Connected Cowboys: Saddle up for a wild, wired ride at the digitized rodeo

Worth Wren Jr. wrensly4@att.net - Forth Worth Business Press

 

Like the rest of the world, cowboys and cowgirls are now connected – no longer the lonesome wranglers of the old west. Whether cowboys or cowgirls, ranch cowhands or rodeo performers, ranchers or livestock breeders or stock show/rodeo overseers – they have saddled up for the Digital Age.

At the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, the cherished traditions and current realities of ranching and rodeoing spark conversations – often on smartphones.

Here amidst the roots of Fort Worth’s roughhewn Cowtown heritage – they text, tweet, blog or post to websites and social media, or just “surf” and research “the net” as expertly as any Starbucks-drinking urban hipster. A smartphone with email, Internet links, weather, GPS and other apps has become indispensable, they say.

For modern cowboys, cowgirls, ranchers and others, it comes down to something they’ve always prized: common sense.

They’re getting their work done using computer-enhanced technologies focusing on animal genetics and nutrition, veterinary health, ranch or farm financial/spreadsheets and analyses, work logistics and safety, marketing, the gamut of communications and even religious faith and more. Just like their urban counterparts, they’re earning a livelihood, having some fun.

Few, however, have adopted and deployed online tools more readily than Aubrey-based horse trainer and trader/marketer, veteran rodeo cowgirl and former rodeo queen Kendra Dickson, who’s now competing in barrel racing at the Stock Show & Rodeo, as she has for several years.

“Social media is vital for any business in today’s world, whatever you do,” said Dickson, a barrel-racer since age 5 and winner of rodeo prize money in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Denver, Fort Worth and other stops along the circuit. She has been a Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel-racing competitor since 2004.

Last year in the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, Dickson barrel-raced to $8,109 in winnings. In both 2013 and 2015, at the Stock Show & Rodeo, barrel-racing Dickson took the $5,000 purse as the Jerry Ann Taylor Best Dressed Award.

But Dickson said her biggest financial returns, so far, have come with winning horses she’s trained in barrel racing at her Gold Buckle Ranch. In 2006, she launched her website, www.goldbucklebarrelhorses.com, and the Internet has become her major marketing tool. Dickson said she uses multiple websites, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter to build her Gold Buckle Barrel Horses brand.

“I train horses and sell horses for a living,” she said. She cites online sales boosts as she posts horse photos, pedigrees, descriptions and competition, training and sales results; rodeo action videos, schedules and more; adds to her own bio and brand credibility; advertises barrel racing clinics, including her free riding clinics; updates her newsletter, emailed to folk signing up; and posts replays of video installments on her Women’s Pro Rodeo Today cable TV show. She typically generates most of her inputs while in her idling pickup or atop a horse between the action events.

“It’s my bread and butter,” Dickson said. “I’d rather be on a horse than in the office.”

But the online world, of course, will never supplant the work, sweat, blood, tears and adrenaline-flow in the dirt, pastures and arenas where practice, experience, pain and persistence hopefully pay off.

And some livestock trade veterans at the Stock Show see developing shortages of folk willing to put in the long days necessary on the ranch or in rodeo training.

“I’m a low-tech guy,” said third-generation rodeo/ranching cowboy/businessman Sammy Andrews referring to his “flip-phone.” And, like many producers, he had to cull and sell cattle he wanted to keep – a drought-imposed impact on grazing options, hay supplies and prices, other costs rippling across the trade.

But Andrews, 68, and son James Andrews, 41, didn’t stop raising rodeo stock – bulls and horses – and beef cattle near Addielou, population 7, northeast of Paris, Texas, in the Red River Valley. Sammy used to farm cotton, grain and soybeans, too, but now focuses on the livestock ventures. Sammy’s famous Bodacious bull reigned supreme in the 1990s rodeo bull riding world. Now “more famous dead than when he was alive,” the syndicated Bodacious and his progeny have earned serious money, Sammy said.

Their Andrews Rodeo operation is among the leading suppliers of bulls to the Stock Show’s rodeos among others. “I was here before I could walk,” Sammy said.

As both Andrews Rodeo and Andrews Ranch operators, they also use websites, online auctions and Facebook to sell and buy rodeo-bound bulls as well as commercial cows and bulls for their beef production herd.

DIGITAL DOWNSIDE

But they also see a few downsides to the connected world.

“These kids today don’t know anything about farm animals,” James said. “It’s hard to get kids out to work today; they want to stay in and play their games.” Once maybe 30 or more boys would be itching to learn to ride bulls in their rural area; today maybe five or so, he said.

“Nobody wants to practice anymore,” Sammy said. Though “we came up through hard knocks,” he added, “a guy today can learn how to ride even before he gets on a bull.”

There are mechanical bulls for practice, plus clinics and schools teaching not only rodeo action skills but also meditation for mental prep. Today’s serious rodeo stars are dedicated athletes, working daily on building lean muscled bodies.

“I actually live on the road,” said rodeo steer wrestler Cody Cabral, 26. He routinely resides in his dual – horse and human living quarters – trailer. “Not a big fancy one,” he added.

When not hauling his and other horses to rodeos from Arizona to Oregon to Florida, with stops in Texas and between, including this year’s Stock Show Rodeo, he’s flying when necessary to make steer-wrestling rides at two same-weekend rodeos too far-flung for driving.

When flying, he’s without his personally trained horse; so like most of his competitors, he rents or shares available horses.

“Everything I do is based off my cellphone,” Cabral said.

That translates into making advance horse-sharing arrangements, entry fee arrangements for rodeos, networking on horses, trading rodeo performance slots with competitors, making motel/hotel reservations when taking a trailer break, tapping into GPS or maps online to reach new rodeos sites by direct routes. It extends to linking to aerial views of new-to-him rodeo arena facilities to find the best paths to truck in trailered horses.

All of this enables Cabral to compete in more rodeos, boosting the odds of winning and covering fuel, food and other living costs. Or not. Competitors say it’s rare to cover all costs.

Cabral also checks out prospective quarter horses possibly to go “eyeball” and buy for steer-wrestling contest and arena training, “now in this really technical and intensely competitive” sport. Just shaving tenths of a second off his times can spell the difference between thousands of dollars in winnings and nothing, Cabral said.

“It’s not unusual to give a 4.2- or 4.3-second performance and not win a round.”

JOBS ON THE SIDE

The smartphone also facilitates finding and scheduling a lot of side jobs to support his rodeo habit – such as plumbing, electrical, welding and other home-improvement jobs for friends and other rodeo folk during stops on the road.

Recently, Cabral was in Denver for two days of steer-wrestling, and then drove to Fort Worth, hauling all night, 18 hours, to compete here.

Meanwhile, in the air-suspension horse trailer, as he drove, Cabral’s video cameras monitored the horses for stress and safety. Low stress on the horse is crucial to competing well, and low fuel prices mean less stress on the usually tight budget.

“I love it!” Cabral said, once 10th in world rankings, winning about $18,000 until a torn chest muscle sidelined him. He’s on the comeback trail now, after his Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association medical insurance helped ease him through the surgery and downtime.

Though not yet the world champion bull rider, Dallas native Aaron Pass, 26, is on a big winning road, recently staying on two extra-ornery, twisting, leaping bulls – Tin Cup and Mellow Yellow – to pocket $10,000 for his 8-second rides in team competition at the Fort Worth Stock Show Super Shootout Rodeo. Pass, a city boy, said a friend introduced him to the sport and two bull riding uncles taught him the basics. He was 14 when he began competing.

Now as a pro, Pass is aiming to stretch his annual earnings into the $180,000-$200,000 range, competing in 90-100 rodeos a year, for a chance at the championship. A regular in the Stock Show World’s Original Indoor Rodeo, he will ride again in the Coliseum later in the show.

“I fell in love with it,” said Kaufman-resident Pass, husband and business partner of tanning salon-boutique operator Kaysie Pass and father of daughters Preslee, 9, and Lakelynn, 1.

But the smartphone, Internet, other computer and software technologies facilitate his multitasking life – including that frenzied rodeo schedule, his family fun and obligations, his flexible other part-time job working for Advanced Mobility Systems to remodel and modify vehicles so “people with no legs can drive” and other physically impaired folk can drive and helping his wife manage their Tan-Tastic Salon, Spa, Beauty & Personal Care boutique in Kaufman.

“We do a lot of FaceTiming,” Pass said, referring to the video phone application. He also reviews pertinent financial records, makes purchasing and marketing decisions and conducts all those rodeo-boosting chores like Cabral and other cowboys do – via the smartphone or occasionally maybe a tablet or laptop. He can also stay tuned to his rodeo-bull riding sponsors, Wrangler and Resistol.

As do most pro rodeo cowboys today, Pass and Cabral rely on direct-bank deposit services – initiated a couple of years ago – by their Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Utah-based steer wrestler, grain/hay farmer when not on the rodeo road and cellphone user Baylor Roche, 27, said: “I broke down and got a smartphone last year. The PRCA’s direct-deposit for our winnings and (all the other tasks) we can do by email sold me. It’s saved me on penalties by paying all my bills on time.” He’s away from home a lot.

Pass said: “You can do (almost) anything on your cellphone. . . . It’s how everybody gets up and down the road.”

Still, Pass and Cabral have had their share of injuries and downtime from the circuit.

“It’s part of the sport,” said Pass, who’s suffered three major injuries, including collapsed lungs, broken legs and a kidney blow since turning pro bull rider eight years ago at age 18.

They all praise the nationwide rodeo-focused Justin Sportsmedicine Team for enabling them to resume circuit competition, hang on to their rodeo careers.

“It’s a blast, the adrenaline flow. Even when you’re hurt, with that adrenaline rush, you hop right up and get out of the arena quickly,” Pass said. “Two hours later it may be a different story,” with the pain overtaking the dropping adrenaline.

Often when a rodeo cowboy suffers a concussion, “that cowboy won’t tell you he’s injured,” said Dr. Tandy Freeman, Justin Sportsmedicine’s Dallas-based medical director and an orthopedic surgeon.

The medical world’s best and rising technologies are also available to the cowboys through Justin Sportsmedicine’s volunteer doctors, therapists and its medical-referral specialists, Freeman said.

Instant communication enables the doctors to share X-rays, MRI scans, medical histories and other medical test results on injured cowboys – for example, concussion exam results from Denver will follow the cowboy to Fort Worth, he said.

“Even between their performances, the cowboys can have instant information,” which just might prevent further injury and save a life, Freeman said.

But if skill, quality training, a quality horse or bull or steer, modern medicine, low fuel prices, the electronics, Internet marketing or just plain luck don’t help the ranch or rodeo cowboy or cowgirl meet or beat the challenges, there’s religious faith – with an online beat.

Barrel-racer Dickson, a practicing Christian and ramrod of the rodeoforareason.com website, said she encourages cowboys, cowgirls and wannabe rodeo stars “to stop and think. Assess whatever skills you have, and find a way to be a blessing for others.”

The lifestyle and pastime get into your blood. “I was born to rodeo,” Dickson said. “I want to be a world champion someday.”

Adding more tech blessings, the Stock Show & Rodeo cowboys – and visitors – can tap the new Internet app – #fwssr or #fwssr2016 – and the electronic marquees on site for daily schedules, maps and other event information.

The big video screen hanging in the middle of the Will Rogers Coliseum arena was new in 2015, now also educating rodeo greenhorns why a cowboy gets a penalty time added to his actual time. “We are able to show the audience in slow motion and freeze frame when the horse broke the barrier,” said Matt Brockman, Stock Show & Rodeo publicity manager.

The show’s contract rodeo videographers, with four strategically placed cameras in the Coliseum, transmit live rodeo feeds to first-aid, maintenance, rodeo hospitality and a few other areas.

In their hospitality area, munching fast food or apples, rodeo contestants review their earlier rides – checking for any technique miscues – on video replays via two big high-definition wide screens.

They can also plug in to charge their smartphones.

Despite all this technology, these heirs to the Western way of life can still do things the old-fashioned way. “Ironically,” one savvy rodeo observer said over nachos in the hospitality area, “with cellphones galore here, the cowboys and cowgirls still have lots of face-to-face conversations.”