Rodeo cowboys Landon Mecham and Chase Bennettroll out of Salt Lake City a little after 8 a.m., eight-plus hours on the road ahead of them.
Their route through the heart of the Rockies will land them in the rolling hills of Colorado’s eastern plains for the June 4 evening performance of the Elizabeth Stampede and Rodeo. That’s 16 hours of travel for half that number of seconds on the back of a saddle bronc named 939 Ridiculousness, and a payday ranging from zero to $1,272.
At 30 years old, Mecham is in the prime of his rodeo career. And the Elizabeth Stampede is one of about 20 rodeos he will enter in June.
“Traveling on the circuit, it’s a lot of long hours driving, a lot of time, late nights,” Mecham said. “It’s a lot of fun being on the road with good friends.”
Mecham and Bennett, among the thousands of cowboys who hope to compete on the rodeo circuit each year, are ingrained in a way of life that has them loving the dirt and hurt that inevitably comes with the job, always dreaming of the big wins that make the journey worth it.
To prepare for his ride at the Elizabeth Stampede, Mecham sits in his saddle on the floor of the competitors’ tent, toes in the stirrups, legs extended, his left hand grasping the hack rein attached to a heavy-duty halter lying between his feet. Eyes closed, he rocks back in the saddle.
“You just go through your routine every time,” he said. “Everybody’s different. Some guys need to get pumped up; some guys like to stay more relaxed. You find where you perform your best and just try and get there every time.”
Outside the tent, steer wrestling has ended. Country music fills the arena, and the crowd packing the grandstand cheers for rodeo clown J.W. Winklepleck’s giveaway of a pair of Justin boots. Images of dancing spectators competing for the boots flash across the Jumbotron until the camera zooms in on the winner, a gyrating woman in a fuchsia T-shirt. The time has come for Mecham to make his way to the chutes, the pen holding the bronc called 939 Ridiculousness that he will ride.
“It’s pretty well routine if everything goes right,” Mecham said. “You sit down in there; the horse doesn’t give you no fits. You don’t want to be in the chute any longer than you have to. The horse is anticipating just as you are. The older they get, the more aware they are of what they’re about to do.”
Mecham began his rodeo career as a way of life, growing up around rodeos, rodeo cowboys and ranch hands. He began mutton bustin’ (sheep riding) as a boy and progressed to calves. Following a short stint of riding bulls in high school, he found his niche riding saddle broncs.
“Tropic, Utah, is where I’m from,” he said. “My parents did rodeo. My dad was a team roper. He rode bulls in his younger years, and then he was a pickup man. My mom was a rodeo secretary in Utah at amateur rodeos.”
Like Mecham, 8-year-old Boedy Lambert of Wiggins, Colorado, is growing up in the rodeo culture. His father, Ricky Lambert, travels the circuit as a tie-down roper and brought his son to the Stampede in Elizabeth the first week in June.
Boedy has been competing as a breakaway roper since age 5 and plans to start riding bulls next summer.
“I’m going to do miniature bulls at the Circle A Rodeo next year,” he said from the back of his horse.
At the north end of the arena, Mecham calls for the start of his saddle bronc ride with a nod of his head. The gateman opens the Medved Auto chute door and 939 Ridiculousness bucks and takes a stutter step, jumping vertically with his head down. The change in direction briefly knocks Mecham out of rhythm.
Mecham squares his body and keeps his feet moving and 939 Ridiculousness bucks steadily throughout the remaining six seconds of the ride. When the buzzer sounds, the pickup man rides in and helps Mecham from the horse.
“The eight seconds … is like a sprint, it’s like a 100-yard sprint is what I would compare it to,” Mecham said. “When you’re first learning, there is quite a bit of adrenaline factor there and a lot of times it’s hard to keep it all gathered mentally. The more you do it, the more you’re able to stay controlled.”
Two judges score Mecham’s ride, evaluating both horse and rider from one to 25 for a combined 100 possible points.
“There’s an expression, you always try to be 90, because that’s pretty much a winning score,” Mecham said. “One hundred would be perfect, in a perfect world — that’s kind of impossible. There’s always going to be a flaw somewhere in something. To be in the 90s is where you strive to be every time.”
Mecham’s ride earns him 77.5, enough to put him in a tie for fourth place out of the 36 saddle bronc riders who competed in the Stampede over the weekend. His traveling partner Chase Bennett’s score of 82 earns him third place.
The following week, Mecham and Bennett travel to rodeos in Idaho, Utah and back to Colorado for the Ute Mountain Roundup Rodeo in Cortez.
Mecham’s paycheck for the night totals $366. And when asked if it is worth it, he said: “Definitely, I don’t know what I’d rather be doing if I wasn’t doing this.”