Kentucky rodeos rekindle the sport and spirit of the Old West
Kentucky may be east of the Mississippi River, but the Old West spirit lives on in the men, women, boys and girls who compete in the sport of rodeo. All across the state, Kentucky cowgirls and cowboys are roping, riding and rodeoing their way into arenas to entertain fans and spectators, and educate about the importance of the equine and agricultural industries.
Everybody wants to be a cowboy at some point in their life,” says J D Van Hooser, Murray State University’s rodeo coach. As an MSU undergraduate, Van Hooser competed in calf roping, team roping and bareback riding.
Is it as exciting as it looks? Sophomore Gabe Martin, a member of the University of Kentucky’s rodeo team, describes competing as a bull rider: “It’s probably the longest 8 seconds ever. It’s a completely different world when you’re actually tied on the back of a 1,500-pound animal. Everything slows down completely, but it goes too fast to even comprehend.”
Martin, a natural resources and environmental sciences major who hails from Delaware, signed up for the team despite having no previous rodeo experience.
UK and Murray State are the only two Kentucky universities to offer a competitive rodeo team and are members in the 13-member Ozark Region of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association.
At MSU, Van Hooser’s rodeo team numbers about 50 men and women. He says students competing in college rodeo get both an education and the discipline to work toward their goals—in and out of the arena.
MSU sophomore Lane Deckard, who competes in bull riding and steer wrestling while majoring in agricultural science, is currently the region’s No. 1 bull riding competitor. At weekly practices, he intentionally chooses to ride the bulls that test him the most.
“If I can keep overcoming my mental state to be able to compete on these bulls that I’m challenged on, then when I go to a rodeo, I’m not going to be scared of anything,” says Deckard. “I’m going to be ready.”
Deckard, an Indiana native, says rodeo has a family atmosphere, where people help others. It also teaches contestants to be humble and respectful, he says.
The UK rodeo team, which began as a student-run organization in 2013, is led by head coach Kelly Curry, a professional barrel racer, equine trainer and K Bar C Ranch owner. Curry, a Blue Grass Energy consumer-member, was third in the nation in barrel racing in 2007 and was named 2017 National Horse Trainer of the Year. She still competes professionally.
This season, 36 men and women comprise UK’s team—its largest group yet. “The whole purpose behind it is just to build the sport of rodeo in the state of Kentucky and give the students an opportunity to compete,” says Curry.
Younger wranglers and riders
Holy Cross District High School senior Abigail Williams of Morning View, whose family are Owen Electric consumer-members, competes in barrel racing and pole bending.
Barrel racing is a women’s timed event in which competitors on horseback gallop around three barrels in a cloverleaf pattern. In pole bending, also timed, riders weave around the poles, then race home. Williams calls rodeo animals the stars of the show. “Our first priority is our animals’ well-being and how they’re being treated,” she says. “Because without them, we would not be able to do our jobs.”
Williams, who is Miss Teen Rodeo Kentucky 2023, wants to raise awareness as part of that role. “I’m here to educate, not only on the rodeo side and the equine side, but the agriculture side, because in my hometown many farms are being sold out for subdivisions,” she says.
Williams says competing with her horse, Missy, is the best feeling in the world, adding, “Right before I go in, I say a prayer with my horse, pat her, tell her she’s the best in the world, and we go have fun.” In August, she will attend MSU and hopes to be a part of its rodeo team.
Carsyn Cecil, an eighth grader at Owensboro Innovation Middle School who loves barrel racing and pole bending, echoes Williams’ feelings. “Whenever I go out there, I know that I have to get a job done,” she says. “But I also know that I have to have fun while I do it.”
Cecil and her family, consumer-members of Kenergy Corp., always enjoyed attending rodeos together. In 2021 and 2022, Cecil, who is currently Junior Miss Rodeo Kentucky, and her horse partner, Sonny, received honors in the 4-H horse show.
Boyd County High School sophomore Erik Germann hopes to compete in the college rodeo circuit before entering amateur or professional rodeo events. He describes steer wrestling this way: “For me, you get a rush of adrenaline as you’re doing it—it’s a pretty fast and exciting event.”
Germann also competes in calf tie down and team roping for his school’s rodeo team and the National High School Rodeo Association (NHSRA). Last summer, with just two years’ experience, he qualified in the NHSRA steer wrestling event, earning the opportunity to compete against some of the world’s top high school rodeo athletes.
Now in its 74th season, Lone Star Rodeo Company began in Marfa, Texas, moved to Franklin, Tennessee, and finally settled on a 660-acre ranch in Crofton, Kentucky. Though the locations changed, three generations of the Fowlkes family have continued to run Lone Star, starting with Preston Sr., followed by his son, Preston Jr. and now the Fowlkes grandchildren.
Lone Star produces more than 40 traveling rodeo events annually. Each kicks off with pageantry—a cowgirl gallops around the arena on horseback, the American flag flies as the National Anthem plays—followed by an opening prayer. Events range from barrel racing and calf roping to bull riding and steer wrestling. Rodeo clown acts and edge-of-your-seat specialty performances, like trick riding, entertain fans between competitions.
“It being live, you never know what you’re going to see,” says Rachel Fowlkes Boyd, Lone Star Rodeo producer.
Lone Star also supports local communities—its Elizabethtown event supports the area Optimist Club, and in Hopkinsville, helps the Cattlemen’s Association provide youth scholarships. No matter the arena location, Boyd stresses that the rodeo animals’ well-being is prioritized: “They’re always put ahead of the contestants to make sure their safety comes first.”
Rodeo fans pack the bleachers at every Lone Star show. “For people to want to come back year after year, we’re greatly humbled by that,” says Boyd. “It means we must be doing something right.”
Kentucky High School Rodeo Association
Events: saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, team roping, calf roping, barrel racing, steer wrestling and more. State finals, May 12–14 at the Muhlenberg County Agriculture & Convention Center. August: Woodford County Farm Bureau Rodeo hosting the Kentucky High School Rodeo Association, a sanctioned high school event. Labor Day weekend: Derby City Rodeo in Louisville’s Freedom Hall.
Lone Star Rodeo Company (Pennyrile RECC)
283 Old Haleys Mill Road, Crofton
Kentucky shows are June 30–July 1, Henderson; July 21–22, Owenton; August 4–5, Elizabethtown; August 18–19, Hopkinsville; and August 25–26, Benton.
Murray State University Rodeo Team
2101 College Farm Road, Murray
Men’s events: calf roping, steer wrestling, bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding. Women’s events: breakaway calf roping, goat tying, barrel racing. Team roping, men or women.
University of Kentucky Rodeo Team
155 Troy Road, Wilmore
Practices are held at K Bar C Ranch in Wilmore
Events: barrel racing, roping, rough stock.
Western Kentucky Little Britches Rodeo Association
2101 College Farm Road, Murray
A franchise of the National Little Britches Rodeo Association, it holds six rodeos at Murray State University, September–February. Events: barrel racing, pole bending, goat tying, flag racing, bull riding, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling and roping. Three age divisions, ranging from ages 5 to 19.
XB Arena (Inter-County Energy Cooperative)
1280 Manton Road, Loretto
The state’s only indoor bull riding arena, open on a weekly basis.