For the past 20+ years, WRCA has used its World Championship Ranch Rodeo to salute working cowboys and lend a hand to ranching families in need.
Twenty years ago, a cowboy’s biggest audience was most likely a herd of cattle— several hundred cows and calves offering blank stares while he fanned a rank bronc or flung a nifty loop around a dodging calf.
These days, more working cowboys have hit the limelight, showing off their skills before hundreds of cheering spectators at ranch rodeos throughout the country. And if his outfit qualifies for the World Championship Ranch Rodeo in Amarillo, Texas, a cowboy and his fellow hands compete in front of 5,000 fans.
“I remember going to watch [the WCRR] for the first time,” says Tripp Townsend. “It still gives me goosebumps thinking about that. I couldn’t sit still up in the stands, thinking, ‘We’ve got to do this.’”
In 2002, Townsend’s Sandhill Cattle Co. team competed in its first WCRR, and the Earth, Texas, cowboys have qualified every year since and claimed the championship three times.
Sanctioned by the Working Ranch Cowboys Association, the rodeo has become a premier event, with sellout crowds, big-name sponsors, and almost 150 vendors in its Cowboy Trade and Trappings Show. With other activities, such as a ranch horse show, cowboy poetry and musical performances, and Kids Cowboy Camp, it’s estimated that 40,000 visitors walk through the Amarillo Civic Center doors during the four-day event.
“Our goal was to keep the ranching heritage alive and let more people know about it,” says Kent Moore, a WRCA director. “And we wanted to help cowboys and their families with a crisis fund and scholarships. But we didn’t ever anticipate this kind of growth or support. I know of people from New York who plan their vacations around this event.”
Despite the WCRR’s popularity, Moore and his fellow WRCA directors continue to focus on the association’s three principal goals: introducing the general public to real, working cowboys; aiding ranching families in crisis; and funding scholarships for youth in the agricultural community. The concept originally came to life during a Western event in Palo Duro Canyon, several miles south of Amarillo.
Cowboys in Mind
Randy Whipple, a WRCA director, clearly remembers the horseback conversation that led to the founding of the association. He was hired to organize a cattle drive for WestFest, a cowboy festival held in Palo Duro Canyon in 1994. Waddie Mitchell, a popular cowboy poet from Nevada, was there to entertain.
“We were moving 90 head of steers,” Whipple recalls. “Along the way, Waddie Mitchell, Terry Rich, a friend of mine, and I were talking. Waddie says, ‘Pards, we need to do something for the working cowboy, and I think Amarillo is the place to do it.’”
Their discussion led to a meeting the following spring in Amarillo. There, 18 ranchers, ranch rodeo producers and cowboys formed WRCA. Their plan was to use a championship ranch rodeo to generate money—through ticket sales and other fundraisers—for scholarships and to assist ranch families facing crises. Meanwhile, the rodeo put authentic cowboys in the spotlight.
“I thought this is better than watching a professional rodeo,” recalls Mitchell. “These cowboys are competing as a team, and the crowd sees how they represent multi-generational ranches. It sees a cowboy and his horse working together. And as they’re in the arena for a long period of time, the crowd gets to know them and it’s easier to cheer them on.”
Ranch rodeo wasn’t a new concept. However, WRCA devised a system in which ranch teams qualified for the WCRR by winning one of its sanctioned ranch rodeos scheduled throughout the country.
“The first year we had four sanctioned rodeos, so we had four teams that qualified for the finals,” says Gary Morton, a WRCA director. “We invited several other large ranches for that first finals so we could have 12 teams. Over the years we have developed this system of sanctioning rodeos and qualifying teams. Many of our sanctioned rodeos have been with us for a number of years, and the level of competition has gotten better and better.”
WRCA’s first championship rodeo was held in November of 1996, after most ranches finished their fall works. From the beginning, it was clear that the organization held close ties to the ranching community. In addition to Mitchell, Morton, Rich and Whipple, the original board of directors included cowboys and ranchers such as Earl Kuhn, Buster McLaury, Duane McPherson, Kent Moore and Bill Wagner.
“That first year we were all scared to death,” Morton says. “We didn’t know if anyone would show up to watch. We spent every dime we had to put it on. It was a huge undertaking for a small amount of people. But we had great support from our sponsors and from Amarillo. Fortunately, people showed up.”
As the crowds have grown through the past 20+ years, so has WRCA’s ability to lend a hand to working cowboys in need. Typically, the Working Ranch Cowboys Fund provides monetary assistance when a ranch family needs support due to accidents, illnesses, natural disasters and other hardships.
“A cowboy may get injured and have insurance through the ranch he works for, but his wife and kids may need to stay in a hotel near the hospital for several days,” Mitchell says. “We can help pay for things like that.”
WRCF has helped pay for a variety of items, such as feed, fuel, wheelchair ramps, headstones and pickups.
“What we’ve built is a great mechanism to really help cowboys and their families,” Whipple says. “Someone calls us about a neighbor that’s in trouble, we find out what the need is and then we try to meet the need. Sometimes we write a check on the same day. We do whatever it takes to keep that family together and get them back in the saddle. And that’s something we’re really proud of.”
During the past 20+ years, WRCF has distributed more than $2 million to ranching families in need. It has also contributed to higher education for hundreds of youth. In 2015 alone, WRCF awarded $35,000 in scholarships to 24 recipients. The objective is to help equip the next generation of ranch foremen, veterinarians, livestock experts and agricultural businessmen.
“Years ago, I had to quit cowboying and move to town so that I could afford to send my kids to college,” Mitchell says. “So we want to award scholarships to kids so that Dad can keep cowboying.”
Whipple says WRCA is exploring another method for helping cowboys, specifically the older generation.
“We want to start a retirement ranch,” he says. “We’re looking into different kinds of retirement services. That could manifest into us working with existing retirement homes around the country, or it could be finding some land and building a facility. We would need to hire some kind of managed healthcare and support. So, rather than retiring to an apartment, older cowboys could live on a ranch, and if they want to saddle a horse and work some cows, they can. I think that’s our next important step.
Ranchers in the Spotlight
Each night, the WRCC grand entry packs more than 100 working cowboys representing about two dozen teams into the Amarillo Civic Center arena. During the course of four performances, each team competes in every event twice, and the team earning the most points based on their placings in each event is the champion. Events include ranch bronc riding, stray gathering, team branding, team penning and wild cow milking.
Most ranch rodeo qualifiers are held in the five-state area of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. However, Billings, Montana, and Encampment, Wyoming, also host qualifiers. Up to two ranches can combine forces to form a team, and other WRCA regulations ensure that cowboys are full-time employees or regular day workers.
“As soon as we began competing in ranch rodeos, we started working on our roping and riding,” says Townsend, a WRCA director who continues to compete. “Maybe it’s silly, but that was all we could think about. We wanted to become better cowboys and see how we stacked up against the competition.
“But that has been good for our operation. It keeps up the morale. We all work harder when we know that we get to go to a ranch rodeo that weekend.”
Horsemen who have watched the event evolve for two decades point out that the level of horsemanship has improved greatly, and the presence of the Ranch Horse Association of America has certainly played a role. Since 1997, the WCRR has featured an RHAA ranch horse show. Winners of the five divisions earn a spot at the RHAA National Finals.
“It’s great to be associated with them,” Morton says. “They have helped raise the level of horsemanship. It’s a lot different now. The horses are so much better.”
Comparing 1995 with 2015, it’s difficult not to notice cultural changes since WRCA was formed. Local ranch rodeos, whether sanctioned or not, are scheduled throughout the United States.
“I’m amazed at how many ranch rodeos there are these days,” Morton says. “And they’re good ones. And now we have a generation of cowboys that have grown up with us, and they’ve never known about a time when there were hardly any ranch rodeos.”
Mitchell adds that during the same span, the cowboy culture has experienced a renaissance of sorts. He says cowboy poetry gatherings, Western trappings shows, ranch horse competitions and other ranch-related events are more popular than in years past.
“I’ve seen a change in the whole cowboy culture,” he says. “I remember when the term ‘cowboy poetry’ was thought of as an oxymoron. But if there’s anything in my lifetime that I’m proud to be a part of, it’s helping with WRCA. That’s because of what it has done for cowboys and ranchers.”
This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Western Horseman.