The Oakdale Rodeo Brings Cowboy Culture Into Center Stage
The first thing you need to know about the Oakdale Rodeo is that it’s a tradition.
For more than 63 years, the annual contest put on by the Oakdale Saddle Club has pitted cowboys against bulls, broncos and the clock in an adrenaline-fueled contest of true grit. But long before the first buckle was awarded in the annual Oakdale contest, cowboying—including contests to show off the horse-breaking, steer-roping and bull-riding skills of experienced ranch hands—was a way of life in this small Central Valley town.
The second thing you need to know is that even after a lifetime of practice, every ride at the rodeo is a new chance. Each time a cowboy straps himself to a bull, it’s with the knowledge that the next eight seconds could change his life forever.
The Cowboy Capital of the World
For a large part of its 142-year history, Oakdale has been known as the Cowboy Capital of the World. Though just 90 odd miles east of San Francisco, Oakdale feels like it’s a world apart from the metropolis. This town of around 18,000 is still the kind of place where you hear the jangle of spurs on the street, where football and baseball can’t compete with roping as the hobby of choice among the middle school set.
Since 1954, the annual Oakdale Rodeo has been a fixture of the cowboy scene and an essential contest in the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) Rodeo season. The Oakdale Rodeo was the first outdoor rodeo in the Western US and today is one of the largest yearly traditions of the PRCA circuit.
Each year on the second weekend in April, the Oakdale Rodeo brings scores of cowboys and girls flocking to an outdoor contest including everything from bull riding to barrel racing to steer wrestling. Contestants and spectators flock from across town and across the country for this storied two-day celebration of cowboy culture. Activities include a parade, an adults-only dance and plenty of family-friendly goings-on. According to spokesperson Kevin Fox, “Rain or shine, the rodeo is going to happen and you’re guaranteed to have a bucking good time!”
Fox added that the Oakdale Rodeo—which is scheduled for April 13 and 14 this year—is always made even more exciting because of its unpredictability. “Guys like Trevor Brazil—who is one of the most famous names in team roping—can come to the Oakdale Rodeo fresh off of winning a world title and get beaten by a local kid. You just never know from year to year who will end up winning that big buckle.”
The Oakdale Rodeo is typically the first in the rodeo season and as such is often the place where local amateurs step into the spotlight for the first time. This rodeo is often the first nationally televised proving ground for local kids who have cowboying coursing through their veins. “The reality is that a lot of these up and coming kids come from a lineage where their fathers and grandfathers names are on that trophy,” said Fox.
That’s why the Oakdale Rodeo draws the crowds and why it has become legendary in the rodeo world. Spectators come to the Oakdale contest expecting upsets, and the kind of local upstarts who go from unknown to legends in one 8-second ride.
When compared to more polished, ready-for-television sports like baseball and basketball, rodeo may see decidedly rough. And honestly, it is. Especially for competitors.
From boggy rides in the middle of a downpour—which can wreck a contestant’s season by adding precious seconds to his or her overall time—to gored and trampled cowboys, no one can predict just what a day at the rodeo may have in store. “From ride to ride and rodeo to rodeo, everything changes every time you get in that saddle,” said Fox.
“In football you can sit on the bench all season with an injury and you’re still going to collect a paycheck,” said Fox. “In rodeo, you don’t get paid unless you win. You can break your collarbone and if you don’t get back on that bull at the next rodeo, you’re not going to have the money to finish your year.”
Working through the pain and getting back into the saddle has become such a rodeo tradition that it’s spawned its own popular idiom: Cowboy Up. In the parking lot at Oakdale’s H-B Saloon, every dusty truck seems to bear a sticker proclaiming this slogan.
“Rodeo is an adrenaline sport and contestants tend to be born into it,” added Fox. “If you don’t cowboy up and get through it, you’re not going to last long in the points and you’re not going to make the big show at the WNFR (Wrangler National Finals Rodeo).”
And here at the Oakdale Rodeo, that’s what it’s all about.
The buckle, the big show and strapping yourself to the back of an angry, 2,000 pound bull for a chance at glory.
The Oakdale Rodeo kicks off at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 13 in Oakdale. For more information and tickets to the event, visit OakdaleRodeo.com.