load it in the trailer, load their horses in the back of the trailer and then all four get into the pickup and when the doors shut the time stops. They do that amazingly fast,” Wooton said and laughed.

The winning team qualifies to compete in Amarillo, Texas in November at the Working Ranch Cowboys Association’s 23rd World Championship Ranch Rodeo.

“There is one event that we also do and it’s kind of fun for the kids,” Prichard said. “It’s called the calf scramble with 10 or 20 calves. We tie ribbons on their tales and any kid that is below the age of 12 is allowed to go to the arena. We let the little ones get a little closer to the calves and the older kids stand back about 10 feet and we release the calves and the kids chase these calves and if you happen to pull a ribbon off the tail, we got prizes for the kids. Everybody leaves the arena with a sucker. That is one the kids really like. It happens between the team branding and the bronco riding.”

When American cowboys of the 1800s began using and breeding their best horses to work their cattle, the smaller cutting horses became indispensable. Modern times and rough New Mexico terrain have not changed that, despite pickup trucks and squeeze chutes that took the place of other cow horses who were used to guard the cattle or drive them to the loading places. On average a cowboy had three horses, his prized possession being the intelligent cutting horse.

According to the National Cutting Horse Association one of the first cutting contests was advertised in the Dallas News and The Kansas City Star in 1898. Lured by the ads, 15 thousand people attended. The nearest railroad was at that time 50 miles away — they came on horseback, by wagon. Eleven riders entered to win a prize of $150.

The New Mexico Championship Ranch Rodeo in Roswell is much easier to reach and offers plenty of parking. The Bob Crosby Arena is located at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds, 2500 SE Main St. For more information, visit its event Facebook page.

Christina Stock may be contacted at 622-7710, ext. 309, or at vision@rdrnews.com.