Writer Lara Piu
Photographer Payson Roundup
[dropcap]N[/dropcap]o one could have predicted it 133 years ago, but Payson Pro Rodeo has since become the world’s oldest continuous rodeo. Not that it would have made any difference to its earliest contestants. The cowboys and ranch hands took pride in their skills and horses, and saw the rodeo as their chance to strut their stuff in the town square. It was how they had fun in the gap between spring and fall roundups at the ranch, and the entire town joined them.
Many years had passed when, in 1972, Bill Armstrong became rodeo boss, but the event itself had changed very little.
“It was a big party, with contestants who were eager to show off their skills and win the money and bragging rights for their event,” Bill recalls.
Since his kids were rodeo competitors, he’d been part of the rodeo scene for a long time.
“I was always close to rodeo with my children competing in school,” he explains. “Several went on to be professional rodeo contestants.”
Being the rodeo boss has kept him busy over the past 45 years. Bill works with sponsors, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, the rodeo’s board of directors and contestants. He sources items for awards like buckles and spurs, and coordinates everything that goes into making the rodeo happen. He’s among the nearly 180 volunteers who donate approximately 16,500 hours of blood, sweat and tears to make it happen each year.
“Lord knows I live it yearlong, and on a full-time, 24/7 basis weeks before each rodeo,” he says.
Sometimes, there actually is blood involved — like the time Bill got caught in the line of fire.
“I was run over by a bull while pulling a chute gate and broke my leg and foot in several places,” he recalls. “They taped me up and we finished the bull riding before I could get it fixed.”
Bill’s reward is in the 200-plus contestants who show up to compete, many of them top contenders.
“Several years back, we had 16 of the top 20 contestants — world champions — come to compete in our rodeo,” he says. “That was an honor and a testament to how we treat contestants. We regularly get several world champions. Contestants have to hit a lot of rodeos to qualify for those finals. In August, there are areas where within a few hundred miles there are five to six rodeos that make it easy for them to hit several in a short time. We get our share because of our reputation, but if you are in the hunt and need points to qualify, you have to make the most of your time.”
He also loves the community feedback.
“The best part is hearing people compliment our rodeo for being so well run,” he says. “That is a testament to our committee and how hard they work. Recently, two judges from the PRCA officiating at our rodeo came to me to thank us for putting on such a great and professional rodeo. It is gratifying for me to see the efforts of our committee to bring such a great event to our town and to fans.”
Bill’s counterpart John Landino, who serves as the rodeo’s director of marketing and public relations, agrees that the community feedback makes it gratifying.
“We get people from all over the world — France, Germany, Norway, Finland, Spain, Australia and the like come to and come back to our rodeo,” John explains. “We receive many compliments from those who attend other larger rodeos about how ours is really run well and is great fun.”
For John, the rodeo also provides a chance to connect with the community’s Western heritage, all while helping charitable causes.
“I enjoy helping kids and the charities we support,” he says.
Each year, the rodeo grants five scholarships to local high school seniors for both college and vocational studies, and helps other charities such as breast cancer and veteran support groups, as well as school programs.
Plus, it’s fun, he adds.
“Rodeo is great family entertainment,” John explains. “It provides excitement. It is fast-paced and, if you think about it, was the original X Games. The atmosphere is like a fair with the vendors, music and lively activity to keep you involved through the whole performance.”
Held on August 18 and 19, this year’s rodeo will include entertainment, a parade and a fundraiser, in addition to the competition.
Rodeo performances start at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday night and at 1 p.m. on Saturday; spectators can arrive up to two hours earlier. On Friday, there’s a Tough Enough to Wear Pink night, a fundraiser party benefiting local breast cancer support groups. On Saturday, a Patriot Performance will honor returning, fallen and wounded veterans. A special tribute during the rodeo featuring the U.S. Marines Mounted Color Guard will also be held.
There will also be a parade on August 19 at 9 a.m. on Payson’s historic Main Street. It will feature the U.S. Marines Mounted Color Guard; clowns; rodeo queens and their courts; the Payson High School band; floats; riders; first responder teams; real cowboys and cowgirls; cars; tractors; team bands and units of the El Zaribah Shriners.
And if you still have some giddyup in your saddle, head to the dance at the rodeo grounds, which starts at 9 p.m. each night. It’s family-friendly and free for rodeo ticket holders.
Payson Pro Rodeo
Seniors 65+: $16
Children 8-12: $10
Children 7 and under: Free
Active military: Free