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By Shawn Raymundo
Rodeo competitions have come a long way since a humble start in 1869, when—if the stories are true—two competing ranches in Colorado held an informal exhibition to settle an argument over which was the best at everyday cowboy tasks.
While the cowboys of the past and present share a certain grit necessary to compete in ranch-based contests such as bull riding, saddle bronc riding and tie-down roping, participants and the sport itself have changed over the years.
Nowadays, there are far more rodeos for cowboys to compete in during a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) season, there is more prize money on the line, and the cowboys also train more seriously.
“Today, cowboys and cowgirls also travel internationally, win more prize money and train rigorously, paralleling other professional athletes,” Gilbert Aguirre, executive vice president of ranch operations at Rancho Mission Viejo, said in an email.
Taylor Santos, a PRCA tie-down roping competitor, echoed Aguirre’s sentiments, noting that many current rodeo participants differ from the cowboys of previous generations.
“There are so many more cowboys nowadays, compared to the ’70s and ’80s, who are using personal trainers and going to the gym,” said Santos, who was the co-champion in the Rancho Mission Viejo Rodeo’s tie-down roping contest last year.
Santos notes that while rodeos have certainly evolved, its ranch-based traditions have remained the same.
“In some ways it has evolved, but in some ways it’s still all about the tradition and waking up every day and putting on your cowboy boots and cowboy hat and being a cowboy,” he said.
As to whether Santos believes he’s evolved since first entering the world of rodeo, he said he has learned a lot over the years, including how to win.
“There’s such a learning curve with rodeo, you know? . . . You’re always trying to get better and hone your skills,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve learned a lot more about how to win and compete. I think my roping and horsemanship have gotten a lot better in the past few years.”
Santos is ranked 10th in the PRCA’s world standings for tie-down roping, having earned about $68,041 so far, according to the PRCA as of Wednesday, Aug. 7. Last season, he earned roughly $59,342, finishing in 22nd place.
A cowboy is ranked based on the amount of money he’s earned throughout the season. The upcoming RMV Rodeo at the end of this month has one of the biggest payouts of the season, making it one of the most important competitions of the year.
In total, the purse for the 2019 RMV Rodeo is $180,000, according to Aguirre. The top 30 contestants in the world will make their way down to South Orange County to compete in six different categories: saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping and team roping.
This year’s RMV Rodeo will also see the addition of a cowgirl contest called Break Away Roping, which, Aguirre explained, is the equivalent to tie-down roping for cowboys and the fastest event at this year’s rodeo.
“It’s a beautiful display of teamwork between a cowgirl and her horse,” he said in the email. “After a head start, the mounted cowgirl gives chase and ropes the spirited calf. Once the rope leaves the cowgirl’s horse, her time stops—all happening in three to four seconds.”
For competitors, the RMV Rodeo is particularly important, because it’s one of the final events of the PRCA season, which culminates with the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas every December.
“Cowboys and cowgirls on the bubble can use the RMV Rodeo to catapult them into the top 15 that qualify to go to Las Vegas,” Aguirre said in the email.
Like many of his fellow competitors, Santos is looking to head to Las Vegas at the end of the season.
“If I do well in San Juan, it’ll really increase my chances of making the Finals,” he said.
Santos, a native of the Central Coast of California who is now in his third professional year with the PRCA and in 2016 was the All-Around Rookie of the Year for all of professional rodeo, said he looks forward to competing in the RMV Rodeo, as it’s a great rodeo and also gives him a day to visit loved ones.
“We’re ‘rodeoing’ year-round, so I get to go home for a day and see all my family and friends,” Santos told The Capistrano Dispatch by phone from Colorado. “It’s just nice to get back in my home state and see everybody.”
Santos also shares a bit of a kinship with the RMV Rodeo crew, as he attended Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo with Aguirre’s grandson, Brent Freese. Santos even credits Aguirre with keeping the tradition of rodeo competition alive at The Ranch.
“He has some the best stock anywhere at his rodeo, and it really highlights the guys who ride really good horses and use their horsemanship as an advantage at his rodeo,” he said, later adding that “it’s awesome what Gilbert’s done. He takes so much pride in every aspect of producing this rodeo, and it shows.”
This season, Santos has already won four rodeos: the Sundre Pro Rodeo, Riversdale Rodeo, Redding Rodeo and Santa Maria Elks Rodeo. When he returns to San Juan Capistrano and the RMV Rodeo, he will naturally be looking to reclaim his championship title.
Santos, who will turn 25 on the final day of this year’s RMV Rodeo, comes from a long line of cowboys and cowgirls.
“My great-grandfather, my grandfather and my mom have always had deep rodeo ties in California, so I’m a fourth-generation California cowboy,” said Santos, whose older brother, Lane Santos-Karney, also competes in PRCA rodeos. “So I guess it’s bred into us, and I’ve always been into rodeo and the cowboy way of life.”
With the road to the National Finals Rodeo being a long one, Santos said the main thing he does to stay in shape and remain competitive is to get as much sleep and rest as he possibly can. It’s easy, he said, to get worn down after spending several hours behind a steering wheel.
“The main thing is trying to get good rest,” he said.
That applies to his trusted steed, as well.
“The animals of rodeo are so important, so whenever you drive to a rodeo and get there in the middle of the night, you take care of your horse first,” said Santos, whose No. 1 horse is Hank, and reinvested some of his earnings from the win at last year’s RMV Rodeo to buy a young horse he named Viejo in honor of this elite event.
“We feed our horses before we feed ourselves,” he said. “They’re our partners and our first priority, and they’re so important to rodeo and the rodeo lifestyle.”
The RMV Rodeo competitions are scheduled to kick off at the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 24. The gates to the two-day event open at 1 p.m., welcoming guests to entertainment and vendors. The opening ceremony will start at 3:45 p.m.
A concert and dance will close out the first day of the rodeo, with a performance by Big City Hillbillies at 6 p.m.
The gates will reopen Sunday, Aug. 24, at 11:30 a.m., with competitions beginning at 1:30 p.m. To find out more information or purchase tickets, visit RMVRodeo.com.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow The Dispatch @CapoDispatch.