A rodeo association created by military members for military members is making it possible for those who serve to compete in the sport despite the challenges of military life. The Professional Armed Forces Rodeo Association (PAFRA) was formed in 2000 by three Air Force Master Sergeants and a retired Army Sergeant Major who shared a dream: to create a rodeo association that would offer servicemembers, veterans, and their families the high standards and community found in the military.
Eighteen years later, PAFRA is doing just that, while making it possible for military members and their families to continue rodeoing regardless of whether they’re stationed in the U.S. or overseas. Thanks to a unique partnership between PAFRA and several other rodeo associations, PAFRA members can compete in other associations’ competitions without having to be members of those associations.
“That’s those associations saying thank you to our men and women who serve and just being good rodeo partners,” says PAFRA president James Hastings.
Because military members frequently work on weekends and get deployed, their opportunities to compete in rodeos are limited.
“It is tough in this day and age to wear a uniform and a cowboy hat, with any consistency on that cowboy hat,” says Hastings.
That challenge prompted PAFRA to open their year-end championship rodeo to every PAFRA member, rather than having members qualify at rodeos throughout the year.
“That’s the advantage to us—we’re able to compete [at the PAFRA championships] equally despite all the hurdles we have to go over to get to rodeos,” says Hastings.
The PAFRA Championship Rodeo always begins with an opening ceremony that honors both the competitors and the servicemembers who are unable to attend. All the athletes enter the arena wearing the official PAFRA R.E.D. (Remember Everyone Deployed) shirt as a symbol of the their unity, as well as an acknowledgment of all the servicemembers currently deployed. Once the contestants are lined up in the arena, the Fort Riley Commanding General’s Mounted Color Guard performs the flag ceremony, representing the American Flag and the flags for each branch of the Armed Forces.
The pride and reverence in the arena are palpable as the Fallen Warrior Memorial Prayer begins. All non-mounted participants stand at attention and remove their headgear as a riderless horse is led into the arena fully tacked up, with a flag draped across the saddle and boots turned backwards in the stirrups. The competitors take a knee as the announcer describes how the riderless horse symbolizes those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving their country. The ceremony concludes with the National Anthem, during which the competitors stand and salute.
“We honor all those who went before us. [The opening ceremony] is to recognize the ones riding and competing today but we put a big emphasis on those who went before us,” says Hastings.
Although the contestants are there to compete for championship titles, the atmosphere of the rodeo is far from cutthroat.
“When we’re all together [at the PAFRA Championships], it’s like the coolest family reunion you’ve ever been to. People who literally only see each other once a year, you’d think that they live next door to each other!” says Hastings.
Contestants swap gear, horses, and encouragement throughout the event.
“The barrel racer in the number one spot will be cheering just as loud for every girl that runs as she expects to be cheered for,” Hastings says. “Everybody is happy for each other and I think it really sets us apart. The brotherhood and the sisterhood of being warriors really changes the tone— it’s genuine.”
This camaraderie isn’t limited to the Championship. PAFRA members pitch in to help each other in any way they can, whether that means lending their equipment, hauling horses cross-country, or buying hay for a member who has fallen on hard times.
“I think one of the coolest benefits of being a member of PAFRA is things that we do internally for each other,” says Hastings. “We watch out for each other, we check in on each other on a regular basis.”
Military life means frequent moves, deployments, and hectic work schedules that can make it nearly impossible to compete in rodeo, even recreationally. A membership in the Professional Armed Forces Rodeo Association not only makes it possible for military members and their families to continue competing in the sport they love, but provides a support group that will be there for them regardless of where they’re stationed.
“We do everything we can to help facilitate folks being able to rodeo,” says Hastings. “We are absolutely here to help out our military, veterans, and their families.”