Life on the rodeo circuit
Some cowboys use bronco and bull riding to point others to Christ
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The pent-up saddled bronco strains in the chute, a steel-fenced area not much longer or wider than its tense body. A professional cowboy sits atop the horse, gripping a thick rope with his right hand, his knees squeezing the bronc’s girth. Two men above the chute keep the animal steady, waiting for a nod from the cowboy. On that cue, two others outside the chute’s gate yank it open and dash out of the way.
The bay bronco leaps out, eager to cast off its clinging burden. The cowboy, Cole Elshere, quickly finds the rhythm of the horse’s mad, jerking kicks backward and upward. With each kick, Cole’s left arm flails up, driven by the bucking momentum, while his legs shoot forward, toes out, the fringe on his chaps swinging wildly. Somehow his white, broad-rimmed hat stays on. The Buffalo, Minn., crowd, packed into outdoor arena bleachers on a 90-degree evening, claps and yells enthusiastically. A red-nosed rodeo clown sits on the fence, watching. Eight seconds—the time a rider must stay on—seems an eternity.
The life of a rodeo rider isn’t all cheering crowds and prize money. Like any major sport, the real work takes place far from the arena, where discipline and sacrifice are expected and practicing with pain is often the norm. And a life-altering injury may be seconds away.
Despite the risks and other downsides, those who climb onto a wild bronco or bull embrace this lifestyle: the adrenaline rush, the challenge of beating the clock, the thrill and satisfaction that come with being a cowboy, and for some, the platform to talk about their faith.
For Elshere, 32, riding has been part of his life since he clambered onto a sheep at age 3. He progressed to calves and worked his way up to bulls and broncos—rough stock, in cowboy parlance. Although he says he may have some natural ability, he credits experienced coaches, especially cousins who were prize-winning riders before him, and adds, “My hometown of Faith, South Dakota, had a bunch of the world’s best bronc riders who all helped me.”
It’s definitely a family affair. Rodeo riders often come from a lineage of cowboys. Elshere is a fifth-generation cowboy, but the first in his line to be a professional rodeo saddle bronc rider.
He admits he was anxious when he started riding bucking broncos at 13: “It was nerve-wracking getting on a wild animal—that’s something you’ve got to push through, overcome … and stay focused.”
Of the rodeo events sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association—the world’s largest rodeo organization—saddle bronc riding quickly became Elshere’s favorite. Other events include bareback bronc riding, bull riding, barrel racing, steer wrestling, calf roping, team roping, and sometimes steer roping and ladies breakaway.
Rodeo is big business: In the past 3½ decades, PRCA has paid out more than a billion dollars in prize money, and most rodeos are multiday festivals with local and national sponsors, kids’ activities, and concerts. The sport claims over 40 million fans—and is growing, thanks in part to the popular (and gritty, rated TV-MA) cable Western Yellowstone and this year’s inaugural bull riding league.
THE RODEO BUSINESS includes breeding broncs and bulls for the job. They come from bloodlines of past champions. Elshere explains how cowboys work with young animals and train them specifically to buck riders off. “When you get to the professional level,” says Elshere, “most of these animals have performed often, so they’ve learned what to do—so we riders know what to do on them.”
Several days before a rodeo, riders find out which horse they’ll ride. They glean as much about their draw as possible—often from friends who may have ridden the animal before—so they can devise a plan for competition. Riders are more likely to get hurt on inexperienced broncs, so if they don’t think the horse is good enough, they may skip the rodeo. Sometimes they can’t ascertain the horse’s quality beforehand. And if a bronc doesn’t buck well, it’s like trying to play golf with a bent club—no matter how good the contestant, winning is unlikely.
One nearly career-ending injury happened to Elshere on an experienced mount. The arena was muddy that day, and when the bronc bucked him off, it jumped on top of him. As he tried to crawl away through the mud, a hoof came down, kicking him underneath his protective vest, breaking his lower back.
He has since healed, and he considers himself fortunate. A friend, J.R. Vezain, who’d ridden over 1,000 times and was on the brink of qualifying for the 2019 national championship in bareback bronc riding, drew a horse who’d performed only once on the PRCA circuit. The bronco flipped over on top of Vezain, folding him in half, then stomped on him. The incident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
“You have to put your trust in God to be safe every day, to compete and be successful,” says Elshere. “Even if you’re not, remembering everything is done according to God’s will.” Vezain often speaks publicly about how his Christian faith sustains him.
Some fans equate rodeo life with family, faith, and patriotism. Rodeos—like Buffalo’s—often start with a prayer thanking Jesus, then play the national anthem. Sometimes nondenominational cowboy churches offer an arena service on Sundays. Elshere’s wife, Kyndra, a former barrel racer, professed faith in Christ at a cowboy church before they were married.
While rodeos have their share of Bible-believing riders and fans, like most professional sports they have a contingent of hard drinkers and partiers. When Elshere, who was raised in a Christian home, initially entered the pro rodeo scene, he briefly lived the wild life, too, and says he had to repent and make changes.
He grew conscious of setting a good example. Now, he says, his faith undergirds his behavior: “The way you talk, what you do after the rodeo, being a respectful husband and family man … points to Jesus—a hope and lifestyle people might not get to see in other circles.”
One visible moment came unexpectedly. Elshere was struggling immensely at the 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo—the World Series of rodeo—where he was competing as a Top 15 rider. For 10 nights, 10 rides in a row, on 10 of the world’s best broncos, his arm would droop, his grip weaken, then the horse would buck him off. (He didn’t find out until later a bulging disk was pinching nerves in his riding arm.) The rodeo was televised. Millions were watching. He felt like a failure. He took a private moment to exit the arena, kneel behind the chutes, and ask God for help. Unknown to him, TV cameras captured him praying.
“I hated that I failed as a competitor,” he says. “But God used that moment for Himself—to show we need to put our trust in Jesus.”
For eight summers, he’s hosted a free rodeo camp—Bares, Broncs, Bulls, and Bibles—for teens. Instructors coach youth on skills for riding rough stock competitively and also teach them about Christ. Elshere started the camp after a bronc-riding friend committed suicide. He wants teens to know Jesus gives hope, and that the Bible and mentors can ground them in a sport filled with temptations.
“When you can get a competitive person—young or old—to be competitive for Christ, you know they’re gonna stand strong and be bold,” says Elshere.
ONE SUCH COMPETITIVE PERSON is Dylan Madsen, 29. He used to be one of the partiers Elshere talks about. After a self-described spiritual awakening, for the last two years he’s been a camp instructor for Elshere—in Bible and bull.
That’s bull riding. Madsen is a professional bull rider. “They’re lower to the ground than broncs—not as far to fall,” he laughs.
But it was a bull that bucked him off and jumped squarely on his back, causing a severe vertebral injury in January. Bull riding accidents cause the most rodeo-related injuries: One of every 15 competitive outs ends in an injury, according to the Professional Bull Riders organization. (An “out” is each time a bull and rider charge out of the chute, regardless of whether the rider lasts eight seconds.)
Madsen isn’t at the Buffalo rodeo. He’s taking time off to heal. Meanwhile, he’s building and repairing fences through his company while listening to sermons from favorite preachers such as Steve Lawson and John MacArthur.
Raised on his grandparents’ ranch in Presho, S.D., Madsen climbed aboard his first steer when he was 8. It launched him 12 feet in the air. He landed flat on his back with his wind knocked out, then got up and did it again.
He started competing, and he tried to fit in and please the wrong people. Soon he was drinking and smoking marijuana all day every day, often showing up high for his bull ride, cocky enough to think he could still perform well. “I was living like an arrogant outlaw,” he says.
But he began thinking about God and what happens after death after his buddy Blake died in a head-on collision—a drunk driving accident. He’d already been reflecting on the number of his friends who’d died from drunk driving. A drunk driving accident had left his own mother a paraplegic years earlier. “I kept seeing the inevitable result of the lifestyle I was living is never good,” says Madsen. “I wasted so many years.”
He and Siera, the woman with whom he was living, decided to read through the Bible. He listened to recorded sermons about the holiness of God. Together, the couple began to feel convinced that living together was wrong, and with counsel from church elders, they married. Today, they read the Bible together daily and work out together before heading to jobs.
Madsen hopes to be healthy enough to enter next year’s draft or be a free agent in the new bull riding league, the PBR Team Series, begun this year after Hollywood’s biggest talent agency, Endeavor, decided to diversify and bought the league. The league has eight team franchises in Texas, Arizona, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. Several national stations will televise each competition—where teams of five riders tally points.
The guaranteed salary for franchise team riders is attractive to Madsen. Normally, only top individual placers win money—it’s hard to make a living unless you win often. If Madsen doesn’t win enough, or when the time comes to get his vertebrae fused, he says he’ll tip his hat to the sport and walk away.
He’s OK with that. He talks enthusiastically about God getting the glory, and says he’ll still go to rodeos to hand out literature like Ligonier Ministries’ “Crucial Questions” booklets. He views rodeos as his international mission field: Bull riders come from countries including Brazil, Australia, Mexico, Canada, and New Zealand.
AT BUFFALO’S RODEO, Elshere had a good ride—and a safe one. But he’s disappointed: He got a mount that “would have been good for our high school neighbor kid to practice on.” In other words, it didn’t buck well enough to allow for a high score. Not much a rider can do about a weak horse, shrugged Elshere after the ride.
A few days later on a better mount at a South Dakota rodeo, Elshere took first place and $2,700 in prize money. Judges score riders for skill and technique and the horses for difficulty, then the combined top score wins. Most years, Elshere, one of the circuit’s top saddle bronc riders, makes about $100,000, though last year he made about a quarter less with time off from injuries. Entry fees and expenses can top $50,000, so he has to win often—and stay healthy—to come out ahead.
To supplement his income, he and Kyndra work on his family’s 20,000-acre Hereford and black Angus cattle ranch of 850 head. It’s been in the family since 1895. They spend days calving cows, feeding them, and preparing bulls to sell. Elshere loves the lifestyle: up at 5:30, fresh air all day, sitting on a horse, back at dark. Years of wrangling cows, grabbing ropes while practicing bronco and bull riding, and lifting saddles and hay bales has physically hardened all 5 foot, 8 inches of him.
In 2017, Elshere played the role of rodeo legend Casey Tibbs in the documentary Floating Horses: The Life of Casey Tibbs. He says he’s open to more film opportunities but isn’t looking.
Elshere acknowledges rodeos not only pose bodily danger but are tough on family life. He enters about 100 rodeos a year in 100 different towns. Kyndra and daughter Everley travel along in the pickup camper when they can. But tight quarters and traveling with a toddler pose challenges. And traveling solo is even harder.
He wants to ride the circuit until he’s about 42—a long haul for a rodeo rider—until physical demands or time away from family portend it’s time to quit. Already, he’s coaching upcoming young riders, including his cousins’ kids—the same cousins who coached him as a boy. He frequently talks about his strongest motivation:
“I’d like to be able to continue this,” says Elshere. “Because really, win or lose, it’s all about family, and shining the light on Jesus for the next generation.”
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