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Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo celebrates 31 years

For 31 years the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo has shone a spotlight on Black cowboys and cowgirls. The rodeo was the brainchild of Lucious “Lu” Agustus Vason after he attended the Cheyenne Frontier Days, the Granddaddy of Rodeos. Vason thought the rodeo was entertaining but lacked Black cowgirls and cowboys.

 Blacks have always served as cowhands and horse wranglers. From Wyoming to Texas, Black cowboys became known for their ability to ride horses, specifically the roughest broncos that White cowboys would not touch. As a result, Wild West rodeos would cast Black cowboys. As the sport began to pick up steam and audiences grew, organized rodeo associations were formed.

In 1947 through a group of wealthy Black businessmen, prominent East Texas ranchers, and a handful of Black cowboys the Negro Cowboy’s Rodeo Association was born. It was the country’s first and only organized Black Cowboy association and produced its own rodeos across the west.

The association has long since dissolved and today’s Black cowboys are scattered across the United States with Texas being the hub for Black cowboys and girls. However, on any given weekend from February to November, within a 60-mile radius of Houston three to five rodeos are sponsored by one of six predominately Black Cowboy Rodeo Associations. Although they are integrated, membership remains 80 to 90 percent Black.

In 1984 Vason created the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. It is the only African American touring rodeo in the United States and throughout the world. It has traveled to more than 33 cities across the United States and has touched countless people.

Sadly, Vason passed away earlier this year.

His wife, Valeria Howard-Vason, is carrying on the rodeo and Vason’s legacy.

My husband was a genius when he created this,” said Howard-Vason who is serving as acting CEO for the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. “The rodeo was instrumental to the community and to young African Americans. I feel blessed to continue his legacy. My husband was committed to telling the story of Blacks in the West and our rich contributions to rodeo while creating a platform and legacy that will thrive as we move forward.”

The rodeo supports education and awareness for youth in various ways including the Bill Pickett Memorial Scholarship Fund, a non-profit that provides scholarships to Black high school and college students involved or interested in pursuing careers in rodeo or animal science. The scholarship is awarded based on academic standing, student need, determination, community involvement and professional recommendations.

Rodeo of Kidz Sake is a special performance for elementary and middle school aged children that allow them to interact with and be educated by some of the nation’s top cowboys and cowgirls.

The rodeo is a great thing and it teaches kids that there are things out there that they can do and get scholarships and make careers out of,” said Clairton resident Woodie Ford who brought a busload of Pittsburghers to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo. “The event itself is fun and entertaining and I will definitely come to it again.”

There are five areas of competition during the rodeo:

1. Bulldogging requires a cowboy riding on horseback, starting behind a barrier, the cowboy begins his chase after the steer has been given a head start, the steer wrestler is assisted by a hazer (another cowboy on horseback) tasked with keeping the cow running in a straight line. When the bulldogger’s horse pulls even with the steer he eases down the right side of the horse and reaches for the steer’s horns. After grasping the horns, the bulldogger digs his heels into the dirt. As the steer slows, the cowboy turns the animal, lifts up on its right horn and pushes down with his left hand in an effort to tip the steer over.

After the catch, the steer wrestler must either bring the steer to a stop or change the direction of the animal’s body before he throws the steer down or he is disqualified. The clock stops when the steer is on his side with all four feet pointing in the same direction.

Black cowboy Bill Pickett who was born in 1870 five years after the Civil War ended and slaves were emancipated invented the art of bulldogging. Pickett became interested in horses, cattle and dogs by the time he was 16. If it had not been for those dogs, Pickett may not have become the famous bit ‘em style bull dogger his legacy suggests. Catch dogs went after its prey’s head while heel dogs attacked a critters heels. Cowboys used these dogs because it was almost impossible to catch cows due to the thick brush that encompassed Pickett’s hometown.

2. Bare back riding is a single, handheld, eight-second ride that starts with the cowboy’s feet held in a position over the break of the horse’s shoulders until the horse’s front feet touch the ground first and jump out of the chute. The rider earns points by maintaining upper body control while moving his feet in a toes-turned-out rhythmic motion in time with the horse’s bucking action.

As the rider and bronco come out the chute, the rider must have both spurs touching the horse’s shoulders until the horse’s feet hit the ground after the pair initially comes out off the chute. If the cowboy fails to do this he is disqualified. As the bronco bucks, the rider pulls his knees up, rolling his spurs up the horse’s shoulders. As the horse descends, the cowboy straightens his legs, returning his spurs over the point of the horse’s shoulders in anticipation of the next jump.

3. Tie down roping got its start on the ranches in the Old West as sick and injured calves were roped and tied down for medical treatment. Nowadays, things are a bit different. After the calf is given a head start, the horse and rider begin to chase it. The cowboy ropes the calf then dismounts and runs to the animal. After the calf is caught, the cowboy ties three of the animal’s legs together using a string he carries in his teeth until he needs it. When he finishes his tie down he throws his hands up to signal the judge.

4. Cowgirls get to strut their stuff in the ring too thanks to the ladies steer undercoating and ladies barrel racing.

The female version of Steer Wrestling, instead of dismounting the horse and pulling the cow to the ground, the cowgirl has to gallop alongside the steer and remove a ribbon that is attached to its neck.

The event starts with the cowgirl in a starting box secured behind a rope barrier. She gives a signal that she is ready and the steer is released into the arena giving it a head start. When the steer reaches its advantage point the cowgirl races out after the steer. A brightly colored ribbon is attached to the cow’s neck and the cowgirl must ride alongside the cow, lean down and remove the ribbon. As soon as she has the ribbon she sits up to signal her victory to the judge. Steer Undercoating is one of the fastest events in the rodeo with winning times often being 2-3 seconds.

In ladies barrel racing the cowgirl and her horse enter the ring at full speed. Horse and rider trigger an electronic eye that starts the clock. The rider rides a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels positioned within the arena, and sprints back out of the arena, stopping the clock as she leaves. The contestant can touch or even move the barrels, but receives a five-second penalty for each barrel that is overturned.

5. Upper body control and strong legs are essential for the sport of bull riding. The rider tries to remain forward at all times. Leaning back could cause him to be whipped forward when the bull bucks. Judges watch for good body position, use of the free arm and spurring action, which will add points to a rider’s score. Part of the score is determined by the cowboy’s performance and the other half is based on what the cow does.

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