“We might be old fashioned and slow to change, but we don’t apologize for that,” says rodeo announcer Justin McKee as an arena full of competitors and fans at the Lazy E Arena’s Timed Event Championship remove their hats and bow their heads for a moment of prayer.
An outlier in the world of professional athletics, rodeo is one of the few sports that regularly acknowledges faith through prayer and, in events that fall on Sundays, cowboy church.
Susie McEntire-Eaton—of the storied rodeo and singing family—has been leading the TEC’s Cowboy Church for 30 years. The service will take place tomorrow, March 5, at 8:30 a.m. in the arena. With nearly 600 attendees, all that space is needed.
“It’s a wonderful gathering,” says Susie. “There will be singing and path-affirming testimony. Trevor Brazile and some of the other contestants have agreed to share their stories.”
In addition to chatting with Susie, we had the opportunity to sit down with her husband, Mark (whom she performs and leads cowboy church with), and her mother, Jacqueline, the matriarch of the McEntire family. They shared their views on faith, cowboy church, and its role in rodeo and the Timed Event Championship.
For Mark and Susie, some of the most impactful characteristics of cowboy church are its accessibility and relatability. Cowboy ministers tend to live the words they preach, and intimately understand the lessons they teach.
“The pastor may not have an education in theology,” says Mark, “but he has callouses on his hands.”
Adds Susie, “And a lot of time, he’ll go day work at a local ranch or go rope with the guys from the congregation. Our farmers and ranchers depend on God—for their rain, for their crops, for their animals, and for their family’s well-being. Those are the people who are in the stands here, and that’s why we still have prayer at rodeo.”
At the Timed Event Championship, the agricultural and ranching community is certainly well-represented, by both fans and competitors. Says Mark, “Most of the people at this event have a multi-generational connection to ranching. They are deeply connected to the cowboy lifestyle.”
The TEC is a favorite event of the McEntires; after all, Susie comes from a proud tradition of timed eventers. Both her grandfather and father were world champion steer ropers.
“The competition here is absolutely unpredictable,” says Jacqueline. “And those boys try so hard. If they get fouled, they just get up and run to the other end and make a go of it. There’s a lot at stake.”
While Susie loves watching the fierce competition and incredible talent at the TEC, it’s also the sense of community that keeps her returning year after year. She says, “The competition is great, but one of the best things about the Timed Event Championship is something that’s missing in a lot of other events today—it’s a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of competition, so you have the wife, kids, uncles, aunts, the whole family coming and people getting to know each other.”
It forges the type of connection and friendship that harkens back to another era of rodeo. Susie reminisces about her childhood on the rodeo road, where entire families would travel together and stay in the local motel. She says that because there was no TV or air conditioning in the rooms, all the families would congregate in the motel lobby.
“It really became a family,” she says. “The old rodeo guys will know what I’m talking about. The Timed Event is a return to that. Here, I get to sit around a table and visit, reuniting with friends, year after year.”
Jacqueline chimes in to share a story that perfectly sums up the community. Even though the experience she’s recounting is from decades ago, the attitude and values that were present then can be seen and felt every day at the Timed Event Championship, where the Cowboy Way is alive and well.
Says Jacqueline, “Susie’s daddy rodeoed for 30 years, and I noticed something happening at each rodeo we went to. We’d finish up at one rodeo then move on to the next one down the road. And when we got there, everyone would gather around the arena to see what they drew, and then they’d all go around and shake hands, like they hadn’t seen each other in months, even though they’d just seen one another at the last rodeo. But they were always glad to see each other again.”
Faith, family, and friendship.
As Jacqueline says, “That’s where it’s at.”