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How to Make it as a Modern-Day Cowboy

"With everything that changes and everything that goes on in the world, I still throw a chunk of leather on a bronc and have to go ride it."

by Sophie Saint Thomas
30 March 2015, 5:15am

All photos courtesy of Parker Flannery

Lately, I can't help but think that all the single men in New York should stop playing the city's dating game: leave all text messages unanswered, toss out their pretty-boy cologne, and pack up their bags. The sexier thing to do is to skip town and become cowboys.

For a city-dweller like myself, the word "cowboy" invokes images of vintage Clint Eastwood, racist football mascots, or lavish rodeo competitions. Although the sport's governing body, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) isn't shy about latching onto the term "cowboy," I learned there's a distinct separation between professional rodeo athletes and the grittier version who actually herd and tend to ranch animals (often in addition to competing in their own, local rodeos). It turns out the latter exists, but in an era of cowboy boots on the Chanel runway, they're much harder to find. Curious about making it as a cowboy in 2015 and the extreme lifestyle that comes with it, I spoke to modern-day cowboy Parker Flannery about the difference between real and arena cowboys, breaking colts, and the relationship problems that arise when you drop off the grid for six weeks at a time.

VICE: So what's the difference between a "real" cowboy and a rodeo cowboy?
Parker Flannery: We call them arena cowboys. Or "straw hats." Arena cowboys are obviously rodeo guys, and a lot of time you'll find that they're not actually cowboys at all. They're all like welders and electricians and stuff. They pick one [rodeo] sport and get good at it. But most of the bull riders probably can't ride a horse and a lot of the bronc riders can't even string a fence. They're the guys who show up, drive to the arena, and put on their cowboy hat for an hour. Then there's guys out west who a couple of times a year get together to compete at their local rodeo, and the rest of the time they're breaking horses, doctoring cows, and running fence.

And you do both, right?
I spent a lot of time in the Southwest. After going to A&M [Texas A&M University], I was down on, well, it's not a huge ranch, but 4,000 acres, I was breaking wild horses. The government does a thing called the Trainer Incentive Program where they're running mustangs that have been caught. And you've gotta break 'em. And then I went to Australia and I've been working down there on a 10,000 acre, 3,000 head a year cattle ranch. And I raised 80 horses a year.

Are there issues of respect between the rodeo guys who swoop in for the weekends and those who live the lifestyle you do?
They're two worlds. It's so separate. For working cowboys, you don't brag about how hard you work but you make sure you outwork everyone else. For arena cowboys, when you're rodeoing and stuff, you don't want to have to get a job. Because if you get a job then you're no good at what you do. The mentality's a bit different. And now with rodeo the guys are starting to turn into more athletes. And for myself, I'm only 26 now. I've been going to [physical therapy] trying to get my hips opened up just from old injuries already. When I'm working, shit, we just ride. I break a lot of colts every year that smash you up. At the end of the day you get drunk, go to bed, wake up, and do it all over again.

So what's a typical day like? What did you do today?
I'm back in the States now. I got back about a week ago. Right now all I'm doing is rodeo. So today I went with my friend Rudy to buy a truck and then I got some physical work done on my legs—I'm having a really hard time turning one of my toes out because my leg's messed up. I've got physical work the rest of the week and then I drive down to Tennessee over Easter for a rodeo. Then I'm going out to Texas to hit the circuit out there for the rest of the summer.

What made you leave the States for Australia?
I was breaking colts in North Carolina. I was just over it. The job kept getting worse and the pay never got better, so I said fuck this and went to Australia. I always wanted to go. A friend knew a guy who had a big ranch down here. He got me a start for two or three months and I ended up staying for three years. I just got my permanent residency to live there. But after three years, I got out of my contract with that ranch and now I'm a horse breaker. Guys in Australia will call me and say I've got 40 horses for you to do or 30 horses for you to do and I'll just take the 40 or 50 horses and then go onto the next place.

When do you think you're happiest: doing the rodeo or the "real" cowboy work?
I've got to have a balance. There comes a point when you're working really hard all the time, just bone-breaking stuff out in the middle of a pasture somewhere. It kind of gets annoying because you work hard every day and then you have some sort of crazy 90-point bronc ride where the horse turns inside out. On the other side, you go to rodeos and you're constantly surrounded by people, you don't get that isolation. I've got to have both.

How much of the year are you traveling?
Pretty much all of it. I spend no more than a couple of months in any one place. And then I come back here to rodeo. I'll hit the circuit in two weeks and I'll be in a different town every week.

Does your work tie into the broader history of cowboys?
Absolutely. The coolest thing of my entire job is that with everything that changes and everything that goes on in the world, I still throw a chunk of leather on a bronc and have to go ride it. Nothing's changed. People did it the exact same way that I do. The blindfold is the same. The saddle's the same, bucking rope is the same. You just got to step on and do it. No matter what else in the world changes, it's like it was 200 years ago. It's fantastic.

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