U of A rodeo team gallops on, spurred by new status

By Megan McDonald, Monika Damron, and Elizabeth Quinlan

TUCSON- The University of Arizona Rodeo Team, one of the oldest intercollegiate rodeo clubs in the nation, recently became recognized as a collegiate club sport, rather than just as a club.

Alexandra Jeffers-Sample gets ready for roping. Photo by Monika Damron

On Saturday, March 16, they saddled up under that new status for a home rodeo at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds at 4823 S. 6th Avenue.

Founded in 1939, the UA rodeo team holds seven national titles competing in the Grand Canyon Region for the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. Titles include those for goat-tying, calf-roping, steer-racing and bareback riding.

Despite the successes and longevity, until January the team’s status at the university was as a club and not a club sport. Being designated as a club sport means that the rodeo team joins the 30 currently established UA club sports, which vary from rugby to ballroom dance.

More importantly, the club sport status will provide the team with much-needed opportunities for obtaining sponsorships, which fund transportation to weekly competitions, facility maintenance, boarding for horses and more.

Currently, the team is not fully sponsored and has struggled to find adequate practice space to practice. Sponsorship provides the team with essential resources like training grounds, facilities and funding for transportation to events like the Central Arizona College Sports competition in Casa Grande, Arizona.

Most colleges have rodeo teams that are fully sponsored, said Halle DeWitt, a team member, barrel racer, breakaway and team-roping competitor.

Currently, the rodeo team is using a feedlot, provided by the UofA, where the facilities are still being built. The UofA, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences maintenance team and rodeo members maintain the feedlot, an area used to keep horses and provide a practice arena.

“We have the arena, but we don’t have anywhere to keep calves to rope, or steers, or anything like that,” said Alexandra Jeffers-Sample, the team secretary.

With a lack of resources, only the serious members who want to compete are able to use the relatively small amount of space available at the feedlot. Because feedlots are usually only used to feed animals, the team has to haul out equipment or find another area when the team wants to practice, especially with roping.

This means members travel off campus at different times throughout the week, and sometimes have to practice individually.

“Throughout the years our team has fluctuated in size,” said Jeffers-Sample.“We face problems with facilities, coaches and mostly everything. A few years ago, the team started with 31 members and we ended with 11.”

This year the team consists of 10 women and five men.

Mandie Dunham and Sam Garcia, who both work at the UofA, are the team advisors.

“Technically, we are here to advise them in anything they need,” said Garcia.“They run the team and do all the entries. They do everything. We’re just here to support them in what they’re wanting to do.”

Now that they have been approved as a sports club,  “we are looking to get a coach,” said team member Sarah Nelson. “But all coaches want a paid position and we cannot offer that at this time. We are still under our current advisors.”

What do the advisors do? Mandie Dunham replied with a laugh,  We lead them in the direction that they need to go.”

What are the greatest needs? “A practice arena,” she said. “We actually keep our horses at the University of Arizona feedlot,” she said, referring to the West Campus Agriculture Center five miles from campus.

“We were fortunate enough that we have these grants, and these sponsors that donated money to help us get really nice stalls built. They’re being built right now. We have an area where we can practice and ride our horses, but it’s not like a set place where our team can go. We we don’t have anywhere for like calves to rope or steers, or anything like that. So a lot of times when we want to practice, especially if we want to rope, you have to haul out other places to rope.”

The new designation “really helps to get out name out there,” Jeffers-Sample said, adding: “It’s different for us because a lot of us are here to go to school and get a degree. We’re here taking super hard classes, really putting an effort into school. We came for a degree and it’s just a blessing that we’re able to rodeo at the same time.”

The team rodeos — the noun “rodeo” does service as a verb and even as a gerund in the rodeo world — every Saturday in March.

Members say the next step for them in becoming a more professional rodeo team is obtaining the resources needed to thrive, including a training location and permanent facilities to board horses and livestock and store gear and equipment.

“Just having that overall extra recognition is what will better this team,” Nelson said. “The sports club staff and the people we will be working with are going to be a lot more focused on us. They will be getting us more money to travel, and hopefully, getting us set facilities to practice in.”

Sarah Nelson with two horses. Photo by Monika Damron

It’s tough being a college rodeo athlete. They do their own travel, manage their own horses and haul themselves — with the horses, of course — to all events.

Most of the team members developed the rodeoing passion through their childhoods. Growing up in ranching families and within the rodeo culture, some members were riding horses before they could walk. They learned that ranching, and its offshoot sport, rodeoing, requires persistence, hard work, courage and cooperation with each other — and with those 1,000-pound horses that can have opinions and quirks of their own on any given day.

Team roping requires close collaboration between two ropers charging ahead under pressure. In barrel-racing, riders guide  loping horses around a pattern of barrels, then burst back at a gallop to try to finish with the fastest time. In breakaway roping, a variation of calf roping, the calf is roped but not wrestled down and tied.

The rodeo team will be participating in weekly competitions all spring. The competitive events include bull riding, saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, team roping, tie down roping and steer wrestling for the men’s team, and goat tying, breakaway roping, barrel racing and team roping for the women’s team.

“It’s our fuel money,” said Jeffers-Sample, referring to gas for driving to competitions. “We count on our wins to pay toward all of the extra expenses. You’re trying to make it down the road, trying to keep your horses fed. It gets stressful, but then competition-wise, I mean it’s really fun.”

Rodeoers, reflecting ranch culture, are taciturn sorts who get it done and don’t spend a lot of time elaborating. But get them talking and they’ll tell a little about the rodeo life. Comments have been edited for space and clarity.

Alexandra Jeffers-Sample: I’m originally from a small town in northern Arizona called Holbrook, and I come from a family with a big cattle-ranching background. When I was little I was riding horses before I could walk. And then I started competing in barrel races when I was five. My parents would take me and my sister all over Arizona barrel-racing. Then I started roping when I was eight, so it’s a thing that I’ve done all my life. It’s something I’ll probably always do.

“There’s like things in rodeo like you like have horses that already know what they’re doing. When I was growing up, my parents would always give me a horse off the ranch and I was always told, ‘All right, well if you want to do it you’re gonna have to teach yourself.’ So I grew up teaching my horses what they needed to do. That was a challenge too, especially in the rodeo industry you have people that go out and buy these high-dollar horses that are anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000, so when you have a horse that you’re trying to work with, that becomes a challenge, especially because horses are animals, they have a mind of their own. So sometimes you’re working against them and it gets really frustrating and you want to give up a lot of times. But the thing is, once they come through, once they’re working where you want them to be, it’s really rewarding — it’s a great feeling of success.”

Sali Thompson:  “I started riding when I was five, but I didn’t get into anything competitive until I was in my sophomore year of high school and I decided it was what I wanted to do one day. I found trainers and I just learned.”

Shannon Torres: “My family has a really big ranch in New Mexico, so my mom came from big-cattle background. Always being around horses and cattle and everything, that’s how I got into it. I didn’t start barrel-racing and actually rodeoing until probably four years ago. Then I was mainly reigning, cutting, the cowhorse thing — not speed events.”

Sarah Nelson: “I don’t come from a horse background at all, so I guess I’m a little different. I really didn’t have made horses [Horses that have been fully trained for riding]. I’ve always kind of gotten ones that I could get, at the lowest price, and I always had to train and just work with it, which can be a disaster. It’s a blessing in disguise, though, because it teaches you how to do things on your own. I really liked growing up like that. I started high school rodeo my sophomore year, and since then it’s just always been a part of my life. I couldn’t imagine my life without it.

Hally Dewitt: “I grew up in a ranching family. My dad raises bucking horses; he’s a stall contractor for rodeos, any rodeo really. He takes the bucking horses to the rodeo and then they compete on them. And then I’ve always rodeoed since I was little, as long as I can remember. Usually it’s something that your family is in, but sometimes you’ll just jump into it.”

April Pahi: My family, they started a stock-contracting business for bucking bulls. Then my mom and my grandparents were big into rodeo, so it’s kind of just family, family-influenced. I learned how to ride a horse since I was small and I stopped rodeoing after my eighth grade year. I just got back into it recently.”

Alexandra Jeffers-Sample (summing up): “It can be very stressful because there’s probably over what, eighty breakaway ropers in the region? Like, eighty breakaway ropers and fastest time wins. They do points so there’s a point system, but you have to be fast to win. It’s stressful, and it’s stressful on your horses, and you’re trying to keep them sound.

“You’re trying to make it down the road, trying to keep your horses fed, so it gets stressful but then competition-wise it’s — it’s really fun.

“And like everyone, you have your good days and you have your bad days. Some days you’re really on; you’re competing really well and your horse is doing good. Other days, everything just completely falls apart, which is another aspect. Especially at these competitions and you get there and it just does not go the way you planned. You leave the rodeo like, ‘Why do I even do this?’ Like I’m so ready to give up! But then once you go back and you have a great rodeo and you’re just like, ‘This is exactly why I do it!”

Here are the team’s titles:

  • 1985 Kelly Sue Kay, of the University of Arizona, won the Goat Tying for the NIRA.
  • 1983 Clay H. Parsons, of the University of Arizona, won the Calf Roping for the NIRA.
  • 1973 The University of Arizona Rodeo Team won the Women’s Team standings for the NIRA.
  • 1973 Wendy Bryan, of the University of Arizona, won the Goat Tying for the NIRA.
  • 1972 Wendy Bryan, of the University of Arizona, won the Goat Tying for the NIRA.
  • 1962 Sonny Ehr, of the University of Arizona won the Steer Wrestling for the NIRA.
  • 1960 Gerry Bishop, of the University of Arizona, won the Bareback Riding for the NIRA.