HOUSTON - It’s rodeo time in Houston as bronco and bull riders, ropers and barrel racers compete for prizes in one of the biggest such events in the world.

For city kids, it’s a chance to see animals up close. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which began in 1932, offers kids from farms and ranches a chance to show off animals they have raised.

One of the most popular events is the Calf Scramble, in which boys and girls aged 14 to 18 who are members of 4-H or FFA, two youth-oriented agricultural organizations, try to catch a calf and pull it into a designated area.

Each calf weighs over 200 pounds (90 kilograms), and the animals seem to enjoy the game as much as the humans as they try to outmaneuver their would-be captors. But on a typical night, at least a few kids manage to drag their calves over the finish line.

Proper halter use

One of the challenges of capturing a calf is properly using the rope halter given to each contestant. It consists of a rope with two loops; one is fixed and is designed to fit over the animal’s snout, and the other can be pulled tight once it is over the animal’s ears. After that is done, a contestant can simply pull the loose end of rope and guide the calf to the winner’s circle.

Calf Scramble committee member Mike Diezi provides training for the participants before each show, showing them how to fit the loop over the calf’s head with the slipknot at the bottom.

“If you do that, it will always be put on correctly, with the loop pointing down,” he tells them.

Sam Houston Trail Riders ride toward Spring Creek
Sam Houston Trail Riders ride toward Spring Creek Park in Tomball, Texas, Feb. 23, 2016. More than 3,000 riders from 13 trail rides converged a few days later in Houston as part of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

But once the youths are out in the arena, chasing calves across the thick-dirt floor, it can be difficult to remember which end is which. Sometimes just grabbing the animal can be a challenge, and many times the calves slip away, leaving contestants flat in the dirt.

Contestants who fail to grab the front end of the animal often end up grabbing the tail. This usually results in the animal dragging them across the floor, to the delight of the audience.

Competing for cash

At each of this year’s 20 rodeo shows, 30 kids are chosen to compete — not just for fun, but for a $2,000 certificate they can use to buy a steer or heifer they can then raise and bring back to the livestock show next year. If the animal wins a prize, they gain even more funds, which some of them use to build their own herds.

That is what attracted Hanna Lisenbe, 17, who lives on a small farm near Cleburne, south of Fort Worth, Texas. She has raised smaller animals like goats and pigs, since her family does not own cattle.

“We don’t really have the money to dive into the cattle business on our own,” she said, “and I thought the Calf Scramble would be a great way to get in there and give me the opportunity to have my own cattle.”

Urban, suburban competitors

Most of the contestants live on ranches and farms, but Diezi says many urban and suburban kids also take part.

“A lot of the school districts now have school farms,” he said. “If you live in a suburb and you don’t have property to raise an animal, you have this opportunity still to raise a steer or heifer that you can bring back to show.”

Alexa Vazquez, 15, who lives in a Houston suburb, won a previous Calf Scramble and now cares for an animal she keeps at the Fort Bend County School Farm.

“I am going to be raising a heifer, which I have never done before, and I am actually pretty excited,”she said.

This suburban teen’s interest in working with farm animals was influenced by her mother, who grew up on a ranch in Mexico. Vazquez said she could imagine herself in such a setting but is more inclined to become a veterinarian.

Diezi told VOA that there is a large educational component to the rodeo and that kids who learn how to raise a large farm animal also develop a work ethic and learn skills that will help them succeed in all walks of life. He said they are also encouraged to come back and volunteer at the rodeo and to help others in general, giving back to society in appreciation for the help they have received.

Cows vs. humans

For many kids who have grown up herding cattle, riding horses and working long hours in all kinds of weather, ranch life is the only life.

“I would not choose anything else. I could not live in the city,” said Bryson Bassinger, 17. “I would rather have cows than people around me.”

Bassinger, who lives on a ranch near Sanger, Texas, not far from the Oklahoma border, says cows are sensitive animals who show personality and moods. He hopes to build his own herd and establish a ranch somewhere farther west, where he will be even farther away from urban areas.

Through competitions like the Calf Scramble and scholarships, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo helps prepare the farmers and ranchers of the future. In the past 60 years, the show has awarded 16,000 scholarships.