Fifty years after an upstart student rodeo team
hung up its spurs, a new generation
of ropers and riders is trying to bring rodeo
back to the Forty Acres.

By Andrew Roush
Photos By Jeff Wilson

Fifty years after an upstart student rodeo team hung up its spurs, a new generation of ropers and riders is trying to bring rodeo back to the Forty Acres.

By Andrew Roush
Photos By Jeff Wilson

Her horse, Vegas, is at a gallop before the announcer, his voice fuzzy with reverb, says her name. With a mix of either pride or incredulity, it’s hard to tell which, he adds “The University of Texas. Austin.”

Johnson hurtles across the start line, the judge drops his neon orange flag, and Vegas heads toward the first barrel. The horse is a sleek chestnut streak, black eyes wide and blazing, kicking up freshly tilled dirt. Janie is a burnt-orange blur atop him, her eyes darting ahead as she coaxes Vegas’ half-ton of muscle forward. Together, they circle three barrels set out in a triangle and hurry back in a straight line to where they started.

The summer before her freshman year, Johnson was at the International Finals Youth Rodeo in Shawnee, Okla. She struck up a conversation with a man warming up his daughter’s horse, chatting about where the girls planned to go to college. She told him she was going to UT.

“Well, how are you going to do rodeo?” he asked.

Barrel racer Janie Johnson at XS Equine in Dripping Springs.

On the east and west rims of Palo Duro Canyon, in the Texas Panhandle, there are two ranches.

There are lots of ranches in that part of the state, actually, including the JA Ranch once run by Charles Goodnight. It’s an area with its boot heels firmly planted in the red dirt of the mythical Texas, the Texas of boots and lariats, dust and tumbleweed. It’s the Texas that most outsiders—and more than a few sheltered locals—think of when they hear the name.

This is, after all, where cattle drivers like Goodnight made Texas Longhorn cattle famous, and where Goodnight himself put an end to the open range with a barbed wire fence, right along the canyon. That’s where Johnson’s from. Her parents man the ranch on the eastern rim, her grandmother the west. Rodeo is in her blood.

When it came time to go to college, Johnson knew where she was going. UT has a widely respected radio-television-film program, and that’s exactly what Janie wanted. At the time, that meant rodeo would have to take a back seat, or at least ride shotgun. Austin is a long way from Goodnight’s Texas. It’s a city that’s growing like a weed on a steady diet of silicon and data. Its saloons and boot boutiques pay lip service to its frontier past, but like a true pioneer city, Austin’s eyes are firmly set on the future. In a town where Priuses outnumber cows by a fair margin, can a sport based on old tests of a cowboy’s skill grow and thrive—even at a university that calls its teams the Longhorns?

Saddle bronc rider Joel Chavez Photo by Jeff Wilson

That makes starting a competitive rodeo team a challenge. So do the legalities and liabilities of modern higher education. But what really makes it tough isn’t getting the paperwork in on time. It’s finding UT students who know about—or want to know about—rodeo.

Then Janie’s mother, Mindy Johnson, BBA ’86, noticed an article in the Alcalde. It was about Los Charros, the enterprising rodeo and social club that took the university by storm in the late 1950s. After struggling to get it off the ground (they were told by the UT Board of Regents that they should go to A&M if they were interested in anything having to do with horses), an enterprising group of students hosted their own rodeo, complete with a homemade 7,500-seat area where the Triangle currently sits at Lamar and Guadalupe in Austin. Through a combination of hard work and social savvy, they counted then-Governor Price Daniel, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Roy Rogers among their supporters. It had been done before.

“Janie,” Mindy told her daughter, “you could do this.”

That summer, the man at the Shawnee rodeo introduced Janie to another future UT student, Alex Lang. Janie knew there had to be others.

College rodeo, like so many other collegiate pursuits, is a world unto itself.

It has its own governing body, the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association (NIRA), and its own competitive hierarchies. Unlike Texas’ other state sport, football, the big state schools don’t necessarily dominate. Texas Tech and Texas A&M have good teams, but the real competitors come from places like Wharton County Junior College, Hill College, and Panola Junior College. In order to compete as a NIRA team, a group must meet certain requirements. They can have six men and four women, all of whom must maintain a 2.0 GPA and take at least 12 credit hours a semester. Teams compete in 11 divisions that stretch from Washington state to North Carolina, and the top two teams from each region move on to the College National Finals Rodeo. Those finals, the so-called “Rose Bowl of rodeo,” award $200,000 in scholarship money each year.

Rodeo scholarships aren’t particularly rare, either. Schools with strong programs and booster clubs award full-ride scholarships; smaller ones offer tuition waivers. Anything helps when the cost of diesel can make or break your season.

The loose group registered with the Dean of Students as the Longhorn Rodeo Club doesn’t actually compete as a team, though they do ride, rope, and race under the UT name, having confirmed with NIRA that they are UT students. President Bill Powers signed the papers himself after the students got frustrated explaining the endeavor to university bureaucracy. They stable their own horses at home and they practice whenever and wherever they can. Zach Cook, a McCombs School senior, is a team roper. His header, who ropes the steer’s head before Cook lassoes its hind hooves, is a student at Texas A&M-Kingsville, a rodeo school. It’s not easy, says Cook, a Utah native who split many years between Utah and Houston, but getting a good education was important to him.

Team roper Zach Cook. Photo by Jeff Wilson

“I wanted to go to either A&M or UT,” he says. He chose UT because McCombs is “one of the best business schools in the world.” He didn’t know there was a rodeo club, and thought he’d have to give it up. He found out about it through a post on Instagram.

“The way that we’ve found the few people we have is kind of amazing and coincidental,” Johnson says. UT students who know the rodeo world have come out of the woodwork, mostly through word of mouth. “I know they’re here,” she says.

Still, only a few of them—the ones who have the experience and the means to move their animals to far-flung corners of the state—can compete regularly. To attract newcomers, they’ll need a boost.

In order to become an officially sanctioned UT Sport Club, a group has to meet a number of criteria. They have to have at least 10 members, have a national governing body, and compete regularly. They also have to have suitable on or off-campus practice facilities and have a “minimal amount” of risk involved. The reward for becoming a club is recognition from the university—using the famous steerhead logo, for example—and often money, anywhere from $500-$10,000 depending on the team’s needs and how well they lobby. But it’s those last two requirements, facilities and risk, that pose a challenge for Longhorn Rodeo.

Los Charros round up support for their petition to the UT Board of Regents.

Randall Ford, who’s been with the Division of Recreational Sports (RecSports) for 20 years, admits that the minimal risk clause is what he calls a “fairly subjective matter.” The UT Water Ski team, for example, has been around longer than Ford has been with RecSports. They’re a successful group, and through the help of a strong alumni network, have their own practice facility. Still, it’s a dangerous activity. The major concern, Ford says, is having a consistent, supervised place to practice in order to maximize safety and a faculty member to oversee it all. That’s how you minimize risk. But while the original rodeo team could stable their horses close to campus, the Austin that the current team lives in simply isn’t suited for cowboys anymore, to say nothing of their horses.

The original Los Charros never bothered becoming an official intercollegiate team, though they had considerable support from UT and the Austin community once a 2,000-signature petition was dropped under the noses of the regents. In 1956, RecSports didn’t exist and the NIRA was a mere seven years old. So the Charros used what they had to host their own rodeo. The Moody sisters, Rhetta Moody McAlister, BS ’60, and Bebe Moody Boone, BS ’59, Life Member, were well-connected. Carey Crutcher, ’55; John Mecom Jr., ’58; and Reese Lockett Jr., BBA ’60, Life Member, were country boys who knew how to cut and tie.

Left Team roper Gus Chestnut. Above Barrel racer Shannon Kahlden. Photos by Jeff Wilson

Bobby Bond, himself a West Texas boy, fell into that category, too. But Bond, like Zach Cook, hadn’t planned on pursuing rodeo at UT. He sold his horse and trailer before he came to Austin.

“I didn’t have the slightest idea that there was anything rodeo related at UT,” he says over the phone from his ranch in Tennyson, Texas while the wind whips across the mouthpiece. “It was unbelievable.”

Bond fell in with John Barnhill, BJ ’59, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, who used his journalism prowess to get the Charros mentioned almost weekly in the Austin American-Statesman—and even once in Sports Illustrated. Bond, the West Texan, and Barnhill, from sleepy Brenham, who says he was “anything but a rodeo guy” back then, lived together their freshman and sophomore years. Bond was the best man at Barnhill’s wedding.

The tenacious Charros used whatever they could to their advantage, and hosted the largest college rodeo in the country.

It wasn’t easy—Bond and Barnhill both admit that they probably spent too much time on the rodeo and not enough time on studying—but it worked. They put together something impressive, and they enjoyed it.

“If my daddy hadn’t cut my money off, I’d still be there,” Bond laughs as his dog chimes in from the background.

Chavez's championship belt buckle. Photo by Jeff Wilson

At the rodeo near Corpus Christi, their arrow-shaped course complete, Janie takes Vegas to the stable. The horse’s journey, from Johnson’s home’s in Canyon, Texas to his current location is about 630 miles—about nine hours driving—both ways. It’s even slower with a horse trailer in tow. When you search for a route, Google doesn’t even bother with driving directions. It suggests you fly. They finish the roughly 400-ft. course in 16.3 seconds.

While her husband, Clint, and Janie stable Vegas, Mindy Johnson watches the rest of the action. She still gets nervous before rodeos. After the race, she turns and says matter-of-factly that Vegas stumbled a couple of times. She doesn’t seem disappointed. That’s how it goes working with animals, especially since Janie hasn’t ridden Vegas in a while. That’s rodeo. Folks who recognize Mindy from around the circuit come and sit next to her, ask after the family, and ask how the UT team is doing. They’re still looking for a permanent place to practice and keep their horses. It is, after all, a long drive from Canyon.

In the stable after her race, Johnson says she’s not an aggressive rider. Some women spur and whip the heck out of their horses but, she says, those girls are taking a risk. They have less control, and they’re more likely to incur a five-second penalty for knocking over a barrel. Even so, Johnson seems neither excited nor worried about the race. She’s just trying to get something started. It was only her first race of the two-day rodeo. In the end she finished second.

Chestnut practices his roping skills. Photo by Jeff Wilson

Barnhill, Bond, and the other Los Charros alumni don’t know Gus Chestnut, Madison Russ, Joel Chavez, or the others attempting to follow in their footsteps, and their rodeo was a world away from that of Sport Club applications, NIRA regulations, and super-competitive junior colleges. But they know the possibilities inherent in building something on your own. They know the challenges, too.

“Oh boy,” Barnhill says, mulling for a moment when asked if he has advice for this new breed of cowboy and -girl. “I would say have patience and develop connections.”

Bonds considers it for a moment as well. “Not having an arena is really hard,” he says. “If they can find a venue, that would relieve a tremendous amount of burden.” People shouldn’t need rodeo experience to take part, he notes, because a successful club should have a social aspect and a connection to the community. That’s what made Los Charros a big, if short-lived, success. The wind scratches through the line again. “I hope they’re successful. It was a good time.”

Get on

One Texas Ex travels to the surreal world of 1970s-era offbeat Texas rodeos.

When I was studying photojournalism at UT back in the mid-’70s we, all us “shooters,” were always looking for the coolest, weirdest, most interesting things to point a camera at. With my background in anthropology, I was a natural for subcultures: drag shows, body building competitions, low-rider conventions, a monkey sanctuary in south Texas. I happily captured every strange world I could talk my way into. But the world that ended up capturing me was rodeo. Offbeat rodeos to be precise.

I loved the mutations wrought upon this quintessential American pastime by all the hybrids I discovered: womens’, kids’, Mexican-American, African-American, Native-American, police, gay, and old-timers’ rodeo. I even heard about a nudist rodeo, in California, naturally. But the one that started it all was a prison rodeo in Huntsville in 1975. The disregard for life and limb that is rodeo’s hallmark—at least for the rough stock riders, less so for ropers—was carried to frenzied extremes by the convicts in their striped uniforms set free for one afternoon to reclaim a bit of cowboy dignity. These were contestants for whom there was no tomorrow and nothing left to lose, and they rode that way. They were gladiators who would brave any bull, any bucking bronc just to hear the crowd roar. Or for $25, which was the magnanimous sum that prison officials placed inside a Bull Durham tobacco bag and tied between the horns of a bull. The convict who could snatch the bag got the money. Or a horn in the eye. Which is what happened the day I was there. It was called the “Hard Money” event.

Bull-riding at the Stamford, Texas Cowboy Reunion

By the time I photographed the Stamford, Texas Cowboy Reunion, I was out of graduate school and intent upon publishing a photo-essay book about offbeat rodeos. It illustrates what anthropologists would call rodeo: a pastoral ritual demonstrating man’s domination over nature that goes back at least to the bull-leapers of ancient Crete. So we have our cowboy atop a ton of unhappy quadruped, the guy with a hot-shot behind him, and that rope around the bull’s mid-section to insure a high degree of irritability.

The other important rodeo motif exhibited here is stoicism. All this domination of nature has to be accomplished with an air of supreme indifference. Notice the guy casually considering whether to scramble up the fence or not. And the gent sitting atop it with his cheek goitered out by a wad of Skoal. He’s a judge scoring the rider who, if he makes it to the end of his eight-seconds atop a tornado, will be given style points for things like only using one hand and how much he spurs. In mainstream rodeo the only human allowed to show emotion is the clown.

What remains most memorable to me, however, is what is not portrayed: the clueless girl photographer. Inside the arena. With a raging bull on the loose. Invariably, when I asked a cow-individual why he or she rodeoed, they’d answer “Guess I’m just crazy.” Apparently the condition was contagious.

The 1975 Huntsville prison rodeo

One hundred and eighty degrees removed from mainstream Anglo rodeo were the freewheeling, joyous affairs known when I was photographing them in the late seventies as black rodeos. At these jubilant celebrations—often held in conjunction with Juneteenth—communities in Plum, Bastrop, Hempstead, Egypt, and El Campo would welcome back city exiles with barbecue, beer, disco music, and dances. Somewhere amidst visiting with old friends, putting away innumerable bottles of the crowd favorite Champale, and selling candy for the Ebenezer Baptist Church there might be a rodeo. It wouldn’t start on time, the contestants would share boots and bull rigs, and indifference was unheard of. With buh-buh-buh BOOGIE FEVER blasting out from a crackling speaker the contestants and crowd would get on down! Get on down!

I once interviewed the mother of a kids’ rodeo contestant and she bragged to me that her 5-year-old son, after being thrown during the steer riding, had gotten himself back behind the chute and out of the crowd’s view before revealing that he’d broken his arm. That sort of stoicism was nowhere to be seen at the most exuberant rodeo I ever witnessed, a Juneteenth reunion in Egypt, Texas that started two hours late. One of the first bronc riders drew a dink, a horse that belonged on a carousel. When the rider was bucked off into the soft, plowed earth, he lay there, groaning in pain, screaming that he’d broken his arm. The crowd went wild, hooting and catcalling, “You might have broken that pack of cigarettes in your pocket!”

Dancing at a Juneteenth rodeo in Egypt, Texas

When he limped away, cradling his arm, several audience members jumped into the arena to show the downed rider how it was done. When the spooked horse bolted, other spectators flooded in to chase it down. Soon there were more bodies in the arena than the stands. The music was cranked up and the dancing began.

Several years into my project I learned that it was possible to publish a book of photographs, but that your name had to be Annie Leibowitz. By that time I had burned out two engines on my 1973 Vega hatchback and relearned that, though I could fake the extroversion photographers require, I was an introvert at heart. I hung up my cameras, turned to writing, and finally found a way to express my love of offbeat rodeos with my fourth novel, Virgin of the Rodeo.

The central image in that book comes from that unforgettable Juneteenth in Egypt, Texas when, for one night, rodeo got on down. Got on down.

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