Roundup up an old-time tradition
Except for the muffled sound of horses' hooves galloping, there is little noise coming from the new calf-roping arena nestled in the hills three miles northwest of Tonganoxie.
But soon that changes.
Twilight often brings cowboys, cowgirls and their trailers of horses to Bakers' Arena, 22625 George Rd. Tonight is no different.
As Jodee Baker sets up for the evening's practice, she fine-tunes the stereo so that country western music beats from the loudspeakers. Riding a horse nearby, her husband, Guy, steers two dozen longhorn calves down a fenced alley to a holding pen near the chute where they later will be released one at a time to make a mad dash toward the other end of the arena.
Travis McGraw, 26, already has given his horse a warmup. Holding the reins in his hands, McGraw stands in the arena, leaning on the metal fence as he talks to a visitor. McGraw has been roping calves since he was 17.
The success of team roping depends on the horse, McGraw said.
"It's all in their hearts," he said.
He looks over his shoulder at Spider, an 8-year-old quarter horse he has owned for three years.
"This horse here has more heart than any horse I've seen in my life," McGraw said. "He's got a heart the size of Texas."
Baker agreed that team roping takes a lot of heart from both the horse and rider. It's a die-hard sport, she said.
"You either love it or you hate it," Baker said.
No stranger to horseback riding, Baker said she started young.
"When I was six, my dad came home with a horse and put me on it," Baker said.
"I had to feed her and if she got loose, I had to chase."
The Bakers, who are from Piper, moved in 1992 to rural Tonganoxie. Jodee Baker works as a wallpaper hanger and her husband, Guy, works at Arm-Dat, a tank wash for truck drivers at 18th and Central in Kansas City, Kan.
A few years ago, they built an arena so Guy could practice team roping at home.
That worked out so well that last year the couple decided to build a permanent arena with metal fencing so they could hold events of their own.
"We called our family and friends, and they came out to help put it up," Baker said.
By March the arena was finished. Area businesses, as well as family and friends, have shown enthusiasm for their project, evidenced by seven billboards from area businesses that line the arena.
The arena's main events are team roping practice sessions and competitions. Riders pay a fee to participate in practice sessions and events. Baker explained that team roping events are limited to 15 teams.
Each team consists of a header and a heeler, both on horseback. The header tries to rope the calves' head or horns, Baker said. If and when that is done, the heeler's goal is to rope the heels.
Quick-witted cows make the game more difficult.
"It hinders the heelers and headers when the cows get wise," Baker said. "But it's a challenge. Each cow is different."
Running the arena takes up most of their spare time, Baker said.
"It's a lot of work, and definitely not an 8-to-5 job," Baker said.
"You've got cows to take care of, horses to take care of. You've got to make sure the people are all having a good time and nobody gets hurt."
Ropers come with varying degrees of skill level, she said.
"We have had city people who have never been on a horse and want to try," Baker said. "And there are some who say, 'I have a horse and I can ride.' But you're on a horse that's moving and you're trying to rope something that's moving. It's not easy."
The business started out small last spring, and is growing, she said.
"At first, we were having to call everybody we knew and they were calling others just to have 15 teams to ride," Baker said. "Now we're booked up two weeks in advance."
The Bakers' arena is not alone in the area. Travis and Angela McGraw have built an arena near their home at 21775 207th St., and Brian and Julie Stoner are building one about one mile north of Leavenworth County Road 8, near 195th Street.
Although construction of more arenas hints at a growing popularity of the sport, Baker noted that team roping events are relatively unheard of by the general population.
"Most people don't know they exist," she said, then paused, looked across the arena where horses hooves were kicking up clouds of dust in the early evening air.
She added quietly, "But the cowboys do."