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Cowboy Tough: Training for the arena


Published on September 5, 2014 12:01AM

Last changed on November 25, 2014 9:00AM

<p>Cowboys practice their roping skills during steer roping slack at the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds.</p>

Cowboys practice their roping skills during steer roping slack at the Pendleton Round-Up Grounds.

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There’s no such thing as downtime in rodeo season. Contestants spend most of their rare free hours training behind the scenes, keeping in shape for the demand of professional tier competition.

Most professional cowboys find time for the gym several times a week. They focus on aerobics as well as weight lifting, especially squats, deadlifts and “clean and jerk” lifts because leg strength is imperative in rodeo.

“Power cleans are basically like flanking a calf,” said calf roper Roger Nonella. In other words, lifting a calf by the flank is physically similar to lifting a 275-pound barbell, except it squirms and kicks.

For roughstock riders, balance training is another vital routine. Bull and bronc riders practice on bucking machines (mechanical bulls) whenever they can’t find a real animal on the road. If they don’t have a machine of their own, they borrow a friend’s. R.C. Landingham, for instance, practiced on veteran roughstock cowboy Kelly Wardell’s bucking machine in Idaho during a day off in mid-July.

Demanding training schedules aren’t restricted to the cowboys — the Indian Relay racers of the Professional Indian Horse Racing Association are famous for their dogged athletic regimen and their thrilling performances. The races are among the most popular events at the Pendleton Round-Up.

“The Indian Relay races are definitely the epitome of toughness. I can’t believe what those guys do,” said 2014 Round-Up Indians Director Rob Collins.

Clad in traditional regalia and war paint, the racers gallop horses around the Round-Up’s oval arena at breakneck speed, coordinating within teams of four to trade off smoothly each lap.

The Umatilla Indian Reservation is home to one of the most competitive teams in the national league: Umatilla Express. The four-man team practices in a field outside of Pendleton, riding on team coordinator Katherine Minthorn’s horses.

Indian Relay racers are similar cowboys in their gym routine, which focuses on weight lifting and leg presses, but their dedication to jumping technique is unique in rodeo.

“Think about the height, and a person running and jumping … landing on the backs of those horses,” said Minthorn. “They jump those horses every day.”

Considering an average race horse is five feet tall, the jump is comparable to a basketball player’s slam dunk.

“This is the first year the team is together every day,” said Minthorn. In the past, the team would meet up perodically but rarely in full force; this year, they spent their entire summer together training.

Formed in May, Umatilla Express includes Jack Mills and Ray MacDonald of Pendleton, and Clarence McNab and Salvadore Maldanadle of Browning, Mont. The Montana visitors live at Minthorn’s home so they can train with the group every day.

According to Minthorn, Indian Relay racing is extremely dangerous due to the speed involved, and the confusion of 12 horses on one track at once. “Everybody knows there’s a chance of horses colliding or … running over someone,” Minthorn said.

The risk doesn’t scare Umatilla Express. From the beginning of racing season in May to its end in early fall, they spend every day with the horses, training and patiently waiting for their shot at victory.


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