The gold in the buckle

There’s something I look forward to every year.  I get excited around November, and practically twiddle my thumbs until February.  A portion of my wardrobe is reserved specifically for this time of year, and my anticipation grows as I try on outfits to prepare for the 3-week stint.  It goes back to when I was a little girl and my dad got tickets from work.  He had some degree of choice in which night we would attend, and I am pretty sure we saw Reba McIntire at least 5 times.  I can’t verify this, but I suspect he may have turned away tickets on years when she wasn’t performing.

Winding up the seemingly never-ending ramp of the Astrodome, we caught the excitement of the bedecked and bedazzled crowd.  We entered the arena and breathed in the scent of animals, dirt, and spilled beer.  There’s nothing quite like it.

Garth Brooks described one aspect of this season:

Well it’s bulls and blood
It’s dust and mud
It’s the roar of a Sunday crowd
It’s the white in his knuckles
The gold in the buckle
He’ll win the next go ’round
It’s boots and chaps
It’s cowboy hats
It’s spurs and latigo
It’s the ropes and the reins
And the joy and the pain
And they call the thing rodeo

There’s more to the rodeo than what occurs in the arena, and more than just cowboys and bulls.  Although I’ve been to a county rodeo, most of my experience is based on the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR), which is quite a large event.  It lasts a bit over three weeks starting with the Championship BBQ contest (known locally as Cook Off), and featuring the livestock show, the Super Series Rodeo competition, a carnival, several auctions, concerts, and more.  Elvis performed at the Rodeo in 1970, and Selena performed in 1995.  Next year, Garth Brooks has pledged to perform on opening and closing nights.

As a side note, you may notice that I keep saying “and more” – it’s because I can’t possibly contain everything I’m trying to describe in a succinct list.  For a writer, the struggle is real.  It is not a stretch to say: this is a big deal.

HLSR is also the biggest scholarship program in Texas, and began awarding scholarships in 1957.  Since that time, more than $430 million has been committed or distributed to youth in Texas.  I’m liberally using information from the HLSR website, which reports the following 2017 Educational Commitment, for a whopping total of $26,065,510: Scholarships – $14,272,000; Graduate Assistantships – $525,400; Educational Program Grants – $3,614,360; Junior Show Exhibitors/Calf Scramble Participants – $7,653,750.  Yowsa.

The HLSR began in 1932, and as of 2017, the HLSR had a little over 100 full-time paid employees, and approximately 33,000 volunteers.  That is not a typo – I believe it is one of the largest volunteer-driven organization in the United States.  I am one of those volunteers.  The HLSR estimates that each volunteer donates about 67 hours per season, and equates this to be a $51 million workforce per year.  There are 107 committees, and volunteers serve in many roles, from those who sell and take tickets, to those who help bring animals to and from the stadium in the wee morning hours, to a crew of fireman, nurses and other health specialists who help the public in case there is a health or safety issue.  Soup to nuts!

The $51 million free workforce comes into focus when examining the financials for Rodeo in 2016.  It is the general policy of the Rodeo to use the excess revenue over expenses towards its charitable purposes.  Operating Revenues in 2016 were $133,380,066, other income was $1,889,602, and total operating expenses were $128,421,439.  Therefore, the 2016 show increased Net Assets by $6,848,229, which was added to the general pot (a.k.a. Unrestricted Net Assets) from which all scholarships and all expenses for the next rodeo are paid.  Keep in mind, I am not an accountant.  However, it seems that even though the HLSR hires Aramark and other service providers on a seasonal basis, paying the $51 million equivalent per year for work undertaken by volunteers would seriously hamstring, if not completely inhibit, the charitable purpose of the organization.

The Rodeo provides entertainment as well as charitable giving.  According to one study, it stimulates the Houston economy more than any other regular sports or arts event in the city.  Over 2 million people attend the Rodeo every year.  Why would people get hyped up about visiting the Rodeo?  I can’t answer for anyone else, but I can explain what the Rodeo means to me.

Rodeo is not just a treasured childhood memory, but a way to give back to a worthy cause while meeting people who I may never have encountered otherwise.  It sounds like a canned or cheesy answer, but I mean every word of that.  Every year I see kids showcase animals, and I know they’ve learned invaluable lessons by working to raise the stock that they are showing; I get a sense of purpose and pride for being even a tiny part of the organization to encourage or fund that journey.  Knowing that kids are going to college in part because of the time volunteers are investing in this organization is undoubtedly fulfilling.  The clincher is seeing a kid know that they’ve accomplished something – showing the animal they’ve raised, riding mutton without falling, being awarded Grand Champion or Reserve Champion in school art, pulling a calf across the line – and seeing the expression on their face when they realize their success.  For me, there’s no turning back.

But also, it’s just fun.  We watch the rodeo and route for the cowboys (or cowgirls) to make the best ride they’ve had all year, and when a teenager is being dragged by a calf we cheer for that kid to halter and return the favor to the calf by wrenching it across the line to victory.  The volunteers form friendships by coming every year and working hard with each other towards a common goal.  We eat, we drink, we dance, and we relish in the season until the very last day, when we use up the rest of our drink tickets and sleep it off for about a week.  Some volunteers, I only see during Rodeo, and we catch up with each other on our lives over the past year; other volunteers have grown to be friends throughout the year.  Outside of Rodeo, we go to Astros games, cook dinner for each other, and even meet up for an off-season sandcastle competition held between certain rodeo committees.  We celebrate and lament together.  We are friends.

Volunteers come from every walk of life, and my rodeo friends include chefs, firemen, financial advisors, stone vendors, techies, real estate kings, retirees, small business owners, large business owners, recruiters, oil and gas roughnecks, corporate employees, and more.  The list goes on.  I have no idea what some of my fellow volunteers do for a living – not because I don’t care, but because our focus is interacting, having fun, and rodeoing.  It doesn’t really matter what our real-life job is so long as we are happy, and have the flexibility to be able to volunteer.  We come to the stadium from every area of Houston and its surrounding towns.  Some volunteers have dedicated their time to Rodeo for over 30 years.  Such loyalty to an unpaid position is breathtaking.

I also love rodeo because I am a jeans, yoga pants, t-shirt, sports bra, relaxed kind of gal.  Other than bachelorette parties and the occasional date, Rodeo is one of the only times I purposefully choose outfits that scream and shout.  Let me tell you, fringe and leather are always in style.  Shoot, fake leather is always in style.  Animal print?  Yes, siree, bob!  And please, break the BeDazzlers out of the closet, because it is time to shine!!  The one (informal) rule for the general public (which many humorously but probably unintentionally discard) is to dress for your body type.  Bless their hearts.  Great people watching.

My committee is a bit more formal, so we have a dress code when we volunteer: cowboy boots, no tank tops, felt hats only, nothing too short, and men have to wear jackets and cowboy hats.  One of our captions calls it “Rodeo chic.”  It’s not real country so much as city country, if that makes sense.  I certainly couldn’t work on a farm in my get-up.  However, for me, it is part of getting into the spirit of Rodeo to get tricked out and prettied up every time I have a volunteer shift.

Don’t get me wrong, I dress up even if I’m not volunteering.  That buckle in the picture?  It’s mine.

– Your huckleberry

P.S. – I relied on the HLSR website heavily as a source.  Any errors, omissions, and opinions are mine.

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