66th Annual Narrandera Rodeo

Big Mumma takes Luke Chaplain to task at last year’s Narrandera Rodeo.

Bringing in the best

The Narrandera Rodeo is on this weekend and this year is celebrating its 66th year. The Narrandera Rodeo brings competitors from across the country, drawn to our corner of the world by both the quality of the competition and the high prize money.

Australian Professional Rodeo Association (APRA) overall rankings are judged by how much prize money won over the year. Narrandera is well known for being an exceptionally well-paying rodeo, so competitors flock to Narrandera to up their rankings. As competitors are vying for a share of everyone else’s entry fees, the more competitors, the bigger the earnings.

This year the stadium has new lighting, replacing the original fixtures which had been in place since the arena was built. According to Ron “Blue” Absolom, the rodeo has a long history in Narrandera.

“Back in the early 50s they started up at the showground, and then moved to the racecourse in the 60s,” Mr Absolom said. “Then they moved up to the rodeo ground where it is now in the 70s. The ring was specially for it up there. It used to be old log rails, timber, and every year we’d have to go out and get new timber because the bulls would bust the rails and the gates. So eventually we got enough money to get some steel and we built it ourselves.”

While the rodeo does draw national competitors, the point of the rodeo has always been to help out close to home.

“That’s always been our goal, to finish up with a few dollars to give away,” Mr Absolom said. “In 2017 we donated $11,000 to different charities. The main beneficiaries are the Cypress Centre and Can Assist.”

The association with the Cypress Centre goes back to a former secretary of the Rodeo Committee, Cedric Robertson. Mr  Robertson, who was made a lifetime member of the Rodeo Committee in 1972, was also the president of the Friends of Cypress committee before current president Bill Howitt took on the role.

“He had a fairly good hand in, Cedric. Out of people like Cedric we got the rodeo to where we are. From what I can gather, over the years I think we’ve donated over $100,000 during that period of time,” Mr Absolom said. “In the last few years when Can Assist came on board and we’ve supported them also. It’s a real community affair, we wouldn’t be able to run it ourselves, and we need other groups to help out.”

The Narrandera Rodeo will be held on Saturday February 24 at the Narrandera Rodeo Arena and will begin at 6.30pm. A bar will be available, as will barbeque meals and soft drinks. Local DJ Jason Heckendorf will be the MC for the night.

Entry is $25 for adults, $10 for children between 13 and 18 years, children under 13 are free and family tickets are $50.

Dakota Michaelis competing in barrel racing. She won her first ever title at the Narrandera Rodeo in 2017. Photo by Dave
Ethell Photography.

Rodeo Queen aiming for title

The APRA Rodeo Queens, despite working as ambassadors for the rodeo events across Australia, are rarely competitors.

This year’s Rodeo Queen, Dakota Michaelis from Lewiston, South Australia, is an exception.

“I’ve been competing for 15 years. I was five years old when I went in my first junior barrel race,” Ms Michaelis said.

Ms Michaelis will not only perform her duties as an APRA Rodeo Queen, but she will also compete in the Narrandera Rodeo in the barrel racing.

“I won my first title in Narrandera last year, and then I backed it up the next weekend with another win. I’m really looking forward to coming back this year.”

Ms Michaelis believes that it is her experience on the rodeo circuit that gave her an edge over her competitors.

“I got through my preliminary round easily, and then when I got to the next round there were a few girls who’d already run before, and they just knew what they were doing more than I did. But none of those girls had actually competed for as long as I have, so I have that firsthand experience.”

It’s understandable why so many previous rodeo queens have been passionate advocators of the sport without actively competing. It’s a huge juggling act to try and balance both commitments.

“I’m going for my rookie title this year. It’s a bit hard to explain, but when you are a part of APRA you are a junior. In the year you aim for the title, you try and get as much money as you can in prizes and places. You have to win $6000 altogether, and that means you can enter the open competitions.”

It’s going to be a full-on year for Ms Michaelis trying to pull off both her rookie title – which she only has one opportunity to gain – and her role as an ambassador for Australian professional rodeos, but she is pragmatic about the possibilities.

“I mean, I’ll have to go to all the rodeos anyway, so I can double up.”

Ms Michaelis is still new to the role of Miss Rodeo.

“I’ve been to one rodeo, in Ballarat. I spent a lot of time talking to sponsors, although that’s very important.”

For someone so young, Ms Michaelis is very aware of the public image of rodeos and her role in promoting the positivity of the rodeo circuit.

“We have a lot of people who want to ban rodeos. There are a lot of activists who think that we are cruel or mistreat our animals. I mean, we treat our horses better than we treat ourselves.”

While Ms Michaelis hasn’t encountered these opinions yet in her role as Miss Rodeo, she has come across it before.

“There’s a fine line with social media, whether to ignore it or engage. The people who want to ban rodeos are not really going to want to engage with you. It won’t matter what you say to them, it’ll just add fuel to the fire. It’s just a stupid cycle and it’s wasting everyone’s time. When you’re strongly for or against something, you’ve already made your mind up. When you find people in the middle, you can show them the right way. Encourage them to come to a rodeo and see for themselves and see that the animals aren’t being mistreated,” Ms Michaelis said.

Toby Collins takes on Bar None Avail.

Just bred to buck

Some stock owners breed their lines for hardiness. Some look for temperament, mothering skills or weight gain – Garry McPhee breeds his stock to buck.

“We’ve been breeding them for 40 years,” Mr McPhee said. “We breed them to buck. They’re not mad, it’s nothing like that; we handle them from when they’re yearlings, and they don’t mind being handled. They just don’t like a person on their back.”

It’s taken years of patience and hard work to refine the breed to the point of rodeo excellence, and it shows. Bareback bronc rider Ben Hall commented on the quality of the horses at the Narrandera Rodeo.

“The horses are absolutely good at Narrandera. It’s always good stock.”

The quality of the bucking stock, be it broncs or bulls, is tantamount to the riders walking away with a good score.

“The judge is allocating 50 points to the horse and 50 points to the rider,” Mr Hall explained. “A horse that’s really trying, a modern bucking horse, is one you can win on. You want a horse that will do a lot of kicking. It probably sounds a bit counter intuitive, but we want a horse that is really trying to throw us off.”

Mr McPhee has been breeding his horses along the same bloodlines for decades now.

“We’ve had a breed of horse for 40 years, and we’ve bred on the same lines. The mares that we kept just wanted to buck; they weren’t interested in being riding horses. So over time they just became a bucking breed.”

With the bulls, Mr McPhee again looked for instincts first, meaning the bulls aren’t selected on bloodlines.

“They’ve got a lot of different lines. They’ve got a bit of Bos Indicus – which is your Brahman breed. Probably most of our bulls now are eight or nine different crosses of bucking bull. Again, they’re bred to buck.”

The quality of the stock that Mr McPhee provides can’t be overstated. According to Narrandera Rodeo Committee member John Foster, competitors from Queensland and the Northern Territory praise the quality of Mr McPhee’s stock at the Narrandera Rodeo. The Australian rodeo circuit, while dedicated, is very different from the scale of the circuit in the United States.

“They have a bucking bull register over there; we don’t in Australia. We’ve only registered one or two,” Mr McPhee said. “We have had semen from American bucking bulls introduced into our herd before.”

Mr McPhee will bring 25 horses and 25 bulls to the Narrandera Rodeo this weekend, and Mr McPhee is also responsible for organising the local stock to be used in the steer-wrestling, breakaway-roping and the rope and tie.

“I think we’ve got a good line of riders and stock, and I think it’s going to be a good rodeo,” Mr McPhee said.

Rock Show gives Ben Hall a run for his money.

Bronc rider aims for double

It says a lot about how challenging bareback bronc riding is when only two competitors are in the draw.

With all other categories full to bursting, and many split into two divisions due to the number of entrants, only Tom Phibbs and Ben Hall have signed on for bareback bronc riding.

Being called mad doesn’t seem to faze Mr Hall.

“I’ve been called worse, don’t you worry,” he said. “I’ve been competing for 13 years. I started off riding steers and then saddle bronc, and I rode bulls for ten years. I gave away the bull riding a few years ago. I was enjoying the horses more. I just wanted to master one event, rather than battling away at two.”

His dedication has paid off, quite literally; as of the beginning of February Mr Hall has won twice as much money as any other competitor in bareback bronc riding.

Mr Hall has been competing since he was 15 years old. Coming from Tumbarumba, which hosts a rodeo with a history longer than Narrandera – it turned 73 on New Year’s Day – Mr Hall was always surrounded by the rodeo culture.

“There are lots of good bucking horses up there.”

Competing in the rodeo circuit means a tremendous amount of travel.

“Since late November we’ve been competing every weekend. We’ve been to Tasmania two or three times, to South Australia. A lot of the competition is down this way at this time, usually until Easter. In the winter we go up to Queensland, to the northern rodeos, Mt Isa and Cloncurry and all those ones.”

Mr Hall has also taken advantage of the quieter winter season to try his luck in the American circuit.

“In 2012 and 2013 I went over there for their summer. I got out of the cold!”

The Narrandera Rodeo and the Whittlesea Rodeo happen to fall at the same time, and Mr Hall is aiming to compete in both.

“We’ve chartered a jet from Narrandera down there. It’s a bit costly. This is probably the most expensive weekend we’ve had so far, but it’s worth it; if I’m in Narrandera it will pay off, because it pays so well. Most weekends if you can win or place it covers your costs.”

The Narrandera Rodeo is a pilgrimage that many competitors take. The prize money on offer, as well as the quality of the stock, is a huge drawcard for entrants.

“Narrandera’s been going for a long time. It always manages to get good stock. A horse that’s really trying, a modern bucking horse, is one you can win on. I’ve always had good horses at Narrandera,” Mr Hall explained.

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