July 9, 2014

Not horsing around: Rodeo is serious business for Presley

In a lifetime spent around the rodeo, Dalton native Travis Presley has seen it from just about every angle — as a spectator, a competitor, a showman, an equipment and livestock supplier and an organizer. An owner of Outlaw Rodeo Company for the past seven years, he makes his living in dusty arenas where the half-show, half-competition carries on a tradition borne out of cowboys showing off their skills in a more relaxed setting than their work on the trail or ranch.

That variety of perspectives certainly hasn’t hurt the 48-year-old Presley, who in addition to running his own rodeo business also leases bleachers for rodeos and other events and entertains as a rodeo clown alongside his trick horse, “Sparky,” at events he’s not running. Overseeing more than 20 rodeos annually — he tries to add a couple to his schedule ever year — he sees the road more than his homes in the Carpet Capital or Pigeon Forge, Tenn., but he has made a career of something he loves.

“The way I tell people is, I get paid to travel and see the country,” said Presley, whose work has taken him as far west as Louisiana, as far north as Michigan and all over the Southeast. “You don’t get rich … but that’s all you can ask for.”

Presley grew up on a farm and was always around horses, and his father Ralph was a bull rider who also supplied stock for rodeos. It might have seemed a natural progression for Presley to gravitate toward the rodeo, but he was 14 before he first competed. He shot past slightly more tame activities like roping or steer wrestling and went straight to the event even some rodeo competitors consider a little too far out of the saddle — bull riding.

He took third place at his first rodeo, and he was hooked on the thrill of trying to tame a thousand-pound beast, even if it was just for eight seconds. That led him to junior competition and participation in the Georgia High School Rodeo Association (GHSRA), where he was the state bull riding champion his freshman through junior seasons at Northwest Whitfield High School.

Hindsight has given Presley the chance to consider just how daring his deeds were, but at the time it was simply pure bliss — and he still reflects on those days fondly, if with a little curiosity at his own boldness.

“Now I look back and think, ‘How did I ever do that?’” Presley recalled. “But it’s the greatest emotional high you’ll ever have. It’s just great, the feeling of it, the adrenaline rush, I guess.”

Presley still remembers what it felt like in those final moments before the gate swung open for a bull ride.

“Your heart’s pumping and beating,” he said. “It’s one of the great highs you just can’t get nowhere else.”

But in experiencing the rodeo from so many angles, Presley has had to endure a few views that even the most daring of cowboys would rather avoid.

In 1985, shortly after he graduated early from Northwest following the winter quarter of his senior year, Presley suffered a serious rodeo injury for the first time. Although he was primarily a bull rider, he took part in other events for the all-around points competition in the GHSRA, and when a bareback bronc tossed him in the air and then kicked him in the face, fracturing his skull, a hospital stay and two-week long coma followed.

Two months later he was back on the horse — literally — as well as the bull, finishing second in his prime event at the GHSRA finals. Had he not been injured, he might have very well added a fourth state title to his collection.

Just the same, it was an impressive and quick comeback. Although it’s not uncommon now to see bull riders wear protective helmets with facemasks, Presley’s injury came in the days when a Stetson was the only headgear a cowboy sported. To protect his skull until it was fully healed, Presley donned a motorcycle helmet he had modified with a football facemask.

But Presley’s best protection might have been his natural skill. A standout wrestler during his days at North Whitfield Middle School and Northwest Whitfield High School, his time on the mat had taught him the angles; just as he understood how to react quickly to shift his weight and counteract an opponent’s moves, he could do the same with a bull.

There was something else that rodeo and wrestling had in common that Presley enjoyed.

“It’s just you,” he said. “You can’t blame nobody but yourself.”

Presley wasn’t big, wrestling at 105 pounds from his seventh-grade year with the Pioneers to his senior season for the Bruins, but he had championship technique when he dropped onto a bull’s back. Still, it only takes one bad move to twist the trajectory of a rodeo career, and he had already been given a primer on the risks of the competition arena when the bronc tossed him.

“Nobody wants to get hurt,” he said, “but everybody knows if you’re riding bulls, you’re going to get hurt eventually. It just ended my career earlier than I really wanted it.”

Presley had offers to compete in both rodeo and wrestling in college, but he opted for a professional rodeo career instead. Still wearing his helmet, he rode a light schedule but continued competing throughout 1985 and into 1986 before being medically cleared to ditch the helmet in 1987. His schedule filled out and he went “really hard” in his bid to make a life as a bull rider.

Then a bull nearly took his life.

Yanked down by the bull, Presley’s head met the beast’s, busting his sinuses and the roof of his mouth and shattering his skull.

“It took them eight hours to wire it back together,” he recalled. “You can still feel the wires in my skull.”

To put it crudely, the bull had rearranged Presley’s face.

“My nose,” he said, “was up under my left eye.”

But that dark moment was a testament to the family that rodeo had become for Presley. The two fellow bull riders he traveled the circuit with stuck with him at the hospital, even helping clean blood from his face when they deemed the nurses neglectful.

On medical advice, Presley closed the book on his rodeo competition days. Sort of. Years later, while performing as a rodeo clown, he was talked into a mini comeback by an organizer who was short of bull riders for the weekend. He rode a few more times after that but eventually threw away his gear so he could unequivocally say no — for good.

But before he found his way to clowning, Presley took a job at the Dixie Stampede, a Wild West Show-themed dinner theater in Pigeon Forge. It was more than half a year after his bull riding accident, and Presley would work there for the next two years, learning about roaming riding (standing on the backs of horses as they galloped around the arena), training trick horses and clowning. (It’s worth noting that in rodeo parlance, a clown is the featured performer who entertains the crowd, while bull fighters  — although sometimes wearing clown garb — have the all-important job of distracting bulls in the time between the end of the ride and their corralling.)

Presley returned to the rodeo world when he began touring as a clown, and in 1989 he bought a set of bleachers and got into the business of leasing them for events. Over time, he bought more and at one point had 70 sets, a number he has knocked down to 30.

In the same way his bleacher business grew, Presley slowly added to his rodeo skills, eventually starting Outlaw Rodeo Company with Daryl Matthews of Athens, Tenn. When Matthews decided to get out of the business four years ago, Presley became the sole owner. Although he doesn’t own bulls — he goes to a stock furnisher for them — his company is basically a rodeo in a box. You just have to add the cowboys and cowgirls, something that happens almost every other weekend for Presley, who runs seven to eight pro rodeos a year, with the rest high school or junior events.

“I’ve got calves, steers, horses, arenas, bleachers,” he said. “I can go out in the middle of a field and put on a rodeo as long as I’ve got portable lights.”

Rodeo weeks are busy times when he operates on a few hours of sleep each night — Wednesday and Thursday are setup days, Friday and Saturday are competition nights and Sunday is for tearing down and packing up — but a good team has made all the difference for Presley, who said they’re often complimented for their organization skills and the tightly-run show they put on.

That’s something Presley credits to his years of experience and seeing the rodeo from all sides. He figures people get antsy at the movies after a couple of hours, so he aims to wrap things up within two hours and 15 minutes.

Business has been steady, but that’s not the only reason he likes what he does.

“I enjoy the people,” he said. “Over the years, you get to see your rodeo family.”

While he’s done riding bulls, rodeo is still a thrill for Presley, and he tries to make that true for those who attend his events. To those who have never taken in a rodeo — and those who have — he promises they’ll see something unexpected when they come to the arena.

“It’s live entertainment,” Presley said. “It ain’t like a picture show. Anything can happen. Things will happen that are funny ...

“It’s life. There ain’t nothing better.”‘

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