Each February, La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, commonly known as the Tucson Rodeo, rides into town and stirs up the spirit of the Southwest, lassoing in fans and competitors from all over the country.
Saturday marked Tucson’s 92nd rodeo and began the nine-day festivities with fans arriving clad in rain gear and leather boots, undeterred by the rainy weather.
With clouds looming overhead, it seemed like a day that would chase away spectators, but attendees kept holding tightly onto their ponchos as rain pelted contestants and the Tucson Rodeo Grounds.
Event chairman Jose Calderon said, while he admired the outstanding loyalty of the fans, the rodeo suffered financially from the weather with an attendance he estimated to be at 4,000, in comparison to what he normally sees at about 11,000 spectators.
“We really need this; each day that goes bad, it’s a hit below the belt,” Calderon said, referencing low food and beverage sales. “It’s a big impact because this is a million-dollar rodeo. It takes a million to run this thing.”
With the smell of kettle corn greeting fans at the gates, the rodeo kicked off with Ram Mutton Bustin’, where children ages 4, 5 and 6 put their riding skills to the test, clinging to running sheep for as many seconds as they could muster before crashing to the ground.
RELATED: Rodeo lassos the heart of Tucson
Though no serious injuries happened at the event as a result of the rain, one of the most climactic moments occurred after the downpour, when a large black bull broke loose into the arena.
The bull had been circling the rodeo pen, thrusting at photographers and volunteers outside the ring. The bull then crushed the top of the fence, sending all of those standing close to run. The crowd was enthralled as rodeo clowns worked to distract the bull and riders had to pursue it through the stadium, roping it back into the pen.
Other highlights of the day included the Justin Junior Rodeo, bull riding, team roping, barrel racing and bareback riding.
Chase Hamlin, a 24-year-old bull riding competitor from Holton, Kansas, said he thought it was a good rodeo, despite the unexpected wind and precipitation.
“At home, it’s 75 degrees and sunny and beautiful,” Hamlin said. “I was expecting warm weather when I got here, but today was good. It was just another rodeo, and it’s not so bad if you’re not nervous.”
Another competitor, 20-year-old bareback rider Rio Lee, didn’t let his enthusiasm dampen in Tucson’s rough conditions. He said slippery ropes made the competition more challenging.
“It got real cold and it started raining when I got on my bareback horse,” Lee said. “You have to make sure your stuff stays dry. It’s harder to ride in the rain because your hands don’t stick well, the rains it makes it slick.”
Danya Peterson, 46, came to the rodeo from Southland, Texas, with her two girls and her husband, a horse flanker for the rodeo. Peterson said they braved the rain for a little while, but eventually had to retire to stay dry.
“It was cold, but it was well-[run],” Peterson said. “The hardy ones stayed out there. We stayed out but then called it quits. We thought we were coming out here to defrost, but it didn’t work.”
Michael Reeves, a 62-year-old Phoenix resident, said the rain drove people away when it came down hard, but the rodeo was still welcoming to people of all backgrounds.
“You don’t have to be totally into it to get into it,” Reeves said. “You go and you experience it, and it’s a very family-oriented kind of thing. You will not find nicer people or more spiritual people than cowboys. They’re good people, and normally this is better. Normally the weather is fabulous the whole 10 days.”
Veterinary student Brianne Taylor, 30, from Fort Collins, Colorado, said to not let Saturday fool first-timers and the real rodeo energy would come later in the week, following the rodeo parade.
“People should come back next weekend,” Taylor said. “There’s a change in energy. It’s that last push to do really well.”
The rodeo wrapped up with fans heading home or to the rodeo-hosted Coors Barn Dance, bundled in coats, ponchos and straw hats.
Tucson Rodeo carries its tradition from 1925, according to the rodeo’s website, and the event is headed by the Tucson Rodeo Committee and the Tucson Rodeo Parade Committee, non-profit groups consisting almost entirely of unpaid volunteers.
Tucson’s Rodeo will continue all the way through Sunday, Feb. 26, with one of the biggest highlights, the Tucson Rodeo Parade, beginning at 9 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 23.
Follow Sarah Covey on Twitter.