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A chorus of horse nickers and whinnies erupts from the side of County Road 504 where double-wide trailers maneuver for a space in the gravel parking lot across from Blue Ridge High School.  

Ford F-250s and SUVs are pulled to a stop in a grassy pasture, some straddling the edge of the road. Diesel fumes mix with the earthy smell of manure cut with the occasional whiff of cologne as a clean-cut cowboy hops out of a truck. A group of slim-hipped girls in bedazzled tank tops and boot-hugging Levis make their way down the road, chatting and flipping their long hair.

Rural rodeos have long been a staple of small towns. The procession of people moves more quickly to the call of the announcer’s drawl. Families balancing trays of nachos settle shoulder-to-shoulder into the hot metal bleachers of the rodeo arena. The national anthem blares through a loudspeaker and hats are lowered over the chest. Then whoops and hollers commence as the first horse bucks through the gate followed by a cowboy swinging a rope.

 But this year’s 56th annual Blue Ridge Rodeo held last weekend seems a world away as the rest of Texas roils in a recent surge of COVID-19 deaths, even forcing some counties to move in refrigerated morgues.

“I’m a little nervous about this,“ Ricky Simms, 61, a lifetime resident of Blue Ridge who pulls horse trailers, said earlier last week in the days leading up to the rodeo. “We look forward to the rodeo every year, but we’ve never had to deal with anything like this (a pandemic).”

Contestants and fans hailing from Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and from throughout Texas filed into the remodeled Blue Ridge Riding Club arena Friday and Saturday nights. Crowds swelled to more than 1,000 on closing night, doubling the population of the tiny town in the northeast corner of Collin County.

While Gov. Greg Abbott’s most recent executive order shut down bars and prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people, most rodeo goers didn’t seem to mind getting too close, shaking hands and slapping shoulders to greet friends. Some carried Trump/Pence signs as if to favor political rhetoric that often labels the effects of the virus as “overblown.” The defiance of the state’s efforts to control the rapidly spreading pandemic seemed evident.

Only one tall lone gray-haired cowboy could be seen at Saturday’s Blue Ridge rodeo wearing a pale yellow mask over his nose and mouth, shaded under a Stetson hat.

The governor’s recent orders require Texans living in counties with more than 20 coronavirus cases to wear face coverings over the nose and mouth while in a building or outdoor public spaces when social distancing is not feasible. 

In his orders, the governor also allowed for local officials to rule in individual cases. 

“I asked (Collin County) Judge (Chris) Hill about whether we needed to wear masks and he said he thought it was a good idea,” Simms said. “But he stepped around it. He never said we had to.”

Hill, along with Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner and his wife, were in attendance at the rodeo along with a county commissioner and other local representative. They were cheered as the announcer made their presence known.

“If it weren’t for these leaders right here in our county, this rodeo wouldn’t have been possible,” the announcer said, prompting more applause. 

The spread of the coronavirus has been slower in rural communities than larger cities. In Blue Ridge, nine of 11 people with the virus have recovered with two active cases remaining, according to a website updated daily with numbers from the Texas Department of State Health Services. In Collin County, 74 new cases of the virus were recorded in data released Sunday, bringing the total of active cases to 864. Of the 4,533 total cases, 56 have died and 215 remain hospitalized with a bed capacity of 2,702, according to the website. By comparison, Dallas County has recorded 32,626 cases and 449 deaths related to COVID-19.

Beyond Blue Ridge and throughout the nation, some rodeos on the Cowboys Professional Rodeo Association circuit have been forced to cancel because of the pandemic but some have kept their schedules, hoping for the best. The Parker County Sheriff’s Posse Frontier Days and PRCA Rodeo in Weatherford drew criticism and risked being shut down last week when photos of large maskless crowds appeared on Instagram and Facebook.

A disclaimer at the entrance in the rodeo just west of Fort Worth stated that patrons are entering the venue at their own risk and that the facility is not responsible for the spread of infectious diseases. 

In Collin County, the Blue Ridge Riding Club and Rodeo didn’t miss a beat during its weekend run of barrel racing, calf roping, and mutton-busting for children as young as 3 years old who  competed for cash prizes in United Professional Rodeo Association (UPRA) competitions. 

Ginger Duke, a member of the Dynamite Dames, a national trick-riding team of women, traveled from Georgia to perform for the second year at Blue Ridge. For the 18 years that she has been performing she is usually booked for rodeos every weekend from March through September.  The Blue Ridge rodeo is her first performance venue of the year as many others across the nation have been canceled because of the pandemic, she said.

This time, Duke brought Dollar and Kitty Kat, two former wild mustangs that she trained to ride while performing backflips. Two more of the six-person team — Rose and Kayla —  joined her at the Blue Ridge rodeo. Three other team members who live in the Northeast were not able to join them this time. 

Talk to any rodeo performer or fan and they’ll tell you that being around horses and a cheering crowd of onlookers is like being with family. There’s just something about the strength and courage and resilience it takes to mount a bucking horse and get right back up when you fall to try all over again.

‘I’m excited to be back in Texas,” said Duke, 38, who says she has made friends at every venue she performs. Duke, a University of North Texas radio television and film graduate, said she started trick riding as a way to meet other girls while growing up in Granbury. 

“Horses teach us a lot about ourselves and I’ve met a lot of friends along the way,” said Ginger, who has survived a near-death fall while training a horse. “I hope I can be a role model for all the young people I meet on the road.” After standing atop a running horse and waving at the crowds, she and the other girls on the team meet with fans and sign autographs. 

Royal beauties wearing sashes hold court with rodeo goers in between competitions. The traditional rodeo parade had to be pared back this year but excitement hung in the air as cowboys and cowgirls carrying flags raced atop horses around the dirt arena. Taking a stretch across the rodeo grounds, daring fans make their ways to the sidelines where they test their endurance atop a mechanical bull.

Scores and rankings are called out over the loudspeaker. Young cowgirls and cowboys pose with big belt buckles they won for their hard work. The tired and sweaty horses are walked back to their trailers, past a sign stating the animals have to show papers that they had been tested for Coggins, a potentially fatal blood-borne infectious viral disease.

The sky is painted with long strokes of a red setting sun and stars begin to dot the dark country sky as the announcer invites everyone to the traditional big dance following the Saturday night event and a Sunday worship service the next day. 

“It’s been six years since I’ve been to the rodeo and man did I sit there and relive over 35 years of memories,” one fan wrote on Facebook after attending the Saturday night rodeo. “We raised our three daughters in that arena and started our grand babies there.  Lots of laughs and a few tears tonight.  Great job guys.”

Annette Nevins

Annette Bernhard Nevins is a Plano-based award-winning journalist who specializes in breaking news and features. She has held staff positions at several Texas newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News,...