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.

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