Four-year-old Zip stood waiting at the fence of her pen as her owner, Fort Hays State University junior Tanner Kay jumped from his pick up, grabbed a garden hose, twisted the spigot and began filling her water bucket.
With not a cloud in the sky, already the day was warming up late Saturday morning at the Fort Hays State University Rodeo grounds, where the annual Fort Hays Rodeo was in it’s second day.
Noisy with neighing horses, mooing calves and generator motors, the Doug Philip Arena off the U.S. 183 Bypass was a sprawling village of horse-trailers, pick ups, cowboys, cowgirls and rodeo queens.
Kay, a member of the Fort Hays Rodeo Club majoring in agribusiness, had competed Friday night in team-roping. Friday’s winners would go on to compete Saturday night.
“We didn’t do any good, my partner missed,” said Kay. “So I’m done for the weekend. I wish I was going tonight.”
Kay, who grew up on a farm near Coldwater, raised a pitchfork of hay and plopped it into Zip’s pen.
“I have another horse I rope on,” he said. “I’m just competitive, I guess. It’s fun. I just like to ride my horses and rope.”
Kay was one of 453 competitors this year at the annual spring rodeo, which was put on by the 52 members of the Fort Hays Rodeo Club, including 22 who travel and compete.
Now in its 53rd year, the 2019 rodeo wrapped up Saturday night. It drew competitors from as far away as Australia, Mexico and Canada, and from as near as Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas and Fort Hays. Anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 spectators come to watch, said FHSU Rodeo Coach Bronc Rumford.
Support from the community is very strong, with about 150 sponsors, who put up money to make the rodeo possible, Rumford said, as well as funding from Fort Hays State and the Student Government Association.
Fort Hays Rodeo Club students are at the heart of it, with majors in everything from nursing and biology and radiology to interior design.
“This rodeo costs anywhere from $70,000 to 80,000 to produce,” Rumford said. “This is all done by these kids. They solicit the sponsors. They do the labor. We clean the grounds. The kids do everything and that’s a huge undertaking.”
Kay worked the weekend in the stripping chutes, where animals return that have just performed, from bucking broncs and calves to bulls.
“I’ve been taking off ropes, taking off flanks,” Kay said. “It gets pretty wild. A bull ran by me and I had to get up on the fence last night.”
FHSU senior Bailey McCaughey, from Eads, Colo., helps with the rodeo office.
On Friday night, McCaughey had competed in barrel racing on her horse Seven, and in breakaway roping on her horse Mariah. Her time Friday qualified her for the barrel racing Saturday night.
“It’s exciting,” McCaughey said. “It’s a lot of practicing. Keep your horse in shape, keep yourself in shape … Any sport is hard, but to try and do it on a 1200-pound animal, keep your balance and control them, and do everything as fast as possible, it gets pretty challenging.”
The popularity of college rodeo is growing, Rumford said, with 12 regions nationwide. Fort Hays is in the Central Plains Region, which has 22 colleges and universities competing, and nearly 500 competitors.
“This is a tough region,” Rumford said. “All these kids are actually professional athletes because we rodeo for money. We’ll pay out at this rodeo just under $30,000 in prize money.”
Kids from all over come to the Fort Hays Rodeo to compete against the best, he said. Four kids at this year’s rodeo also competed at The American, the annual rodeo at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Dallas, with payouts in the millions.
“It’s very tough competition here. There’s probably a fourth of these contestants have their pro-cards and actually compete professionally,” Rumford said, who co-coaches with Assistant Coach Ross Russell. “This competition is very tough in every event. If you can win here you can probably win anywhere.”
A native of Abbyville and a 1974 Fort Hays graduate in business administration, Rumford is third-generation rodeo. As providers of leased livestock, his family traveled all over the world with the All American Wild West Show and Rodeo. Now 67, Rumford started out at three on bucking horses, entering competition at 8, and riding for a living until 36.
“I use myself as the poster child for the wrong kind of a student,” Rumford said, only coming to Fort Hays to rodeo and never buying a book, but always maintaining a 2.0 and 12 credit hours to be eligible. “I tell them kids, I crammed four years of college into six … The one thing I did do, I never skipped class. Ever. I can remember being hurt from rodeoing and going to class, because I knew at the end of the semester I was going to have to go into those professors and beg for some help. So I tell them kids, don’t be like I was. You can’t rodeo forever.”
Most of the kids will never make a living at rodeo, but it teaches them life lessons, he said, and even brings some to college, like himself.
“You look at how many kids, I’m one, that probably would never have a degree, if it hadn’t been for rodeo,” Rumford said. “It teaches mental discipline, work ethic, attitude, how to get along with people. We travel to 10 rodeos in this region, we’re not going to have a year when we don’t have a breakdown, a mechanical problem. It teaches them how to deal with problems.”
The rodeo events, like roping and calf-roping, all have a tie to agriculture, to roping and handling stock on the range.
“I’ve traveled all over the world. Around the world, the most recognized symbol of America is the cowboy,” said Rumford. “Rodeo is the only sport today that came about from a way of life.”
FHSU senior Zeke Hall grew up in Colorado Springs, wishing as a kid he could have a horse. He rode his horse Glory in the team-roping Friday night, but didn’t qualify for Saturday.
“Zeke could barely ride a horse when he started,” Rumford said.
When Hall enrolled in Fort Hays, the first week he went to a meeting of the Rodeo Club.
“The rest was history,” said Hall, who said he’s always been fascinated by horses and rodeos.
“My pop at home, my grandpa, he lived in Okmulgee, Okla., he was just a cowboy and just loved horses and cows. And I used to watch western movies with him all the time,” Hall said. He also went to rodeos with his Oklahoma grandparents and cousins and just got hooked. “I’m very competitive, I just love competition.”
At the Fort Hays Rodeo Club concession stand on Saturday, FHSU junior Payton Morlan, Ottawa, was selling donuts, coffee and orange juice in the morning, holding down the lids on the donuts against the mild breeze.
The lunch offering was a meal, with choice of hamburger, cheeseburger or hot dog, along with chips, drink and a dessert.
“Each member of the club brought a dessert,” Morlan said, from banana bread and Rice Krispie treats to cookies.
Morlan worked alongside Morgan Regan, Ottawa, also a Rodeo Club member, although neither compete.
“Both of our boyfriends compete, so that’s why we’re here,” said Morlan, an elementary education major from McClave, Colo.
“I date the bull fighter,” said Regan. “He fought last night a little bit.”
As for the concession stand food, “a lot of it was donated by a team member’s parents,” said Morlan, pointing out Rodeo Club member Wyatt Livingston, Oxford, Nebr., whose mother Julie Sherwood, and step-dad, Jeff Sherwood, own the Oxford Super Market.
“They donated partially, and everything else they sold us at cost,” said Livingston, a team roper. “It helped us out.”