While kids are kids no matter where you go, ranch kids experience very different lives from their urban and suburban counterparts. On the ranch, kids go to school, of course, and do chores, just like most kids, but those chores might involve riding a horse, caring for animals, and even taking part in annual round-ups.
The Hafenfelds in Weldon, CA—parents Eric and Jamie and kids Gus (14), Charlotte (12), and Ward (9)—are an example of a multi-generational ranch family that works together and also plays together. While the younger members of the family are involved in traditional team sports like basketball and volleyball, they’re also devoted to rodeo. “I would say the baseline for my kids’ love of and success in rodeo is the amount of miles that they get on their butts from cowboying on the ranch. They all work like adults and have lots of responsibility,” says Eric Hafenfeld.
A brief history of rodeo
The sport we know as rodeo today got its start almost 150 years ago when ranch hands and cowboys would compete to see who was the fastest and most proficient at accomplishing their tasks—roping, riding, and handling animals. In the late 1800s, Buffalo Bill’s touring Wild West Show was probably the first to showcase cowboys and their skills in front of large audiences filled with city people, and in the 20th century, rodeo became not only a way to compete with other ranches and cowboys (and cowgirls), but a way to earn substantial prize money. Promoters organized contests in cities all over the East Coast and in Europe as the cowboy became a romanticized symbol of America’s Wild West spirit.
While rodeo’s popularity as a spectator sport has ebbed in favor of professional football, baseball, and basketball, for the ranching world, it’s still a way to promote skill-building, teamwork, and camaraderie and honor the hard work of raising livestock. In Kern County where the Hafenfeld family ranches, junior rodeo is a vital part of the fabric of the community.
The Hafenfelds and some friends started the Kern River Rodeo Association to give local kids from the age of four through their senior year in high school a way to get involved in positive activities that help build their characters. “There’s nothing more beneficial than adversity and the connection with animals for our youth to develop their work ethic and their true beings,” says Hafenfeld. KRRA is a non-profit that organizes rodeo events, brings in professional rodeo riders and ropers to hold workshops and teach skills, and provides prizes and college scholarships.
In addition to ranching skills like horsemanship and animal handling, and life skills like teamwork and problem solving, rodeo offers many intangible benefits. “Overcoming immense adversity,” says Hafenfeld. “Understanding how to win and being able to dig through all of the rigamarole and pressure when you’re backed into a box for a high team run. And going out there and being able to put it down and analyzing what you’re doing wrong, and continuing the spirit and drive to make yourself better. Which is not associated with an electronic device.”
One other thing sets rodeo apart from most kid sports. “The work ethic and big dedication to taking care of animals on a daily basis no matter what the weather’s doing,” says Hafenfeld. “Making sure that their partner in in their event has got everything they need to be successful. They need a blanket on a cold night, and they need a clean bucket of water, and plenty of feed. You have to be able to get home from basketball practice or from a game at nine o’clock and go out there and take care of your animals.”
There’s no carb loading in rodeo.
Good nutrition is important for everyone, but for rodeo kids, the Hafenfelds believe that a protein-dense diet is optimum, especially when it comes from the organic, grass-fed cattle they raise. Rodeo is an all-day event, and carbs just don’t offer enough sustained energy through the day. “They need energy so they’re not tired all day,” says Jamie Hasenfeld. “No carbs in the morning. We don’t go to a junior rodeo on a cinnamon roll. We go on a bacon and egg breakfast.”
The Hafenfeld family has been ranching on the South Fork of the Kern River about 65 miles northeast of Bakersfield since 1867. They’re committed to protecting wildlife, water conservation, and preserving open space on their owned and leased land. Their cattle summer in the mountains at elevations up to 9,200 feet and then winter in the river valley. They’re part of the Panorama Organic family of organic, grass-fed ranchers.
And will the youngest generation continue the tradition? “Well, that’s gonna be their decision,” says Eric Hafenfeld. “If they choose to do that then they will, and nobody’s gonna be forced to do it. But it’s a labor of love and a love of labor.”