Rodeo group looks to lasso youth as numbers drop

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HOUSTON (AP) — Anyone asking Bobby Mote to recite the injuries he has suffered in his nearly 20 years as a professional bareback rider better plan to pull up a chair and sit a spell.

After rattling off the long list of setbacks, Mote will explain that all the pain, the Motrin-filled toll being a rodeo cowboy takes on a man's physical well-being, is worth it, and he would do it all over again.

"It's how I make my living," the 37-year-old four-time bareback world champion said.

While it may not be readily apparent to fans attending the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo — the world's largest — which began Tuesday and continues through March 23 at Reliant Stadium, far fewer young athletes are following Mote's career path these days.

The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association membership roster has plunged by nearly a thousand since 2005 to just over 5,000 today, and permit-holders, who haven't yet earned enough prize money to apply for a PRCA card, have dropped by more than 50 percent since 1997.

PRCA commissioner Karl Stressman has said the association's "No. 1 focus as we go forward" will be to boost membership.

Although Mote's dad was a horse trainer, he admitted his parents weren't overly enthusiastic about his initial decision to pursue a career as a cowboy. Still, they crossed their fingers and told him Godspeed. But more and more parents, it seems, are pushing their kids into different, less dangerous sporting pursuits. Also, fewer children are growing up on farms and ranches, so they aren't exposed to rodeoing at a young age.

Therefore, the PRCA has ramped up its junior outreach program, scheduling about 20 pro-cowboy-taught clinics across the country, even in major urban areas, to teach children as young as 8 the basic elements of the rodeo's rough-stock events — bareback, saddle-bronc and bull-riding — with future plans to also teach the timed events.

Learning the latter's requisite skills presents more complications because live animals are required and youngsters must know how to ride a horse pretty well before they can even begin to think about roping or steer wrestling. The good news is neither roping nor bull-dogging is as dangerous as mounting rough stock.

Caleb Smidt, the PRCA's 2013 All-Around Rookie-of-the-Year, is a 24-year-old roper and a steer wrestler with the potential to eventually rank among the best ever. The Bellville cowboy readily admits he never "had much of an interest" in beating himself up trying to survive the requisite eight seconds on the back of a bucking horse or bull. He figured out early on that timed-event cowboys have longer careers and spend less time in emergency rooms.

"But," he added, "it's simpler to ride rough stock. You can go to a rodeo in a car. You don't need a big truck and a horse trailer."

Indeed, prospective bronc and bull riders often arrive at the PRCA's "Rodeo 101" camps in the family station wagon. Each camp accommodates up to 40 youngsters for a single six-hour session, and one of the first was in Fort Worth in January, the only stop scheduled for Texas this year. The next closest to the Houston area will be one in Crosset, Ark., a five-hour drive east of Dallas, scheduled for March 29.

"Our program is designed to provide kids with the opportunity to try out rodeoing in a safety-first environment," Julie Jutten, the PRCA's industry outreach coordinator, told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1lwD6wp ). "We've always been involved in youth rodeo, but we've decided to take a more proactive role in promoting rodeo as a sports option.

"Other organizations are recruiting kids," she continued. "We should be, too. But for us it's a lot more complicated than just taking your bat and your ball to the park like you do when you first learn how to play baseball."

Rodeo 101 beginners are taught technique through drills and mechanical equipment by real pro cowboys, some retired, who volunteer their time.

"They don't do live buck-outs," Jutten said, "until they're ready to get serious" and take the next step, which would be to sign up for a private rodeo school. Scholarship money is being made available to attend college, too.

"Our focus is on teaching the basics, goal-setting, good sportsmanship and healthy living habits," Jutten said. "The idea is to get them started the right way instead of going out and jumping on some guy's horse in the back pasture and getting badly hurt."

It's too early to see measurable impact in terms of overall participation because 18 is the minimum age to earn a PRCA card.

In the interim, numbers are likely to continue to trickle lower — especially in bareback riding, which, bull-riding's notoriety notwithstanding, is the most potentially debilitating discipline because of the whiplash effect on the neck. Mote has gone through periods of suffering excruciating pain from a pinched cervical nerve, and now, like most of his peers, he wears a special brace designed to help stabilize the head while the body is being wildly jerked about.

"Most recently," Mote said, beginning his list of injuries, "my pancreas got split, and I had to have half of it taken out."

He said it as matter-of-factly as if he were talking about a broken finger nail.

"That was about a year and a half ago and cost me a couple months," he said. "The horse slipped in the bucking chute and banged me up against the side. Before that, I had to have surgery on a sports hernia. It took about a year to get back to normal, but I was still trying to compete. And I've broke my collarbone, bones in both legs, my arm and my wrist."

So would he let any of his three children, ages 13, 10 and 7, follow in his rodeo footsteps?

"If that's what they want," said Mote, who's married to a professional barrel racer.

Although he grew up in Oregon, the family lives in Stephenville, where being a cowboy, or cowgirl, remains cool.

Will Lowe, a 32-year-old three-time bareback world champion from Canyon who has fractured a leg and an ankle and damaged one of his shoulders severely enough in 2009 to require surgery, also insists his two boys, 13 and 10, are welcome to try rodeoing, "if that's what they want to do."

Lowe admits he'll look around at some of the smaller events and notice how the number of competitors has fallen.

But, at the same time, he contends there never have been more top-rank cowboys to try to beat, saying: "Maybe the quantity is down, but I think the quality's gone way up. They're some real good young ones coming up."

None of them more precociously talented than 19-year-old bull-rider Sage Kimzey, whose dad, Ted, is a legendary barrel man. That's what the rest of us call a rodeo clown. Clowns, of course, aren't in the arena to be funny. That's just their side job. Their real purpose is to keep an enraged bull away from the helpless cowboy he has just flung from his back. But, despite all the gruesome injuries Ted Kimzey has witnessed through the years — he got his PRCA card in 1974 — not for a moment did he try to dissuade his boy from climbing on a bull.

"It was something I was brought up around and something I've always wanted to do," said Sage. "I was at some of the most prestigious rodeos almost before I could walk. But my dad never said, 'Well, Sage, you've got to be a bull rider.' He never pushed me. But when I told him that's what I wanted, he encouraged me. Most kids don't have the kind of opportunity I did. I think it's awesome what the PRCA is doing in the way of outreach."

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com

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