Competing ranch teams come from as far away as Texas to compete in the Ride for the Brand in Colorado Springs, Colo., because the only way a ranch can win a spot in the Working Ranch Cowboys Association Finals in Amarillo, Texas, is to win a WRCA-sanctioned rodeo.
Such events are few and far between.
There are only two Ranch Rodeos in Colorado sanctioned by the WRCA — one in Hugo, and the other is the Ride for the Brand, which was in full swing recently.
There are no specialists in the ranch-rodeo world — just real cowboys, who work in the saddle all week and compete for their ranch on the weekend.
It is all about pride, or as they put it “riding for the brand.”
About 16 years ago cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell and some of his friends got together and started an organization that would preserve and promote the way of life of the true cowboy.
They saw what they considered to be an American heritage, rapidly fading from the conscience of America and being forgotten. The Working Ranch Cowboys Association is dedicated to preserving ranching and the lifestyle of working ranch cowboys.
As longtime Colorado rodeo stock contractor Harry Vold put it, “people need to remember that the meat they put on their table didn’t magically appear in the grocery store. It got there by the sweat of some tired, dusty cowboy out on the range.”
Vold went on to say, with passion, “cowboys on horseback built this country and they are still out there, working just like they did 100 years ago. It’s our heritage and something that Americans should be proud of and shouldn’t forget.”
So what exactly is ranch rodeo and how is it different from the PRCA rodeo?
Well, for one thing, you are not going to see any flashy, colorful chaps with flying strings attached.
This is strictly cowboys working equipment, working it Monday through Friday, and who rodeo in the same gear on the weekend.
There are no special saddles for bronc riding. The contestants use the same saddles they have been sitting in all week back at the ranch.
Because all of the events must relate to something that working cowboys do every day during the course of normal ranch work, there is no bull riding event.
The only rough stock event is saddle bronc, which is done like it would be on a working ranch — there is no “mark out rule” and form is not scored. There is no penalty for touching the horse with the free hand.
In fact, the cowboy can hold on to a “night latch,” a loop of leather or rope on his saddle, with his free hand.
The objective is to stay on for eight seconds and get the job done — “ride as ride can” is the way the WRCA puts it.
The rodeo committee can choose from a number of different events, and at the Ride for the Brand, the events were ranch-bronc riding, wild-cow milking, ranch branding, stray gathering and ranch sorting.
There was also a jackpot event — trailer loading, which did not count in the scoring for the overall ranch winner.
Ranch branding and ranch sorting require a lot of skill from both horse and rider, but they are just not that exciting to the general public, so they are held during the day as slack.
Wild-cow milking can definitely get a little “Western.”
A full-size, straight-off-the-range, wet cow is released at one end of the arena. At the other end are a roper on horseback and three cow hands on foot.
The objective is to rope the cow, and when the three cowboys on foot catch up, they restrain the cow and the roper releases the rope from the saddle horn — no help from the horse in holding the cow.
The milker milks the cow into a standard 12-ounce, long-neck bottle, passes the bottle to the roper who runs to the judge. The judge pours milk from the bottle — no milk, no time.
Fastest time wins.
It sounds pretty straight-forward, but the unexpected usually happens.
The event rules at a ranch rodeo may seem a little loose compared to PRCA standards, but the WRCA is extremely strict when it comes to who can compete.
While you may see a PRCA card holder competing, he still has to be a working ranch hand like everyone else. All participants must be ranch owners, full-time employees or day workers.
The WRCA defines a “working ranch” as having at least 300 head to be eligible for a team permit, and a “day worker” must have made a specific amount of money in the year preceding the application by the ranch for a team card — and, they have to be able to prove it.
Huge ranches, like Haythorn Land and Cattle in Nebraska and the Thompson Ranch in Texas, will field teams made up entirely of their employees, but smaller ranches with fewer employees are permitted to combine to make up a team.
Rodeo evolved from cowboys getting together to prove who was best at their job.
Pro rodeo further evolved with specialized equipment and more exciting events like steer wrestling, bareback-bronc riding and bull riding.
The difference is that in pro rodeo, it is all about individual performance. Even in team roping, there are two contestants working together, but striving for individual accolades as header or heeler.
Ranch rodeo is just the opposite.
There is one individual event, ranch-bronc riding. Everything else involves the ranch team.
It is about the ranch and their fellow cowboys.
It is about pride and “riding for the brand,” and punching that ticket to Amarillo. ❖