Beginning Friday, Nov. 6 and lasting through the weekend, scores of bull riders, ropers, cowboys and cowgirls will gather in the mountains to try their stuff at the Southern Rodeo Association‘s Finals Competition at the WNC Agricultural Center in Fletcher.
The SRA, the “South’s oldest rodeo association,” according to its website, has grown since its inception in 1954 to attract competitors of all ages and backgrounds — from as as far away as Canada, Florida and Oklahoma — becoming the largest rodeo promoter east of the Mississippi while aiming to preserve the cowboy heritage of the rural Southeast in a rapidly changing world.
Among this year’s competitors, striving for top marks in a dizzying number of categories (bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding, calf roping, steer wrestling, ream roping, barrel racing and breakaway roping), is Taylor Earnhardt Putnam, daughter of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt and a rapidly rising star in the professional rodeo world.
Putnam comes into this weekend’s Finals competition as the leading “All Around Cowgirl,” having scored more points in multiple categories than her competitors, in addition to being ranked fourth overall in barrel racing and ninth in breakaway roping. True to her family legacy, she has established herself as a top competitor in her chosen sport, translating her heritage of winning and love for speed from the asphalt to the cow-pen.
Putnam says her love of horses and rodeo life stems from a childhood spent “checking cows, riding horses and hunting” with her father on the family farm. “We did just about anything outdoors you could think of,” says the down-to-earth 26 year old. “It kind of naturally evolved: The more I grew up, the more I liked riding horses, and I found out, ‘Hey, I can run competitively and do this [for a living].'”
Despite a busy schedule that keeps her away from home much of the time, Putnam is never too far from her husband — fellow rodeo competitor Brandon Putnam — and family. “[My husband and I] travel everywhere together,” she reports. “I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t have him behind me, because he’s the most supportive person there is and keeps pushing me to do better.”
Her mother, adds Putnam, has also played a large role in keeping her going. “Mom has always been extremely supportive of everything and helped me along the way and getting me to where I am so I can be successful.”
Family plays a large role in her work outside the rodeo circuit as well: Putnam is active in the Dale Earnhardt Foundation, which helps facilitate youth programs, education initiatives and wildlife conservation programs across the nation through grants and scholarship awards.
This includes working extensively with the Girl Scouts of America to help young women experience the outdoors. “I was never a girl scout because I never had time to do it,” Putnam says, “[but] I enjoyed doing a lot of the stuff girl scouts do” as a child, something she wants other young girls to experience.
While she regrets not having more time to work on Foundation projects, Putnam relishes the time she does get to spend at events as a speaker and participant. “We’ve got a lot of things going on,” she notes. “To see the impact that we can have and the lives we can change — I really enjoy it.”
Down and dirty
When she decided to enter the rodeo circuit in 2002, Putnam says her family’s notoriety enabled her to get a foot in the door. “Everybody knows who Dale Earnhardt is, and the rodeo world overlaps a whole lot with the same kind of fans and following that NASCAR has,” she reports. But while her heritage may have gotten her started, Putnam has carved out her own identity through her skills and dedication. “No one in my family with my name has rodeoed, so I was able to get in the door with who I am, but then prove to folks who I actually am as a person through my work.”
The rodeo also helped her to cope with the passing of her father in 2001, she adds. “I came into it right after my dad passed, and it gave me a way to get some energy out and really do something productive.” She describes the rodeo community as “a big family: Everybody knows everybody, everyone helps each other out.”
Putnam began her career in barrel racing — in which horse and rider weave a cloverleaf pattern around a series of barrels, striving for the fastest time — in the junior rodeo. She currently ranks fourth overall in that category, which she says she was drawn to because of the intricacies involved: “The fine-tuning, the drills, the work you have to put in to make those minute money-winning runs every weekend — I love everything about it.”
But after several years, she says she “needed something to change [the routine] up,” and began competing in breakaway roping as well. The event combines hand-eye coordination with horsemanship: A calf is released into the pen and given a head start; the mounted rider must catch up and lasso the calf, pull the horse to a stop and break the rope between calf and rider in the shortest amount of time to win. Putnam currently ranks ninth overall in this category.
Becoming a rodeo star means spending a lot of time on the road. Putnam describes a nonstop schedule of rodeo competitions across the country in her efforts to climb the national rankings: “We compete in anywhere from two to three rodeos per weekend during the fall, winter and spring,” she says. “Then during the summer, we call it our ‘cowboy Christmas run,’ because we’re literally running across the United States back and forth [like Santa Claus], hitting a rodeo almost every single day.” She adds that it’s hard to keep track of all the different events she’s participated in over the past year. I’ve got it written down somewhere, but off the top of my head, I have no idea.”
While one has to have “a good mindset” to keep up such a challenging pace, Putnam says she loves every second of it and has learned a great deal from her experiences in the rodeo world. “To be able to take care of [the animals] everyday really instills a respect in anybody,” she says. “The physical toll it takes on you, the emotional toll it takes to travel and take care and be responsible for another life form — you learn so much responsibility and respect in this lifestyle.”
And she is adamant that women are just as capable of handling such an ardous daily routine as their male counterparts. “We have as much ability to do everything the guys do. I know girl bull riders, girl bronc riders,” she says proudly. “I can rope right there with the guys and have no problem saying it.”
Eye on the prize
Putnam enters this weekend’s competition with a single focus: “My main goal this year and for the Finals is to win all-around.” She currently sits atop the SRA rankings, making her mission pretty straight-forward. Her familiarity with Asheville’s pen, where she competed in last year’s finals as well as during her junior rodeo days, also lends her an advantage, she notes.
Putnam hopes that her notoriety and success will help inspire the next generation of boys and girls to try their stuff. “I see a lot of my friends that go [to the rodeo] — they take their children with them, and those children end up doing junior rodeo. I think more kids should have to do it; maybe we wouldn’t have all the craziness in the world kids have to face today.”
And teaching others about the realities of rodeo life can help dispel common misconceptions outsiders might have about the sport. “It’s not what everybody says, as far as being cruel to the animals,” Putnam proclaims. “Trust me: Those animals live and breathe better than I do. My horse eats before I do every meal of the day.”
Most importantly, she wants to give back to the community that has given her so much love and support and help keep the legacy of the rodeo alive and well into the future. “It’s a way of life that has unfortunately died out a whole lot, but it’s really enjoyable,” she says. “All of the contestants and the fans in stands get to see something that they might not get to see everyday. That’s why I love it.”
The Southern Rodeo Association Finals begin Friday, Nov. 6 at 8 p.m. and run through Sunday, Nov. 8 at the WNC Agricultural Center, 1301 Fanning Bridge Road, Fletcher. Tickets for a single day are $15 for adults, $5 for children; weekend passes are $36 and can be purchased online at wncagcenter.org.