Young people embrace the ranching lifestyle. It’s known as the ‘Yellowstone’ effect

dfwnewsa | February 2, 2024 | 1 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Young people embrace the ranching lifestyle. It’s known as the ‘Yellowstone’ effect

A Tarleton State University student and member of the school’s ranch horse team attempts to land a lassoed rope around the neck of a cow during Bridles & Brains at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo on Jan. 31, 2024, at W.R. Watt Arena. (Matthew Sgroi | Fort Worth Report)
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Riley Pirkle mounted her sorrel-colored horse and stood at the gates of a fence inside Fort Worth’s W.R. Watt Arena.

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“Let’s go, girl,” the North Central Texas College freshman whispered to her horse, Cat, before they bounded into the pen with a rope in hand and a lasso made.

Alongside a whip and a snap of the wrist, Pirkle attempted to land the lassoed rope around a cow’s neck. Passersby think of the showing as just another event in the rodeo. 

She and the 39 other students competing at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo’s Bridles & Brains this past week think of it instead as a job interview. During the third year of what’s branded as the competition for collegiate ranch horse teams, students competing couldn’t be anymore ranch-crazy. 

“We call it the ‘Yellowstone’ wave of popularity,” said West Texas A&M University ranch horse team coach Lance Baker. “You’ve got all these things in pop culture for younger people to latch onto. … The industry is absolutely growing.”

So is Bridles & Brains, said Patti Colbert, a Texas Cowboy Hall of Famer, who helped found the event in 2022 and has produced it ever since. 

In the competition’s first year, six colleges competed. Just two years later, 10 different schools bussed a team to the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo.

10 colleges competed in 2024’s Brides & Brains:

Clarendon College, Clarendon

Lamar Community College, Lamar, Colorado

Laramie County Community College, Cheyenne, Wyoming

North Central Texas College, Gainesville

Tarleton State University, Stephenville

Texas A&M University, College Station

Texas A&M University Commerce, Commerce

Texas Tech University, Lubbock

University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas

West Texas A&M University, Canyon

“We want to be the Rose Bowl,” Colbert said. “For Fort Worth and for the stock show, we want to build this event for these colleges that have these programs to be a focal point for their year of competition.”

About 200 people sat inside the 1,100-seat W.R. Watt Arena on day one of the competition, when Pirkle and her peers competed in roping and penning events. Eventually, Colbert wants to see all 1,100 seats filled.

“We really believe this can grow into something where you see school banners and fans cheering,” Colbert said. “Just like other sports.”

Scattered throughout the arena were a few fans, or parents, dressed in Texas Tech University red and black. A few sported Tarleton State University purple.

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There were also a few in the stands with laptops, notebooks and scrap pieces of paper. Colbert said these few were “recruiters.”

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“A lot of these students are entering the job market and better start finding out what they want to do,” Colbert said.

A lot of them have plans to work on a ranch or in a related industry. Most of these students have grown up in the ranching world their whole lives, she said. 

Pirkle, she said, is one of the few who didn’t. She grew up in Waco.

“My dad’s an attorney; my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I just had this desire to take a riding lesson,” Pirkle said. “That was their biggest mistake and their best mistake ever.”

This competition has truly helped open her eyes to the industry, she said. 

“This may be my favorite show I’ve ever showed at,” Pirkle said. 

She finds equine reproduction fascinating, though, and is considering the veterinarian route.

For others who competed, like Clarendon College’s Rye Reynolds, who won the competition’s most valuable player award, and Texas Tech’s Conner Cowdrey and teammates, ranching has been a part of their lives since they could speak. 

That’s part of the reason Texas Tech earned the title of 2024’s Bridles & Brains champion. Cowdrey won first place in ranch penning.

Tech’s team also won first place in the team speech portion of the competition and second place in the event’s media interview.

In this industry, you’ve got to know how to communicate, Colbert said. The practice emphasizes that, she said, and teaches them how to articulate their place on a team and, ultimately, a ranch.

“It’s so important to be able to communicate and know how to look people in the eye,” Colbert said. “If you’re successful, someone’s going to want to talk to you. So, they have to get that in their head.”

Alongside a ranch hand’s technical ability, that’s what a lot of “recruiters” are looking for, she said. 

“They have to work as a team,” coach Baker said. “This teaches them to think about others other than themselves.”

The students are all for it, he said.

“Ranch horse has given these students an opportunity to be recruited,” Baker said. “And, it’s gone crazy.”

While Pirkle may be working on horses instead of riding them in her future, her passion for this industry will always be there.

“Anyone is accepted. Anyone is welcome,” Pirkle said. “It’s a sense of community where the youth are really accepted by the adults, industry leaders and professionals. It’s really cool.”

Pirkle wasn’t born into this lifestyle. She first rode a pony at 11 years old. But, the “Yellowstone” effect has taken her by storm. The world of ranching is open to her — if she so chooses.

Matthew Sgroi is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at matthew.sgroi@fortworthreport.org or @MatthewSgroi1 on X, formerly known as Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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