We Boomers were hooked on the western cowboy lifestyle ever since we set eyes on Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. We were awed by the Lone Ranger and his horse Silver. By Bret and Bart Maverick. We went around singing, “Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp! Brave, courageous and bold!” while twirling our cap guns into our holsters. Annie Oakley wannabes begged our moms for leather skirts with fringe as we honed our shooting skills with BB guns and empty Campbell’s soup cans. And we secretly mourned when we were too big for our rocking horses. We wanted to live the western cowboy lifestyle.
“Growing up in England, I thought cowboys were only in the movies,” says Lynn Barrie, 66, mother of two (stepmom to two more) and a seasoned equestrian. She admits she’s always had a love of horses and riding. “Since I was a little girl, even though no one in my family rode, I used to work on the weekends so I could pay to rent a horse for the day. Then I worked in the stables so I could ride.”
That little girl grew up, moved to the United States, and enjoyed a glamorous career as a model in New York City. Then she fell in love, married, and her husband introduced her to the Western saddle. That was it. “It’s hard to believe that there was a time that I didn’t think western cowboys were real…and then I married one.” Not that Richie Barrie was a calf-roping, bull-riding buckaroo. When Lynn met him, he was president of Faberge.
He did own a farm though. “I was riding for pleasure,” he recalls. “But a neighbor had a cutting horse, and when I saw what cutting was, I wanted to do it.”
Cutting is when horse and rider, in equestrian competition, separate an individual cow from a herd of cattle. Athletic horses have to be specially trained for the cutting event. “It’s exciting,” says Barrie. “Lynn got into it too. We both competed.” Barrie was so successful in cutting that he served as president of the East Coast Cutting Association. But you kind of have to have access to a herd of cattle to become accomplished at cutting. Your inner cowboy may need fewer livestock.
If you don’t have cattle herd nearby for cutting, don’t fret: you still have some other options. Carmine Nastri, 23-time Circuit Champion, teaches folks to rope calves.
He also trains and sells horses. “Each horse has to be individually trained for what the rider is riding him for,” explains Nastri, who with his wife Sheri, runs a team roping school. Nastri travels and conducts three- and four-day calf roping schools all over the US and Canada, but he and Sheri have two home bases: Ballston Spa, New York, and Screven, Georgia.
Nastri’s been a western cowboy all his life. “My grandfather sold horse trailers. My uncle Frank was a blacksmith.” He was born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut, but so much time in Georgia has given him a lazy Southern accent.
Hollywood may have misled ordinary citizens to think rodeos all happen out west. “But, ma’am?” drawls Nastri from his New York home, “people have no idea how much rodeo goes on around here. There must be 30 to 40 rodeos every summer.” Nastri, 53, competes in most of them – and usually wins.
His wife Sheri—whom he met at a rodeo, of course, and whose father, Dusty Cleveland, is a rodeo announcer —teaches barrel racing, the rodeo’s answer to autocross. Their daughter Shelby, a champion herself, recently came in sixth at a Saratoga Springs barrel-racing competition of over 100 girls. Cooper, their 13-year-old son, amazes crowds with his “trick and fancy roping,” twirling a lariat into loops and circles that he jumps through, dances with and sends into the air with unmistakable cowboy elan.
Grant Harris, the owner and producer of Cowtown Rodeo in Salem County, New Jersey, tips his hat to young Cooper. “Trick roping is a real art. I’ve had a rope in my hand for most of my 60 years, and I can’t trick rope. Trick roping is a scarce commodity, takes a lot of dedication.”
Harris can do just about anything else rodeo, however. He was the Junior Bull Riding Champion at 8 years old, entered professional competition at 14, and earned his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association card at 17. He attended college in Wyoming on a full rodeo scholarship (bet you didn’t even know there was such a thing) and competed all over the United States. He was the Northeast Circuit Saddle Bronc Champion in 1975, 1977 and 1978.
But Harris made the decision to give up competing and, along with his wife Betsy, purchase Cowtown Rodeo from his father. “Cowtown’s been in the family four generations,” says Harris, “and the Harris family’s been here longer than that. Since 1690. The boat we came over on might still be parked a few miles from here.”
It’s not, of course, but Cowtown Rodeo contestants have been roping calves and riding bulls every Saturday night, from May until September, for 60 years straight. Before that, since 1929, the Harris family held rodeos at the annual county fair in Woodstown. World War II forced the rodeo to be put on hold from 1937 until 1955, but it’s been going strong in Pilesgrove Township ever since.
“Stereotypically,” says Harris, “rodeo contestants come from a farming or ranching background, but farmland is diminishing, and some of our best contestants have never owned a ranch. They’re what we call ‘heirloom cowboys.’ Their families have been rodeo contestants for generations. They’re in the horse training and breeding industry, but the industry is increasingly recreational.” The Goad family, as an example, is turning into a clan of heirloom cowboys.
“My husband Mike and I lived to rodeo,” says Melody Goad of Brisco, Texas. “He roped calves, team roped, and I ran barrels. I remember being six months pregnant and still on my horse. This was in the 70s. Our boys learned to rope and had success in high school and college level. One son was a national collegiate team-roping champion. They still rope, winning lots of buckles and trophy saddles.”
Melody and Mike quit the horseback-riding scene for a while to take up golf, but they couldn’t stay away. “Mike started riding again because the boys asked him to. He is team roping again. He qualified to go to the World Series team roping in Las Vegas last year and will go again this year. Competing never leaves your system, even in your older years.”
When Richie Barrie was younger, he once wore jeans and boots to his Faberge office. Now, he is 72 but still rides almost every day. “I think you get better as you get older,” he reflects. “You can better recognize the moods of the horse. When it comes to riding and competing, you get smarter as you get older.”
Lynn Barrie adds, “I’m 66. Phew! But I just went on a wild trail ride with 25 horses for three hours. Not for the faint-hearted. But the passion doesn’t go away.” For the lucky ones who were actually raised on a ranch, life already included horses, lariats, herds of cattle, pistols, and ‘gator boots. They got to wear chaps and cowboy hats for real. They could saddle up and ride off into the sunset whenever they wanted. But instead of lamenting our bad luck that we weren’t born on a Montana cattle farm, we can still satisfy our inner western cowboy.
There are a few ways.
Perhaps you’re not ready to leap from a galloping horse and wrestle a steer to the ground, but you’d sure like to grab a beer and watch somebody else do it. No matter where you live, chances are there’s a rodeo happening somewhere nearby. Just type in “rodeo associations” in your favorite search engine, and you can find cowboys all over the place. The Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association. (www.cprarodeo.com) and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (www.prorodeo.com) are good places to start. You’ll find pretty comprehensive lists of events all over the country. You can also watch videos of recent rodeos and read up on rodeo history, the treatment of rodeo livestock, and explanation of events, contestants, prizes, and rodeo news.
Once you’ve found yourself a nearby rodeo, pack up the babies, grab the old ladies, and head out; it’s an all-day family outing.
Most rodeos have early competition before the actual rodeo in the evening. That’s called “slack” and it’s free. You can wander around the grounds, eat food, and listen to live music, watch cowboys and cowgirls rope, wrestle, and ride themselves into a passionate frenzy before the final competitions that comprise the rodeo.
Opening ceremonies are a lot like the half-time show at a football game, except the cheerleaders are on horseback and there are more of them. There are flags and music and synchronized riding worthy of Esther Williams. Depending on the venue, the entertainment may look like half time at the Super Bowl, complete with video screens and an airshow.
Like other athletic events, a rodeo begins with the national anthem or sometimes “America the Beautiful.” Usually, there is a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or a reading from the Declaration of Independence. The rodeo is Americana at its very best.
And then, after the horse and rider carrying the American flag disappear into the chutes, the spectators settle into their seats.
Let the games begin.
by Sherri Daley