Students spend months preparing for the PRCA event
Luke Bauer gently guided his bay heifer American Dream by a rope halter around his family’s property in Bastrop earlier this month.
The Cedar Creek High School junior and Dream were preparing for Rodeo Austin, one of the nation’s top pro rodeos sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, where they would both show months of work.
Preparing the animals involves feeding them properly and teaching them to respond to commands, Bauer said.
“She is connected to me,” he said. “She doesn’t like it when other people mess with her.”
Bauer is among many area students who will be exhibiting heifers, steers, lambs, chickens and other animals at the Austin Rodeo, which begins Friday and will run through March 25 at the Travis County Exposition Center.
For students showing their animals, the rodeo is an opportunity to show off the fruits of their hard work and potentially earn some money that they can use for their college education.
The students showing animals are typically part of their school’s farming program or Future Farmers of America, a nonprofit youth group that promotes agricultural education.
Preparing animals for the show is hard work that requires daily care.
That means feeding the animal, bathing it and cleaning up, said Katie Hartman, a sophomore at Dripping Springs High School.
Hartman shows off her lamb Willie at the Austin Rodeo.
“We get life skills, maturity,” Hartman said. “It’s a living thing. You have to take care of it. If you can’t get up here, they won’t be fed.”
Students also need to find the right combination of food and supplements to help the animals grow big and muscular, said Emma Henson, a Dripping Springs High senior.
Henson shows off her Pig Prada at the Austin Rodeo.
Judges grade animals based on muscle structures, so students adjust diets to get the right balance of fat and muscle, a sometimes costly experiment, Henson said.
“It adds up,” she said. “You end up spending a lot more than you think you do.”
Students will also typically put a lot of work into their animals’ appearance, such as shampooing and grooming their fur, shearing lambs, or using air vacuums to make the animals’ fur extra fluffy.
For months, Bauer brushed Dream’s fur so it fell forward instead of backward.
“It’s a tedious task with cattle,” says Bauer. “They want their hair to be forward because it makes them stand out more.”
Bauer also shows goats and chickens in Austin.
Students must teach their animals to obey their commands in the competition ring.
Henson used a long baton to slap Prada on the cheek and give him directions.
As Prada fled onto a narrow path behind the pigsties, Henson lured him out with his favorite snack: marshmallows.
“These pigs are treated better than pigs on any farm,” Henson said. “You get baths. They have little balls that they play with. They are treated like little kings and queens.”
If the animals do well in the show competitions, the students can earn college money for their months of work. Prices are often generous. The 2022 top bull at the Houston Rodeo, the largest event in Texas, brought in $1 million.
Since the students work with the animals on a daily basis, they tend to be quite affectionate.
Hartman stood in the school barn Thursday and patted Willie’s head as he snuggled up to her.
“It’s so hard not to commit,” Hartman said. “You are really cute.”
This bond means it’s often that much harder at the end of big rodeo events when students often have to surrender their animals.
Some heifers can be exhibited for more than a year and some animals are intended for breeding, but the majority of the animals are intended for consumption.
It’s a harsh reality, and Henson cried when she gave up another of her hogs at the Houston Rodeo this year, she said.
“You’ve had them for months and you’ve been raising them since they were little babies,” Henson said.
Despite this, Henson returns to the barn year after year. She wants to be a pig farmer one day so she can help other students at rodeos.
“I see myself succeeding and I want to do that for another kid,” Henson said.
Several days of competition are planned for the Austin Rodeo.