If you have a hankering for bull riding, barrel racing or team roping, pick any weekend of the year. Oklahoma's rodeo schedule kicks off each January and runs basically nonstop through December.
All told, more than 100 rodeos are held across the state annually " from Poteau and Duncan to Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and just about every small, medium and large town in between.
There's the 101 Wild West Rodeo in Ponca City, and the Cimarron Stampede near Waynoka. Legendary cowboy Will Rogers has one named after him in Claremore, while the International Finals Rodeo " held each year at the Oklahoma State Fair " features some of the best ropers and riders in the world.
The sport of rodeo has always held a special place in the hearts and souls of Oklahoma cowboys and cowgirls, but its popularity reaches far beyond the arena and into the lives of fans everywhere.
"There are a couple of things that make the rodeo appealing to so many people. One, the sport has such a great tradition here in Oklahoma," said former 11-time world champion steer wrestler Dale Yerigan. "And the other is just how family-friendly it is. It's affordable and geared toward families."
While famous Oklahoma entertainers like Will Rogers and Gene Autry helped popularize American Old West culture through humor and song, rodeo heroes such as Jim Shoulders and Freckles Brown were true representatives of the traditional cowboy way.
"Oklahoma has a great history of cowboys and rodeo, going all the way back to before statehood. The roots for the sport have always been very strong here," said Clayton Macom, a former world-champion bull rider who now serves as chairman for the International Pro Rodeo Association, based in Oklahoma City. "It really is a great sport for the entire family. You see kids start out riding sheep when they are 4 years old, and you see guys in their 70s who still participate in team roping."
Towns statewide have traditionally used rodeos as civic fundraisers. And there are other events of a much larger scale " like the annual International Finals Rodeo and the International Finals Youth Rodeo in Shawnee " that generate broad fan support and provide the state with great exposure.
The IFYR features more than 1,000 high school cowboy and cowgirl participants from all over the United States, as well as various foreign countries. The $250,000 payoff makes it the richest high school rodeo in the world.
"It's really a great event, I think because there are so many great stories involved with that rodeo," said Tammie Hiatt, media director for the IFYR. "There are always lots of Oklahoma kids right in the mix, which is great for local fans. But there is a very broad appeal, too, thanks to all of the participants from so many different places."
Hiatt lives in Henryetta, which recently trademarked the name "Rodeo Cowboy Capital of the World." The Eastern Oklahoma town has produced its share of rodeo legends over the years, like the late Shoulders, who won five all-around Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association championships during a distinguished career that earned him the nickname "Babe Ruth of Rodeo."
Each Labor Day weekend for the past 16 years, Henryetta has hosted the Living Legends Rodeo at the Jim Shoulders Arena. It has earned a reputation for being one of the state's finest rodeos in the Southwest.
"Oklahoma, with its great history of ranchers, has been a natural breeding ground for rodeos and rodeo cowboys for a long time," said Hiatt, who is chairman of the Living Legends Rodeo committee. "Just look around the state and see how many towns put on rodeos every year, places like Hinton, Sallisaw, Owasso."
For more information, visit www.travelok.com/rodeos. "Jay C. Upchurch
photo Emily Miller from Ingalls, Kan., makes her winning run in the pole bending at the 2009 International Finals Youth Rodeo in Shawnee.