Pandemic Hits Professional Cowboys Pocketbooks

Jul 10, 2020

In mid-March, right before the COVID-19 pandemic fully hit the United States, professional bullfighter Dusty Tuckness was at Rodeo Houston in Texas. He said it was going well, until soon, it got shut down.

"I remember driving home like is this really happening, you know, is something like this going on?" Tuckness recalled.

Tuckness, who is originally from Meeteetse, ended up sitting at home during what is usually his busiest season.

"When I got home, I was still kind of, I guess in shock… [I'm] not actually supposed to be home at that time," he said.

Fourth of July week is usually when professional cowboys make a lot of their income, also known as "Cowboy Christmas." But most major rodeos nationwide, including Wyoming, were canceled thanks to the pandemic this year.

During Cowboy Christmas, Tuckness usually hits Cody, Casper and then the great finale, Cheyenne Frontier Days.

"I've taken a hit. You talk about Cody or Casper and Cheyenne and four or five, maybe six other really big rodeos that I had cancelled," said Tuckness. "So that kind of puts a dent in your pocket."

That's close to ten major contracts that Tuckness lost. Scott Kaniewski, media director at the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, said usually there are around 25 to 35 rodeos during Cowboy Christmas.

"Because of COVID, we're down to about a dozen or so," he said. "So, that'll be about half the amount of rodeos that we're used to having on the Fourth of July won't be going on, unfortunately."

Rodeos are slowly picking back up as states and local governments start to lift restrictions, but during the month or so that there were none, Kaniewski said cowboys had to rely on other means to make money.

"These guys found so many different avenues to make money," said Kaniewski. "We saw one guy become a tow truck driver. Another one was doing some Uber driving for Uber Eats actually."

When it comes to the rodeos that are continuing, the boards are struggling between being financially profitable and providing good prize money for competitors, like professional bareback rider Caleb Bennett.

"You're not seeing the numbers as far as added purse money out there to win," said Caleb Bennett, a professional bareback rider. "It's dang sure gonna hit the pocketbook a little bit different."

Purse money is basically the grand total paid to winners of each rodeo event, and what people like Bennett really depend on. He had four rodeos planned for the Fourth of July weekend. Two out of four were cancelled.

"They were spread out so far that it just doesn't make it worth it," said Bennett. "So, it's hectic."

Bennett said, as rodeos are being called off, he's going to some that he hadn't even heard of before in the states..

"Instead of driving your average five to eight hours to hit a couple rodeos from the house we're driving 12 to, I don't know, 18, 19 hours," he said.

More time on the road, means more money to pay for gas. That plus not seeing the usual big prize money means receiving a smaller paycheck . That's why it was a big deal for Bennett and other cowboys to see the Cody Stampede Rodeo continue on.

"That added money over there is kind of the top end of your rodeos, especially that week," said Bennett. "So, we really look forward to that and we were tickled to death to find out what it came back."

When Gov. Mark Gordon tearfully announced that all the big Wyoming rodeos were cancelled this summer there was a lot of pushback.

"There was an outcry from the town, the cowboys and everybody...our sponsors," said Mike Darby, the Cody Stampede Board president.

Darby said when the board sat down and tried to renegotiate added money to make it more affordable, it was about providing a place for cowboys like Bennett to compete.

"It's gonna be tight, and we'll settle for tight this year. Because in a COVID world tight is good because there's a lot of people not really making it work these days," he said.

Professional bareback rider Bennett said he's thankful the show went on in Cody, but he said he's crossing his fingers for rodeo's future.

"I believe it's going to take, you know, a couple years to really come back and be in full force again, but I do think it'll come back," he said.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Kamila Kudelska, at kkudelsk@uwyo.edu.