Cowtown Rodeo—the longest-running weekly professional rodeo in the United States, held all summer in Woodstown, New Jersey—will not host breakaway ropers for its 2023 summer season, the committee announced April 22, eliminating 17 of the 28 rodeos currently pending WPRA approval for the First Frontier Circuit’s cowgirls.
Cowtown Rodeo first added breakaway roping in the 2022 season, and their 17 sanctioned rodeos helped the First Frontier Circuit boast the highest number of sanctioned WPRA rodeos of any circuit (49) in the country, according to East Coast Roping Director Christi Braudrick, gaining national attention for their championing of women’s progression in the sport.
How it started: Spring 2022
The WPRA agreed to allow Cowtown Rodeo to include breakaway ropers on a one-year, trial basis with $500 added to each of their 17 rodeos—while all other events featured $1,000 added (except team roping, which was $500 a side). They decided to limit the breakaway to 15 entries, chosen by random draw with cardholders maintaining first preference.
How it went: Summer 2022
“Breakaway was the best event they had there last year,” Katie’s husband, PRCA team roper Joey Wenger (East Berlin, Pennsylvania) said. “It went quickly, and the crowd loved it. People went absolutely wild for those girls every show.”
Kelsey King of Honey Brook, Pennsylvania, has long roped in the First Frontier Circuit, first holding her PRCA card to compete in the team roping at ProRodeos, then her WPRA card to breakaway. She won the first Cowtown Rodeo series championship in the breakaway in 2022 after attending every rodeo throughout the summer and finding success alongside husband, PRCA team roper Lavern King.
“Cowtown isn’t our hometown, but it feels like it,” King said. “We get there early and hang out, play games with the Cowtown crew and friends. Shoot, we even celebrated our daughter’s first birthday there. There were little girls coming up to us last year, wanting to pet our horses, ask how they could do what we do. It was such a blessing getting to compete alongside my husband in an event I really care about. I enjoyed team roping in the past at Cowtown, but nothing compared to the feeling I had the first time I backed in the box there to run a calf.”
Of the 17 rodeos in 2022, six filled to 15 in the breakaway roping.
2022 Cowtown Rodeo Breakaway Entries
At the six rodeos that filled the performance, permit cowgirls rarely made the cut. That left the ever-important permit ropers—essential for the growth of the sport—out of one of the only ProRodeos that offer breakaway roping within an easy drive for most of the circuit.
New year, new terms.
When 2023 rolled around, WPRA Roping Director Lynn Smith revisited the trial Cowtown-WPRA agreement.
“I contacted the committee in Cowtown last winter,” Smith said. “I asked if they would consider increasing their limit from 15 to a higher number and when they said no, it went back to the WPRA board. [The WPRA board] decided that they would not approve it in 2023.”
Because of an updated limited-entry policies voted on by the WPRA board in 2023, a rodeo cannot limit entries in any way if it has under $1,000 added money, then a series of rules govern the process for limiting entries.
Members voted Christi Braudrick the WPRA Roping Director to work with seated director, Lynn Smith, in March 2023, helping manage the overwhelming workload of new rodeo committees adding breakaway in droves in the current season.
“After Christi got voted in, we both decided what the best way to split up the workload,” Smith said. “She’s familiar with the Eastern side of the country, she’s rodeoed there and has contacts, so we decided that she would step in for First Frontier, Southeastern, Prairie, Texas, Great Lakes, Badlands areas, and I would take everything West because I’m most comfortable with those rodeos and members.”
Although the committee submitted the paperwork for their series approvals in February, the WPRA board reviewed and denied the proposal in March. Braudrick found it as her first order of business with her new title. She communicated directly with the stock contractor, RJ Griscom. Griscom’s wife, Katy, is the daughter of Grant Harris, the previous owners of Cowtown Rodeo.
“I had to do a ton of research on the situation to make sure I was handling it the best way,” Braudrick said. “We’ve been going back and forth on negotiations for a while now. They let us know that they weren’t budging off the limited-at-15, random-draw format. From there, I would contact him, present suggestions, then wait for him to take it to the Harris family before letting me know.”
Braudrick proposed time limits on breakaway ropers in the box to keep the rodeo moving in exchange for raising the limit on entries and permits, as well as raising the added money to align with the WPRA’s rules.
“Ideally, we prefer no limits on all WPRA events, but understand the challenges committees face, especially in an event that requires stock,” added Kelsey Cox, who handles rodeo approvals and member relations for the WPRA. “Due to that, the WPRA Directors review the limit, past entries, added money, impact on standings, and potential membership numbers to determine what an acceptable limit will be for that rodeo, in order to provide a fair opportunity to our members. Anytime a committee submits a request for a limit that the WPRA does not feel comfortable with, all avenues of compromise are explored with the committee to find something feasible for both parties.”
In 2022, less than 50 rodeos had limited entries in the breakaway—many rodeos like the Cheyenne Frontier Days, the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo and RodeoHouston with their tens of thousands in added money, equaling the payout of the other events.
“We’re trying to get limits off of a lot of those rodeos, and the committees we have worked have been so willing,” Braudrick said. “A lot of places have legitimate reasons behind needing to limit entries—stock contractor can’t bring enough calves, there isn’t room to park trailers in different events, the hospitality crew can’t support any more contestants—there are a slew of reasons a committee could struggle to include breakaway roping.”
Braudrick also pointed out the fact that due to Cowtown’s volume of rodeos—61% of the circuit’s total rodeos with breakaway roping on the books for the year—the impact is too overwhelming to ignore for the members of the FFC.
“I’m having a hard time understanding this one,” Braudrick said. “Just cutting out a lot of your membership with a random draw? It doesn’t make sense.”
The Breakaway Roping Journal has reached out to Griscom and the Harris family for comment, but we’ve yet to receive a response.
Braudrick noted that she’s seen rodeos with legitimate concerns and a need for limits, but Cowtown doesn’t have any of the obvious offenders. There’s no contestant hospitality team for extra bodies to exhaust, the rodeo has ample parking space and consistent access to cattle, so those boxes are checked, as well.
“They mentioned that the breakaway takes too long, so I offered to approve time limits on each roper in the ground rules,” Braudrick said. “The only thing left that I can think of is that they don’t want to have breakaway roping in slack, since they want to wrap up after the performance.”
Cowtown Rodeo by the numbers
- In 2022, 16 of the 17 rodeos had slack in at least one event.
- All breakaway entries (maximum of 15) ran in the performance, while other events started the series with 10 in each timed event in the show.
- After the first rodeo of the season, the maximum number of contestants in each performance went up to 14 in the steer wrestling and tie-down and 12 in the team roping and barrel racing.
- At the sixth rodeo, the committee raised the limit to 14 in the team roping, while the surplus competed in slack.
- Starting with the 12th rodeo of the series on August 20, the barrel racing went from 12 in the performance to two sections of 10.
Why the variance in performance numbers? The rodeo series increases the number of timed events in each performance to increase the length of the performances when roughstock numbers dip off. Bareback riders saw numbers between 1-3 entries, and breakaway ropers outnumbered bronc riders 5:1 at most rodeos, and roughly 3:2 for bull riders.
Where it stands.
“As a competitor, I feel like it’s a step backward for breakaway ropers in that circuit,” Braudrick said. “Cowtown Rodeo wants to have a maximum of 15 breakaway ropers with a random draw, and they’re not budging unless the WPRA Board makes an exception that has not been made for another rodeo in America, and we’re not even sure what the concrete reason behind that 15 number is.”
For the ones ultimately affected by this ruling—the cardholders and permit holders of the FFC, there’s more questions than answers just weeks before their season kicks off.
“We planned our summer schedule around these rodeos, and it’s so close to the season starting,” King said. “I personally convinced girls to buy their permits and haul to jackpots to try to fill them and buy their cards—this is just such a shame.”
Despite the whispers of concern in the region, many FFC contestants across all events are choosing not to comment on the rodeo’s decision.
“It’s sad that so many people are enraged but choosing to stay silent over this over fear of retaliation,” Katie Wenger said. “Anybody from this area knows how much power Cowtown Rodeo has over the circuit, and they’ve never been challenged. It’s an elitist mentality there. They don’t think women draw in the crowds, so they don’t need them.”
The WPRA, for its part, continues to keep an eye on the situation.
“The WPRA Board of Directors understands the impact this has on the First Frontier breakaway circuit count requirement and will be reviewing that shortly,” the WPRA’s Cox wrote via email April 26.
The Breakaway Roping Journal will continue to follow this story as it develops.