It's a blustery midweek evening in the dusty parking lot of Santa Fe's famed rodeo grounds. Toward the entrance, Will Shuster's statue of a white bull—Rodeo de Santa Fe's mascot El Toro Diablo—stands watch like a hulking sentinel and offers a reminder of the adventure and heritage that takes place once a year in the sandy arena.
A handful of families who have driven down from Abiquiú or elsewhere in rural New Mexico sit in the bleachers or perch themselves on the rusty metal beams across the bull riding chutes. In the arena, a swarm of riders—mostly young women—lean into their saddles as their horses leap and gallop in circles.
This is a typical scene during summer nights at the Wednesday Night Barrel Racing, a regular event hosted by rodeo volunteers where a mixed group of novice and veteran riders compete for prize money.
From June 18 to 21, hundreds of cowboys and cowgirls pitch themselves against the clock and against 1,000-pound beasts in hopes of winning glory and money at the 65th installment of the Rodeo de Santa Fe. A Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event, the local happening combines all the classic sports like bull riding with live entertainment, including music and comedy acts.
Rodeo started out as a test for all the skills needed in raising and working cattle. While the local iteration didn't formally get going until the late '40s, a letter from Captain Mayne Reid in 1847 describes something similar to a rodeo happening right here in Santa Fe. In recent years, rodeo has become an international sport, with organizations such as the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), attracting millions of fans as well as athletes from all over the world.
Tonight the grounds are low-key and the grandstand is empty. In just a few days, however, a mass of fans are expected to bring it to life as the drama unfolds below them.
"Hey, quit eating the trailer, Low!" Nicky Larrabee, one of the barrel racers present yells at her horse. She then straps a turquoise-studded bridle over Low's ears as the horse begins nibbling at the side of her trailer. "Fabulous. My horse is a delinquent," she quips.
Larrabee is an athletic woman with a braid of honey blonde hair falling down the center of her back. Hailing from Edgewood, she competes in professional rodeos and barrel races when she's not traveling for her daytime gig in medical sales. She is one of only a handful of local athletes set to compete in the upcoming rodeo.
Larrabee barrel races as a passion rather than a way to make a living, which puts her in somewhat of an underdog role at at professional events like Rodeo de Santa Fe where she squares off against full-time racers.
"You're competing against some of the best in the world," she says. "Especially here in Santa Fe, it's one of the big tour rodeos, so you never know who you're going to be sitting next to you…it's pretty cool," the racer remarks with an enthusiastic smile.
Larrabee's event is like a mix between motocross and a chase scene in a Wild West movie. The gist of it is this: A single horse and rider sprint through the dirt, looping in a triangular course around three metal barrels.
"I'm an adrenaline junkie, so it's definitely something that gives me a thrill. I figure it's probably better this than NASCAR," the weekend warrior says. "Some people are intimidated because it's a live animal, but to me, when things work the way they're supposed to, it's even more of an accomplishment because of that."
Larrabee heads out to warm up Low, a loaner horse that she'll be riding tonight, giving her prizewinning steed, Maya, a break before pushing her limits in competition.
"She's used to having somebody else ride her differently than how I ride," Larrabee says about the temp horse. Both mare and rider are sucking in breath, exhausted from the practice run where they knocked over several barrels—something that would result in a disqualification during actual competition.
Larrabee's resume of injuries sounds more like it belongs to an MMA fighter rather than a part-time rodeo gal.
"Let's see," she begins. "[I] tore up my hip pretty bad, broke my leg. We bumped the barrel but we didn't even knock it over…but it fractured my tibial plateau," she recounts. Even that wasn't enough to suppress her passion. "I still ran barrels the rest of that whole weekend, actually. I didn't go to the doctor until Monday."
Women have had a long-standing role in professional rodeo. "What paved the way were those brave ladies that started this organization 66 years ago," says Janet Cropper, Women's Professional Rodeo Association operating officer and executive secretary. Cropper explains that back in those days, women weren't confined to barrel racing but also competed in the male-dominated events like bronc riding.
Eighty-eight years after Annie Oakley's death, Cropper is confident that the presence of women in the sport is no longer a novelty and moreover, with 2,500 active members in the association, female participation in rodeo is here to stay.
The WPRA "has come a long way and I think those ladies would be awfully proud today," she reflects.
Back at the grounds, night is fast approaching as the stadium lights ignite overhead. A voice squawks through the loud speaker, calling the names of contestants as racers prepare to take their turn unleashing all the speed their animals can muster.
When Larrabee blasts out of the gate, the ground rumbles. She looks small straddling her horse as they pivot around the first barrel. Both the horse's mane and the rider's hair stream behind them in a blur. They round the final barrel and sprint for the finish. But as they speed away, one of the barrels is laying toppled in the soil, disqualifying the ride.
At her trailer, Larrabee delicately rolls the leg of her jeans over her shin, revealing a dripping gash where her shin smacked into the barrel.
"I've had wipeouts. I've had horses go down with me. I've had horses buck me off. You know, all kinds of different things can happen," Larrabee explained earlier.
Atop Maya, Larrabee has competed at several of the region's big rodeos, including what is hailed as the nation's oldest in Prescott, Ariz. Together, they've won numerous "saddles"—the prize saddle often presented as a trophy at big events. This current season takes a sentimental tone, as it'll most likely be the last season Maya will be able to compete.
"I've had her for 13 years," Larrabee says. "You know, that's older than some of my friends' kids."
She foresees taking some time off once Maya retires. "I might just sit back for a little bit and get my young horses going before I can venture out again," she says. Rodeo de Santa Fe is one of the last opportunities for the duo to win at a big rodeo.
As riders wait their turn to dash into the arena, Rodeo de Santa Fe President Jim Butler steers a green tractor, plowing over some of the ruts that have been dug by horses' hooves. In addition to his duties organizing the yearly rodeo, Butler volunteers at the weekly barrel racing nights.
"I think rodeo is a sport that is getting more popular and more popular every day," Butler says. His grandfather, Roy Butler, was one of the rodeo's original founders in 1949.
Though waning tradition and animal rights advocacy might make it seem like the sport is démodé, Cropper echoes rodeo's increasing popularity. Her group, she says, has grown more in the last three years than ever before.
"And we're on target to break last year's record," she boasts.
In a town known more for its art galleries than its athletics, Rodeo de Santa Fe is a rare venue for top-notch sports. "Look," Butler begins. "This is a professional sport. The contestants are athletes and the animals are athletes. Where else in Santa Fe can you go to see a professional sport?"
City residents might also be excited this year to watch Mayor Javier Gonzales participate in a team roping competition scheduled to take place on opening night.
"Mayor Gonzales is 100 percent behind us," Butler says, "and with the mayor behind us, the city is behind us."
That sense of community, Butler emphasizes, is what separates the obsolete from the steadfast.
"When your city is behind your rodeo," he says, "it makes a world of difference."
Rodeo de Santa Fe
5 pm Wednesday, June 18 through Saturday, June 21. $17-$27
3237 Rodeo Road