Many of the ranches that spawned Tucson’s rodeo community still operate in the vast stretches of Arizona desert. They’re just not as involved in rodeo life as they once were, explains Russell True, who hosts a small weekly rodeo for his guests who stay at the White Stallion Ranch. Ranchers today have more land to themselves, and that generally keeps them busy. And competing in rodeos is challenging: Rather than being a hobby for ranchers, it’s generally the purvey of trained athletes with arena-size ambitions.
“To be serious in rodeo, you’re going to be on the road the majority of your time,” True says. He recalls watching a rodeo where the winning bronco rider came out for a victory trot on a horse. “The rider nearly fell off, and of course the whole stands laughed,” he says. “He just wasn’t a cowboy in the sense of riding and roping on the ranch.” In other words, the guy could only ride if the horse was bucking.
Joe King and his wife Sarah run King’s Anvil Ranch, 55,000 acres handed down through generations. King’s grandfather competed in the very first Tucson rodeo 92 years ago, but today Joe’s more concerned with his 450 cows. If he’s involved in the rodeo at all, it’s only symbolically.
And for 20-year-old Rio Lee, a first-year pro rider from Tucson who’s currently in the running for rookie of the year, the rodeo lifestyle is still strong. “[My grandpa] grew up working on a ranch, so [rodeo skills] were more a part of his daily life,” says Lee. “I’m stepping into it as a sport, to make money as a professional athlete.”