Silver bells? Nope, that's the gentle jingle of cold hard cash.
Cowboy Christmas is upon us once more: a time of celebration, rejoicing… and (maybe) striking it rich on the rodeo circuit. There's no Santa, there's no sleigh and there are no reindeer, but there are broncs, bulls and bags full of goodies.
"The best part is the money," says Taos Muncy, 2007 World Champion Bronc Rider, explaining the lure of what has become a tradition of criss-crossing the nation (with stops in Canada) for a shot at the next win and the next big prize.
Traditionally, the start of Cowboy Christmas is marked by the Reno Rodeo in Nevada, which came to a close on June 27. But between June 25th and the end of the July 4th weekend this year, the 12 days of Cowboy Christmas will have seen an amazing 50 PRCA-sanctioned events taking place from New Jersey and Massachusetts to California and Canada.
Double that number and you'll come close to how many rodeos are held through the end of July. And, according to the PRCA, the rodeos during Cowboy Christmas alone offer up around $3 million in prize money among sanctioned events. What does that boil down to for cowboys? About a hundred chances to rope and ride and haul in paychecks.
But according to Muncy, it's not as easy as it sounds. "Getting home and being tired and wore out and broke after spending all that time on the road… that's the hard part."
Long hours on the road, expensive entry fees, and no guarantees that you're going to win make Cowboy Christmas a little like spending your Christmas bonus check on a trip to the casino. The odds may be a little better that you'll come home with some extra cash, but it's still a pretty big gamble.
Of course, rodeo cowboys are no strangers to taking risks. Being a competitor in the sport of rodeo is an inherently risky venture but the payoff over Cowboy Christmas means you have a better chance of making it to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in (where else?) Las Vegas, Nevada.
"The Fourth is the halfway point," says Muncy. "It'll either put you in the top 15 (in the PRCA World Standings) and get you a chance of going to the finals…or not. It's unreal how much things can change here around the Fourth."
A shot at big money and the possibility of making it to the big show in Vegas literally drives rodeo cowboys to incredible lengths.
"We're driving so much, you just kind of sleep whenever you can, really," says Richard Durham, from a cell phone on his way to Livingstone, Mont. " Sleep in the pickups, sleep in the trailers. Tonight will be our third all-night drive."
Durham is currently sitting in first place among team roping heelers in the PRCA World Standings, and says there's no point in taking it easy, even when you're in the lead. The PRCA-sanctioned rodeos in July provide the most added money for competitors of any rodeos during the course of the year.
To have the best chance at getting a paycheck, cowboys enter themselves in multiple rodeos each day, waiting to see what kind of draw they get before deciding which they will actually compete in. Competitors can withdraw, or "turn out," just minutes before a rodeo begins and avoid having to pay costly entry fees.
"We got 1, 2, 3, 4…5 rodeos on the Fourth," says Muncy, counting out loud. "So, where we have the better horses, we're going to end up going."
In addition to entry fees, gas makes up a large percentage of overhead cost for rodeoers. And, while roughstock cowboys like Muncy have only themselves to worry about, competitors in the timed roping events face the additional costs of bringing their horses along with them.
Fortunately, fuel costs have slacked from last summer's record highs, when prices at the pump spiked to over $4 a gallon even higher for diesel making it somewhat easier for the cowboys.
"Right now, there's four of us going to St. Paul and then back to Cody," says Durham. "So, I mean, you split it up four ways and it's not as bad. It helps everybody, but it definitely helps some of the younger guys who are trying to get started, for sure."
Durham and Kelsey Parchman, in first place among headers, are both traveling and are partnered with a younger roper to try to help them earn more money and make their way up in the standings.
And, though Durham doesn't enjoy the hard travel of Cowboy Christmas, saying it's "the only bad part," Muncy, who was sidelined for much of last season with a broken leg, says from late June through the end of Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo on July 26th is his favorite time of year. Despite high gas prices, long hours of travel, and an uncertain outcome, he has some fond memories from his destination-laden trips. What is his fondest?
"Seeing so much of the country," Muncy says.
"I never knew you could make it from Greeley (Stampede) to Window Rock (Rodeo) in one day," he continues, "but we did. I got my first speeding ticket going 90 between Greeley and Window Rock."