In an agricultural hotspot like Kern County, Bakersfield and college rodeo should go together like Tuscaloosa and college football, or Chapel Hill and college basketball — or so you'd think.
Until last year, though, the city had no way to keep its avid barrel racers and calf ropers in town past high school. Enter the Bakersfield College rodeo club, which competed in the West Coast Region of the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association for its first season in 2021-22.
“A lot of students, if they want to go to college, they go to Cal Poly, or Fresno, or up north, or up across the state,” said Andrea Prise, a BC adjunct in agriculture and the rodeo team’s coach. “The community that Bakersfield has is very rooted in the rodeo and the Western way of life … That’s what I’m working on building, is giving younger people a reason to stick around.”
In year one, that meant retaining a small but determined three-woman team through onerous paperwork, travel, expenses and competition, over the course of a long September-to-May season.
“I think it was worth it,” said Daisy Contreras, who came to the team from a background in Mexican-style rodeo, “because I got to experience different rodeo arenas, different people, different horses and I also got to experience the American (rodeo) culture.”
Prise had competed in equestrian when she was a student at Fresno State and remembered seeing the school’s rodeo team in action then. When she circled back to BC years later she was surprised to find that the school hadn’t fielded a team in recent memory — “It’s not like we don’t have the students or the interest in it,” she remembers thinking.
Around the same time, Jaida Melton — an incoming BC freshman from Bakersfield who had competed in rodeos since she was 12 — and her family had started wondering about the same thing. Melton, Prise and Contreras came together, along with eventual club President Cloey Griffiths, a veteran of the Tehachapi Mountain Rodeo Association’s junior rodeos and the California High School Rodeo Association District 9, who had originally been planning to attend another school far from her hometown of Tehachapi but “completely switched directions” to BC. The team had a couple additional competitors to start, including Marlyn Alcala Rodarte, who plans to return this year, but spent much of the season with just those three.
“I honestly loved it,” Griffiths said. “Because going from a really big district through high school, it had a lot of drama, and I was kind of over it after being there since eighth grade. It was really nice to just have my own group.”
The new team found itself immediately competing against the top programs of the region, including community colleges like Feather River, Lassen and West Hills Coalinga that sponsor rodeo as a full-fledged sport. NIRA women's events include barrel racing (riding a horse around a series of barrels as fast as possible), breakaway roping (lassoing a calf), team roping and goat tying.
“It was really a cool experience to see all these other teams and see how they compete,” said Griffiths, whose dream is to join the Indian National Finals Rodeo one day. “Completely different from high school rodeo, just the level that these other competitors are at is insane. It’s almost like you’re competing with the pros.”
BC did not have a home venue (something Prise is working on for fall 2023 — “I had paper ready to be signed but I know that’s not how it goes”) and the group journeyed to far-flung locations like Quincy and Susanville for competition. Participants had to supply their own horses and equipment and pay out of pocket for lodgings.
“I can’t just say that anybody who goes to school can join,” Prise said, “so that, it limits who I can ask if they’re interested in it. But then that’s also kind of the beauty about BC. I have the opportunity to pull students that might not have done it on their own. If they do have horses, they might not rodeo.”
Logistical challenges have made fundraising a priority for the team, now entering its second season, which will feature 10 rodeos total between two weekends in the fall and five in the spring. Prise applied for an NIRA grant that could go to a practice facility, and the group is trying to get the word out to facilitate donations, sponsorships and a possible online auction, Melton said.
Even without many of these benefits, however, BC survived its first season.
“It wasn’t until the second-to-last rodeo at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo that I was able to kind of sit back and look and say, ‘We did it. We got that first year done,’” Prise said. “And it was tear-worthy.”
Now, Prise says, the team is looking to become a permanent fixture, having already seen a substantial increase in interest at its early meetings this summer. The team could feature some men this year, which would allow it to compete in more events.
“I think it’ll be honestly a lot more fun to have boys and girls in the group,” Melton said. “The guys can help the girls out and vice versa.”
As Griffiths points out, more people means more chances to get points, so that BC can move up in the NIRA standings.
“I would be thrilled just to see our team hanging with the rest of the top guys,” Prise said. “We have 10 different colleges in this region. If we can get in (the) top five, I would be happy.”
Contreras, who is moving on to Fresno State from BC, said she hopes to continue with rodeo. She initially had to adjust to a different style of handling competing at BC: “American rodeo’s more fast-paced and quick, it’s all about timing, and the Hispanic one is more about technique.” But she’s going to stick with it.
“You know, your first time you do something, you’re nervous,” she said. “But BC kind of helped me take those nerves away and just rodeo.”