Pleading The Fourth

The middle of June is a busy time at the Outhier home in south central Texas. Livestock to feed. Daily chores to complete. A toddler to keep track of.

It's also an anxious time, because there's packing, cleaning and getting ready for Mike Outhier's next business trip — one that consists of thousands of miles driven in a pickup with a camper going from one rodeo to another.

When he left Utopia, Texas, last week for a string of rodeos that surrounds the Fourth of July, he had to have enough clothes, razors and toothpaste to get him through at least a couple of weeks. The life of a rodeo cowboy doesn't allow much time for shopping or doing laundry this time of year. It doesn't allow for much more than refueling stops and bathroom breaks.

This is Cowboy Christmas, where ProRodeo contestants hitch up their rigs and rumble down the interstates and highways across America seeking every dollar possible. There are dozens of rodeos in the next couple of weeks, including big-pay stops like Greeley, Colo.; Vernal, Utah; Cody, Wyo.; Prescott, Ariz.; Window Rock, Ariz.; Pecos, Texas; Springdale, Ark.; Oakley, Utah; Molalla, Ore.; and St. Paul, Ore.

It's a common sight for cowboys to pick up tens of thousands of dollars in just a few days, and that's why preparing for the trip is almost as exciting as being out on the road.

"If I have a good week or so, I'd have the [Wrangler] National Finals Rodeo made," said Outhier, a three-time saddle bronc riding qualifier to ProRodeo's marquee event. "There's a lot of money to win over the Fourth, and if you work the right rodeos and get on the better horses, you can do it pretty easy."

Outhier left home at the end of June en route to his first major stop of the "summer" season in Reno, Nev. But in doing so, he left behind a number of things around his place that still need to be done. That means his wife, Kristy, has a little more on her plate while he's out earning money.

"Before he leaves, I try to get all the cleaning done and get everything ready," Kristy said. "Mike will be out working with the horses or the cattle or building a fence. I'm a real cleaner, so I love to do it. I'll get his rig all ready and get clean sheets on the bed in the camper while he's out working in the field. He'll be out there late the night before he leaves, but he has faith in me that I'll have everything ready.

"When he's gone, I make goals and focus on getting things done. I have to put the round bails out and take care of this and that. I try to fill his shoes and take care of things, and then I realize how big of a job he has."

The Outhiers raise and sell horses, so there's plenty to do whether Mike's around the house or not. But his main business right now is rodeo, and this stretch of competition is key to his livelihood.

"I try to get things put together and plan on being gone from home a month," he said. "I'm rodeoing with Steve Dollarhide [Kingman, Ariz.], and neither of us likes to take a plane. If there's anyway we can drive to a rodeo, that's what we're going to do."

That's the way most cowboys get from one event to another — sitting in a pickup or car all night if need be. Some guys who ride broncs or bulls prefer an easier mode of transportation and will fly. Veteran Billy Etbauer (Edmond, Okla.) spent years in a van traveling with his brothers — Dan and Robert — before realizing the comfort and speed of travel in a chartered plane.

"When I was younger and when I didn't have back problems, it didn't matter how I got there," said Etbauer, 41, a four-time saddle bronc riding world champion. "Since I've had back problems, the thing that keeps me healthy is being able to fly and get rest and exercise. I don't think I'd still be rodeoing if Express Ranches didn't help me pay for that."

Sponsors play a major role in covering expenses, whether it's renting a plane or paying the fuel bill at a truck stop on Interstate 80.

Jerome Schneeberger (Ponca City, Okla.) has no choice but to drive, because he and other tie-down ropers haul their horses to each event.

While Etbauer and Mike Outhier leave their families home to tend to business, Schneeberger typically travels with his wife and son. Haley Schneeberger is the daughter of rodeo stock contractor Bronc Rumford and has logged millions of miles in her young lifetime. The Schneebergers' son, Jaden, has also grown accustomed to that lifestyle, even at 16 months of age.

"I hate to leave my family, so I'm pretty fortunate that they get to be with me a lot of the time," Jerome said. "Jaden's at the point right now where he wants to play, he wants to ride his pony and rope the roping dummy. That's the fun part. You hate to split your ways."

But sometimes necessity calls for the split.

This week, Jerome is competing in Springdale, Ark., before heading north to rodeo. Haley, who is also a secretary and timer for her father's rodeo company, will work the event in Kansas City, Mo. Meanwhile, their home in Ponca City stays vacant for weeks at a time.

"You can't miss this opportunity," Jerome said. "There are just so many rodeos. You can run one or two, maybe even three, calves a day. The rodeos are so spread out, so it's going to take some time getting there."

Mike Outhier has a speeding ticket to prove it.

Outhier and Dollarhide competed June 26 in the short go-round in Reno, Nev., then drove through the night to take part in the Greeley, Colo., rodeo on Sunday.

"We were in Reno for two days, then we had to drive all night and all morning to get to Greeley," Outhier said of the 1,030-mile drive. "I got a ticket on the way, but we weren't going to make it if I didn't drive fast.

"That's the way the Fourth of July is … you get off the horse you just rode, then get in the truck and drive 90 miles an hour all the way."

The traveling partners arrived in Greeley just 30 minutes before Sunday's performance began. That's a regular scene on the rodeo trail. Just two years ago, Outhier had a similar experience even though he shucked the truck and went by air.

"I was up in Greeley and Cody, Wyo., in the same day," he said. "I got off my bronc in Greeley and went straight to the airport, where I had a Lear jet waiting. I was still in my boots and spurs, and when we flew over the Cody rodeo, they were bucking saddle broncs. I ran in there, threw my saddle on my horse and rode."

So what drives these cowboys to spend hours on the highways or hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to fly?

"As long as I'm away from my house and my family, I'd just as soon be going some where," Etbauer said. "Money's part of it, but it's still got to be a love of the game."

Said Schneeberger, "The toughest part for me is all the driving, but I don't mind the driving so much when I'm winning. It motivates me to go on. I was struggling pretty good, then I won a round in Greeley. That gave me a lot of confidence."

While the rodeo road can become tiresome quickly, there are things to soothe the frustrations. Etbauer chooses to fly, spending less time away from his family. Outhier will take any break he can to catch up with his, whether it's leaving his rig with Dollarhide and flying back to Texas or meeting his wife and their 21-month-old daughter, Madison, somewhere along the way.

"Mike gets to fly home when he has a couple days off," Kristy Outhier said. "We're fortunate that he gets to come home."

Rodeo is filled with excitement, adrenaline and a rush. Sometimes that's all part of getting to each event in time. Sometimes that's all part of the lifestyle.

And whether that means a quick plane trip from Prescott to Window Rock in Arizona or driving all night from Nevada to Colorado, there's little doubt these guys wouldn't give it up soon.

"I think most of us get more nervous about the traveling," Mike Outhier said. "But when you actually get there to the rodeo, there's a big relief. No. 1 you've made it there safely. No. 2, it's where you want to be."