Sitting on a horse named Hurley with the Cal Poly rodeo arena reflected in his shades, Lane Santos-Karney nods for an assistant to open the chute.
When the gate opens, a brown-and-white cow dashes toward the center of the arena. Santos-Karney pursues on the left while his brother, Taylor, flanks on the right with his horse, Snip.
After Lane tosses his rope around the cow’s forehead, Taylor lassos its back legs. Snip takes a quick step back, the cow’s back legs stretch out, and it’s on its side, a cloud of dust announcing the end of the chase.
Roping steer isn’t easy, but the Creston duo makes it look that way — thanks to a lifetime of practice.
“Almost before we knew what rodeo was, it was already in our blood,” Taylor says later.
With a bevy of cattle ranches from San Miguel to Nipomo, San Luis Obispo County is a hotbed of rodeo activity. As the summer rodeo season rears up, The Tribune talked to several rodeo participants, offering a sampling of the sport’s legends and up-and-coming stars.
John Jones Sr. and John Jones Jr., Morro Bay
Even though his father was a former rookie of the year and world champ, John Jones Jr. initially resisted getting into rodeo.
“I didn’t want anything to do with it,” he said. “I’d rather, hunt, fish, play baseball, football — stuff like that. I think he knew if he pushed me at it, I’d go even further away from it. But he always gave me the opportunity if I wanted to do it.”
Luckily, the bug did catch him, and eventually, both Senior and Junior wound up in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. Along with bull riding champ Gary Leffew in Nipomo, the Joneses are the only San Luis Obispo County residents in the Hall.
From their sprawling, scenic ranch in Morro Bay, Jones Sr. said he grew up on a cattle ranch north of Fresno. But rodeo caught on with him more than others.
“My dad roped a little bit — not much,” said Jones Sr., who played football and baseball in high school. “My brothers, they roped a little bit, too, but they didn’t really have much interest in it.”
He initially wanted to ride bulls, but he wound up wrestling steer. In 1956, he was the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s first Rookie of the Year. He went on to win the PRCA’s National Final’s aggregate title four times.
He might have won more world titles had he not backed off once he had a family.
Eventually, he became a key mentor for his son, whose affinity for rodeo became obvious around his senior year in high school. Jones Jr., who played baseball, football and wrestled in high school, went on to study farm management at Cal Poly before testing the professional rodeo circuit as a steer wrestler himself.
“I wanted to make a living at it because I knew if I didn’t do any good, I’d have to come back here and milk cows,” he said.
For 10 years, he traveled the country, competing in rodeos and making a good living. While his father won one world championship — a huge accomplishment — Jones Jr. won three.
“I met a lot of neat people that I’m still friends with today,” said Jones, 52. “And some of them aren’t even rodeo people.”
While it’s been more than a decade since he competed, his house is packed with trophies, buckles and photos to remind him of his accomplishments.
His wife — a barrel racer, like his mother — still competes. And his two daughters have also competed.
“It seemed like after I quit, my kids started getting into it, and we were in the arena even more than when I practiced because there were two of them, and they worked five events in high school,” he said.
One of his daughters recently married New York Giants tight end Bear Pascoe, who happens to be an accomplished team roper himself.
Having once competed in up to 170 rodeos a year — his father typically did around 65 a year in his prime — Jones Jr. now lives with the memories.
“You don’t miss the traveling at all,” said Jones Jr., who now works on the family’s cattle ranch. “But you miss the adrenaline rush — just before you nod your head — and the competition.”
Lane and Taylor Santos-Karney, Creston
Ask Taylor Santos-Karney what he likes most about the rodeo, and he’s quick to answer: “Winning.”
“That’s the biggest thrill,” said the 18-year-old, who graduated from Templeton High School this spring. “Seems like I go to school, and I come home, and I rope for three to five hours. Then whenever you go to a big roping and you win, you think back to those days whenever you got four or five blisters on your hands, and you’re dripping wet, and that makes it all worth it.”
In short time, he and his brother, Lane, 20, have amassed a substantial bounty, including three horse trailers, saddles, buckles, trophies, spurs and cash. In high school, both were California State Rookies of the Year, and between them they won four state All-Around Cowboy championships and eight state event titles.
Taylor recently qualified for the National High School Finals Rodeo, while Lane recently won All-Around Cowboy at the Santa Maria Pro Rodeo — something his grandfather won 36 years earlier.
Thanks to their grandfather — and his father, a renowned horseman — rodeo is steeped in their past.
“I remember just being little and in our minds making runs at big rodeos when we were just roping air on the carpet,” says Lane, an ag communications major at Cal Poly, where his mother won a Poly Royal buckle for breakaway roping in 1980.
While the brothers have fared well on their own, they excel at team roping, where competitors race to rope a cow’s head and back legs.
“Whenever we roped together in high school and junior high, we roped so many steers together, I know where the steer’s going to be and how he’s going to handle them,” Taylor said. “When I rope with somebody else, the chemistry is not there.”
The brothers are particularly eager about next year, when Taylor — an incoming freshman ag systems management student — can compete with Lane at Cal Poly.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” said Lane, the 2012 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association Rookie of the Year. “I was really excited when I got to go to Cal Poly. But now that he gets to come here with me, it’s like a whole new level of excitement.”
After college, the two hope to compete in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
“It’s a hard way to make a living, though,” Lane said. “That’s why we’re getting an education first before we try it.”
Alea Cunningham, Huasna
Earlier this month, Alea, 14, had her first rodeo scare when she got bucked off a horse while practicing.
“I was shocked at first, and I couldn’t move,” she said. “Then I had to limp to the neighbor’s house to go get help because my horse ran away. I was left alone on a hill.”
Her mother later took her to get X-rays, fearing some sort of fracture. But the thing that hurt the most was that she had to miss a competition at the Santa Barbara County Fair.
“In pain, she’s crying, and she’s like, ‘I’m competing tomorrow, no matter what,’” said her mother, Andrea Cunningham. “She’s got a lot of heart.”
While she’s the first person in her family to compete in rodeos, her love of horses comes from her mother, whose family would rent horses for her as a child. Today the Cunninghams have four horses of their own. Alea, who began riding horses at age 4, grew fond of the rodeo at age 10.
While she competes in several aspects, including barrel races, pole bending and goat tying, her favorite is breakaway roping.
“It’s an adrenaline rush,” she said. “After you rope your calf, you’re just like — ahhh — then you feel so much better.”
Through the years, she’s spent countless hours practicing, roping cattle, dummies and even family members.
“The dogs see the rope, and they take off,” her mother said.
Between private lessons, the price of gear and entry fees, rodeoing can be expensive, her mother said. But they’re committed. And already, it has paid off: Alea recently competed at the state high school finals — impressive for an incoming freshman at Arroyo Grande High School.
While roping is her strength, she wants to participate in numerous events.
“I want to do the best I can at everything — just an all-around cowgirl, I guess.”
Rodeo glossary: A look at the events
Modern rodeos entail several events. Here are some of the more popular ones:
- Barrel racing: A horse and rider attempt to complete a clover-leaf pattern around pre-arranged barrels in the fastest time.
- Bull riding: Competitors attempt to stay mounted on a bull as it attempts to buck them to the ground.
- Calf roping: Also called “tie-down roping.” A mounted horse rider tries to catch a calf by tossing a rope around its neck, then dismounts from the horse, runs to the calf and restrains it by tying three legs together in as short a time as possible.
- Pole bending: This timed event features a horse and a mounted rider weaving through a path around six poles arranged in a line.
- Steer wrestling: Also known as “bulldogging.” A horse-mounted rider chases a steer, drops from the horse to the steer, then wrestles the animal to the ground by twisting its horns.
- Team roping: Also called “heading and heeling.” In this event, two mounted riders rope a single steer.