True grit: Wisconsin rodeos, cowboys

It all comes down to what you can accomplish in seconds – less than 10 seconds – and success is a matter of instinct and quick reaction, skill and practice, grit and gumption.

The lasso misses, your balance slips, an unexpected jolt tosses you head over heels. Any of it can mean lost investment of money, time and – in extreme cases – livelihood.

“The circuit is a rough life,” says Shane Ley of Wausau, a spokesman for this month’s Lincoln County Rodeo Days in Merrill. He is a native of Montana who prefers to stay involved with rodeos from a distance.

Rodeos in Wisconsin? Events typically associated with Wild West heritage prompt competitors and their animals to travel hundreds of miles north, too. They land in small towns to glitzy Vegas arenas.

The Merrill purse of about $20,000 was divvied up between winners in seven categories – barrel racing to bareback riding. People who win the most dangerous categories, like bull riding, earn a bigger chunk of the pie.

Competitors also wrestle steers to the ground, mount broncos that buck, rope steers in teams or rope calves solo. Women barrel racers maneuver their horses around obstacles, in a dizzying cloverleaf pattern.

Cowboys from at least a dozen states compete in Wisconsin for money and honor, fancy saddles and decorative jackets through the 70-year-old Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Those who do the best will amass six-figure earnings. Most will be lucky to hit four digits.

A Wisconsin man – B.J. Schumacher, 25, of Hillsboro– leads the nation in bull riding and is the reigning world champ. He has earned more than $86,000, so far, and his most recent win was in Merrill.

He has paid a price for his title, and it’s amounted to more than rodeo entry fees. Career injuries have included a broken arm, a broken leg and a hip injury that pulled him from competition for three months in 2004.

The rodeo circuit is an odd balance between pageantry and dirty work, silver buckles and spurs, tailored cowboy shirts and broken-in boots. It’s a tip of the hat and a “thank you, Ma’am,” then brawny wrestling amidst dust and horns.

Goofy antics from the rodeo clown gain respect as he vaults onto a bareback quarterhorse and changes his riding direction with the ease of a gymnast, not once, but several times.

Merrill turns its annual rodeo into a family-friendly event by banning beer sales from the grandstand, tossing candy to kids and conducting Mutton Buster and Calf Scramble events. What’s that? Children put on a bike helmet and try to ride a sheep. Later, they return to the ring, trying to catch a calf – and the calf wins.

The tone is wholesome, but animal care and treatment are tricky and volatile issues. There are specific rules about how an animal will be treated during rodeo competition and penalties if competitors ignore the rules. Officials are quick to free cattle that have been roped or horses that are cinched (a midsection belt that, when tightened, causes bucking) as an event ends.

People who love rodeos describe the four-legged participants as well-conditioned and well-treated athletes, but they also realize that animal rights organizations do not see it that way.

I’m not going to play judge on that issue. Let’s simply acknowledge it.

Upcoming pro rodeo events include Stanley Rodeo Days, June 15-16; Manawa’s Mid-Western Rodeo, June 29 to July 1; and Spooner’s Heart of the North Rodeo, July 5-7. For more: www.prorodeo.org, 715-593-8840.

Wisconsin Rodeo Cowboy Association has rodeos in Tomah on July 27 and Portage on July 28. For more: www.wisconsinrodeocowboysassociation.com, 608-574-0549.

Little Britches of Wisconsin exposes rodeo competition to ages 6-18. Participants don’t need a horse, but they need to attend the organization’s clinics. Rodeos are in Gays Mills, Mondovi, Oshkosh, Highland, Shawano, Prairie Hills, Amherst, Rhinelander and Viroqua. For more: www.lbwrodeo.com.

The Wisconsin High School Rodeo finals are this weekend, June 15-17, at the Richland County Fairgrounds. Regional high school rodeos are Aug. 11-12 in Mineral Point and Sept. 1-2 in Holmen. For more: www.cowboycalendar.com, 608-794-2476.

A Wisconsin woman in 2005 was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame, Fort Worth, Texas.

Elaine Kramer of Prairie du Chien, a longtime trick rider, in the 1960s and 1970s became known for her six-horse Roman riding act. She’d stand on the back of two of the horses as they galloped in sync.

“Many celebrities have seen her ride and countless fans watched her perform graceful figure eights and daring jumps under the rodeo arena spotlight,” the hall of fame notes, online. “She was at the height of rodeo stardom when she retired her horses in 1972.”

If that inspires you to be more adventurous, consider Cowgirl U, a series of ranch stays and workshops presented by the National Cowgirl Museum. It’s a way to get a taste of the cowgirl lifestyle without sacrificing much more than an electric hair dryer.

Ranch life to chuckwagon cooking are topics. For more: www.cowgirl.net, 817-336-4475.