The cowboy spirit was alive and well during Monday night's Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association All American Pro Rodeo at the Howard County fair.
Spectators donned cowboy hats and boots and country music blared through the outdoor arena as contestants went up against horses, calves and bulls in hopes of winning prize money, and pride.
This year's two rodeos, the second of which will take place on Tuesday night, include the most contestants ever at the Howard County Fair event, with 147 riders registered for Monday.
The Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association is the world’s largest rodeo-sanctioning organization, overseeing approximately 600 of the top multi-event rodeos in North America, including Howard County’s. Many contestants travel from one rodeo to the next to compete, attempting to make it to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in December in Las Vegas.
Thousands of dollars in prize money was up for grabs on Monday, with approximately $750 per event available, according to the fair’s rodeo announcer Chip Ridgely. In total for both nights, approximately $10,500 was up for the taking; however in some events, such as Monday’s bull riding, no one stayed on long enough to qualify for prize money.
The night started with bareback-style bronc riding, with riders attempting to cling onto the backs of horses, whipping back and forth like rag dolls as the horses bucked. A rider must stay on the horse's back for at least eight seconds to successfully complete the event.
Shannon Schroeder and her three children were visiting their cousins in the county and decided to come to the rodeo to see the excitement, a first for Schroeder's kids. The family was in town from Chicago, but Schroeder said she had roots in the fair; her mother was the 1953 Howard County Farm Bureau Queen.
Schroeder said she grew up attending the Howard County fair, and so she wanted to share the experience with her kids.
"I spent my summers roaming around the fair, I wanted my kids to see it," she said.
Spectators cheered and clapped the riders on throughout the night, even as contestants were flung from horses, and later and more aggressively, bulls.
"Ride it like it's a rocking chair out on your front porch on a Sunday afternoon," Ridgely said as a rider held onto a horse for each valuable second.
Ridgely, who grew up in West Friendship, has been announcing rodeos since 1989. Ridgely himself rode bulls for 16 years before making the switch to announcer, and said the sport was a natural fit for him.
"The fact that I grew up with livestock my whole life and it was just something that connected my lifestyle with the sport that it was just natural," Ridgely said. "A relationship between the sporting and the livestock, you could call it."
Ridgely's rodeo calling began when he filled in as a last-minute substitute for a friend that had lost his voice. He said he was hooked, and has kept up announcing ever since, traveling to different rodeos throughout the season.
"I enjoy the crowd, enjoy explaining the sport that I love," Ridgely said. "I like everything about it."
After riding bulls, considered the most dangerous sport in rodeo, for many years Ridgely said he gave up the event after the births of his three daughters.
"When you ride bulls you have to have the attitude that you have nothing to lose," Ridgely said. "I was able to block a lot of things out like pain [and] weather, but I was not able to block out the fact that I have children, and that at any minute I could be seriously injured. I just figured the good Lord said that's enough, and I went ahead and eased out of it."
The rodeo also included appearances from between 60 and 80 cattle and horses, according to Ridgely. Despite many public misconceptions that exist about the treatment of rodeo animals, Ridgely said that these "mutts of the animal kingdom" are treated exceptionally well and given a "second chance at life" through the rodeo.
Those "mutts" put on a show for the audience, who watched in awe as contestants attempted to not only ride on bucking horses and bulls, but rope-tie calves and horseback race through the arena. Even as contestants were heaved from horses and outrun by calves, spectators whooped and clapped in a sign of support.
The cowboys, in a moment of gratitude for fans and respect to the animals that had just outdone them, tipped their hats toward the crowd and walked out of the arena, ready to try again.