Riding Outside the Circle
I SPENT THE past 20 years or so as a magazine editor, observing and writing about horsemanship, rodeo, and cowboy culture. When that phase ended, I decided that rather than write about people doing interesting things, I wanted to do interesting things.
The first and best opportunity I’ve experienced is as a member of a ranch-rodeo team. My family’s ranch joined up with a neighboring outfit to form a Working Ranch Cowboys Association-approved team, with the goal of earning a spot in the WRCA’s World Championship Ranch Rodeo. WRCA came into being 22 years ago to showcase ranch cowboy skills, preserve cowboy culture and the Western way of life, and raise money for cowboys and their families who were facing tough times. Since then, their WCRR has grown into the must-attend event for the Great Plains ranch cowboy culture. Spectators pack the Amarillo Civic Center to check out the handiest cowboys at work, as well as shop the best pure-cowboy trade show in the West.
To compete at the WCRR, ranches must qualify by winning one of 23 sanctioned rodeos across six states (our ticket to Amarillo). The WRCA sets itself apart by requiring that teams are from actual working ranches and team members are legitimate working cowboys—no PRCA ringers allowed. Two ranches may combine to field a full team of four to six people, and each team must compete in five events: ranch bronc riding, stray gathering, wild cow milking, team penning, and branding.
Finding the Right Fit
During my writing career, I was blessed to attend the gamut of horse-related events, from local clinics to colt-starting contests to major breed association or discipline shows to professional rodeos. As much as I love to watch highly trained horses at work, after a half hour at a show, my attention drifts.
For my tastes, the WRCA-sanctioned ranch rodeos—including the WCRR— provide the ideal convergence of competition, community, and entertainment, even without the rock-and-roll atmosphere of a professional rodeo. Either in the bronc riding or the wild cow milking, spectators are treated to at least one “tell your friends about it” wreck. And if wrecks aren’t your chosen conversational topic, you can sure talk about the how well the cowboys are mounted. The ranch horses these cowboys ride in the stray gathering and the sorting can only be considered among the best of the equine world. Even when I’m competing against others on a team, I relish watching our competition’s cowboys and horses as they work. If I’m not competing, you can bet I’m transfixed on the action.
That is, unless I’m visiting with friends or family. The competitors and
spectators at these ranch rodeos are a tight-knit group. My wife and children have developed relationships that’ll last a lifetime with members of not only our team, but others in the WRCA community. Without fail, at every ranch rodeo we attend—and especially at the year-end event—I rekindle a connection that had been lost or make a new one. (And I didn’t even need Facebook or LinkedIn to do it!)
Being on a team also gives me a chance to scratch my competitive itch. Growing up riding cutting horses, I grew accustomed to the show pen, and I enjoy it. I should pause here, however, and mention that I’m clearly the least important member of our team. After 20 years sitting behind a desk, my teammates aren’t looking for me to rope the wild cow. My duties are easily replace- able; but if it came to it, I’d happily step up into any role—except riding the bronc! Yet as a member of the team, I am counted on to do what’s required of me—hold the line in the sorting, milk the cow, and brand the calves—as quickly as I can without breaking the rules.
What Was Missing
So while I’ve found the WRCA ranch rodeos a very fulfilling diversion, the most interesting discovery I’ve made through the experience is the longing I have to be on a team. I believe we were created to be part of a larger story—to act in the name of something bigger than ourselves. One way that’s possible is through teamwork. There’s a bit of ancient wisdom literature that compares teamwork to the human body. Paraphrasing, the text says, “The eye can’t say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ There can be no division in the body, rather the parts should have equal concern for
each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
It’s that oneness of working with others toward a common goal that’s been so rewarding. For two years our team tried to qualify for the WCRR. We had some terrible showings—and we all suffered together. But over time, our team grew close and we all became more comfortable with our roles. Then, at the first rodeo of the season this year, everything clicked. We won and now we’re headed to Amarillo in November. Riding in the grand entry with my brother and friends will be the realization of a dream I never thought was possible.
The Bigger Picture
Of course, being on a ranchrodeo team isn’t the only way to enjoy the pleasures of teamwork. If horse shows are your scene, you, your horse, and your trainer are a team working toward a goal. Or, maybe it’s just you and your horse working together to accomplish a maneuver or master a skill. With the proper perspective, it’s all teamwork, because the end result can’t be achieved alone whether you’re working a reining pattern, cutting a cow, roping a steer, or even riding a bronc. Riders need the horse and the horse needs the rider to become something more than the sum of their parts.
But the concept transcends horses, too. In this world, we need one another to get through. We need friends and family bringing a diversity of skills and working in unison to experience the true joy of accomplishing anything worthwhile.
Bob Welch has spent his career writing and thinking about horses, riders, and the West. When not sitting at his computer working through writer’s block, he and his family enjoy being horseback, working cattle, and competing in ranch horse shows and ranch rodeos.