On a dusty, warm February morning at the Cal Poly rodeo grounds off Mount Bishop Road, Rachel McCarthy and her horse, Rooster, tore off after a calf in full sprint.
The elusive calf darted left and right before McCarthy homed in, whirling her rope above her head. Slinging the lasso expertly, McCarthy’s twine slipped smoothly over the animal’s head.
Because this was a practice session and not competition, the slip knot was designed not to cinch as McCarthy gathered up her rope and trotted Rooster back to the gate. McCarthy was practicing breakaway roping, gearing up for Cal Poly’s annual rodeo, which celebrates its 75th anniversary April 17 to 18.
Breakaway roping is a style of calf roping in which the animal isn’t thrown and tied. Rather, the rope is tied to a saddle horn with a string, which snaps off after the rider successfully ropes the calf as quickly as possible and then stops the horse to create the tension that ultimately breaks the string.
McCarthy, a child development major, is one of 32 women and 18 men on the university’s rodeo team.
“There is a rich history of rodeo here at Cal Poly that I think a lot of people in the community don’t even know about,” said McCarthy, while Rooster waited in the arena, flicking his ears and training his eyes on the chute. “Our goal is to fix that. I think our story is relevant to where we live.”
In the world of college rodeo, Cal Poly’s team has a powerhouse tradition, akin to the University of Alabama in football and UCLA in basketball.
Cal Poly’s rodeo team has won 45 National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association championships — both team and individual titles — in its storied history dating to 1939. The program has long offered students from ranching families and horse-riding backgrounds a social and athletic outlet.
“I grew up rodeoing in the Lodi area and getting to know people from around the state at competitions,” said Annie Rose Seifert, a Cal Poly rodeo team member and agricultural communications major. “A lot of us now are competing against each other from different schools.”
Even those who haven’t had experience in the sport have sought it out and participated.
“We even offer a class for students, some of whom have never ridden a horse or roped a calf before,” said Ben Londo, the university’s rodeo coach. “They get to play John Wayne for the quarter. It’s life-altering for some of them, and they come away raving about it. One of our students who took that class is now on the team and competes in bull riding.”
Cal Poly is one of six campuses in the West Coast Regional that offer college rodeo. The others are University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Feather River College; West Hills College; Lassen College; and Fresno State.
The West Coast Regional is one of 11 geographic territories that make up the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association, which consists of more than 135 teams. Each region holds its own competition in advance of the national finals.
The teams compete in events such as goat tying, barrel racing, steer wrestling, bull riding and bareback riding.
Started in 1939
Cal Poly participated in its first intercollegiate rodeo on the C Bar G Ranch near Victorville on April 8, 1939, with a team of 15 students. The university captured its first National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association title in 1960 and won it four straight years from 1970 to 1973.
Some of its graduates have gone on to compete on the professional rodeo circuit. Cal Poly hosted its first rodeo in 1951 in front of about 4,000 spectators.
Manfred Sander — who was a Cal Poly rodeo team participant from 1949 to 1953 — said the early days were far less formal and had less support for the team than today.
“We’d get a few steers and go practice roping a bit, but it wasn’t an everyday practice with a rodeo coach like it is now, and we didn’t have the sponsorship support that the team has now,” Sander said.
At that time, Cal Poly was principally an agriculture-centered school, Sander recalled, and the rodeo lifestyle was an extension of the classroom. For some participants, rodeo could lead to job offers within the ag industry.
“We filled the stands,” Sander said. “That could be great if you’re winning and not so great if you didn’t do so well. I had it both ways.”
Nowadays, the university’s arena packs in more than 10,000 fans for big events.
Rodeo team members care for their own horses on campus, waking in the early morning to feed their animals and clean the stalls while also juggling their school schedule.
“It’s like having a part-time job,” McCarthy said, after climbing down from her horse at the conclusion of practice. “Keeping a horse is like having a child that doesn’t live with you. You’re with them daily, and you’re waking up early to feed them and clean their stalls. It’s something I grew up with in Tehachapi. It just becomes a part of your daily routine.”