The world champion cowboy steps out of his trailer into the shifting shadows and adjusts his silver belt buckle. Justin Thigpen had been wearing a pink polo shirt and white cargo shorts all day, but now the Waycross native is in rodeo attire: blue-and-pink checkered buttoned-down shirt, blue jeans, brown boots and cowboy hat.
“It was better in those shorts,” Thigpen says as he unties Rascal and Bucky, two of his quarter horses.
He mounts Rascal and leads both horses through the parking lot up a hill into the glare of the setting sun. He passes the entrance where spectators are filling in for the final night of the International Professional Rodeo Association’s stop at the Cumming Fairgrounds on Sunday, and a young boy with his mom and dad stops and stares at Thigpen.
“Hey buddy, how are you?” Thigpen says.
“Good,” the boy says, smiling bashfully.
“How cool,” the boy’s dad says as the family walks toward the arena.
Thigpen smiles. He’s well-rested, much more than he was the night before after he finished his third rodeo in two days. On Friday night he was in Ocala, Fla., a four-hour drive from Waycross. He drove the nine hours from Ocala to Cherokee, N.C., to make a rodeo Saturday morning, sleeping barely an hour before competing, then drove three hours to make another rodeo in Loganville that night.
Now he was in Cumming, his fourth rodeo in three days, because that’s what it takes to win 16 championships, to be the three-time-defending IPRA all-around champion, to make a living as a cowboy these days in a sport pulled out of the country’s pioneer past.
“It’s not for the weak of heart,” Thigpen says.
Thigpen leads the horses past the barn where he gave them a bath earlier in the day to a grassy hill behind the arena. Nearby two young girls play on an ATV. A young boy in an oversized cowboy hat bounces around riding an invisible bronco. Thigpen and the other cowboys trot their horses in circles, the silhouette of a small church steeple in the background.
The rodeo announcer begins the opening ceremonies with a booming introduction for the American flag followed by an extended prayer. Thigpen dismounts Rascal and stretches, crouching down, then standing, repeatedly swinging his legs out one at a time. He wipes sweat from his brow and spits. The rodeo clown walks up.
“How ya been?” the clown says.
“Good,” Thigpen says, “how ‘bout you?”
“Famous Amos over here,” the clown says.
“I don’t know about tonight,” Thigpen says. “Not with my draw.”
“You’ll usually turn a bucket of muck into ice cream,” the clown says.
On this night, Thigpen isn’t optimistic about his chances. When he paid his entry fee of $280, he learned which calves he’d get in the steer wrestling, calf-roping and team-roping events. Each one is numbered, and each one’s history in recent competitions is cataloged. In those results were clues of what Thigpen was in for.
No. 38, his calf for steer wrestling, had been caught twice, a good sign. “That means he’s familiar with us catching him and tying him and all,” Thigpen said.
No. 19, his calf for calf-roping, had not. Nos. 11 and 14, his calves for team-roping, had no info. Thigpen had spent some of his downtime calling other competitors for intel on the cattle. Like a football coach, he needed a scouting report.
“Some cows run faster than others,” Thigpen says. “Some might run a little to the left or a little to the right. You just try to get you a game plan on what they might run.”
But as the national anthem plays, Thigpen is not thinking of that. He doesn’t believe in dwelling on his game plan. Instead, he sways with his eyes closed and head bowed. He holds his cowboy hat over his heart and continues praying. Right before the anthem ends, Thigpen finishes, opens his eyes and puts his cowboy hat on.
“Well, it’s time,” Thigpen says.
This is all Thigpen has ever known. His dad was a bull rider. His mom was a barrel racer. Thigpen was on tour with them from the time was in diapers. It was natural that he wanted to learn the sport himself, so he competed in junior rodeos as soon as he could. He continued into high school, showing enough promise to earn a full-ride scholarship to Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton.
After Thigpen graduated, he joined the pro circuit, jumping in with a group of veteran cowboys who showed him the ropes. That first year he focused on calf-roping and was one of 15 to qualify for the IPRA finals. Though he finished toward the bottom, getting there was enough.
“Just to make it was a feat in itself,” Thigpen says.
Soon Thigpen wanted more. He started to compete in the steer wrestling and team-roping events to make the most of the travel and maximize his chances for money. He learned it took competing year-round from Oklahoma to Ontario and everywhere in between to make it to the top. There was an art to scheduling rodeos, he found — which ones to return to and which ones to avoid. Thigpen likes Cumming’s rodeo. The money’s pretty good. The crowd’s big. The arena has a roof. The cowboys get stalls for their horses and generators for their trailers.
Eventually, Thigpen started to win, and win a lot, and he started to make money. A good weekend of rodeoing can bring in $5,000.
“I’ve been blessed,” Thigpen says. “Very, very blessed.”
Thigpen’s night started out lucrative, but not as much as he hoped. By the time Thigpen entered the box on Bucky for the steer wrestling, the time to beat was 4.6 seconds. Bucky was restless, so Thigpen spun him once to settle him down.
Thigpen pulled his cowboy hat down over his ears, nodded, and the gate opened. The calf sprinted out. Thigpen and Bucky chased it down. They caught up to the calf, and Thigpen leaped off Bucky and on to the calf’s head. He grabbed the calf’s nose, pinned it to the ground and flipped the calf on to its back. The clock kept ticking until all four of the calf’s legs came off the ground.
The radio announcer drew out the announcement of Thigpen’s time.
Thigpen was content. Sure, he’d missed a chance for a win. His fall could’ve been cleaner, he said, and when he flipped the calf it turned on to its side for a split second instead of straight to its back. That was the difference between first and second place.
“I dropped the ball a little bit,” Thigpen says.
But second place still earned money. Even more, the winner had used Bucky, meaning Thigpen would get a 25 percent cut of his purse.
“If I can’t win, I’d rather one of them win, you know,” Thigpen says.
Thigpen atoned for the close call in the calf-roping. He entered the box on Rascal knowing he had to beat 9.1 seconds. Thigpen bit his pigging string, the one he’d use to tie the calf's legs, in his mouth. He swung his catching rope a few times, then moved Rascal into position.
Thigpen nodded, and in a blink he caught the calf with his rope and flew off Rascal. Thigpen knew this calf would test him. The calf had a trick; it sprayed its legs out when cowboys went to tie it. Thigpen knelt on the calf and put extra pressure on its legs as he whipped his pigging string around and around.
Thigpen made a knot and threw up his hands.
The announcer paused.
These were the situations that kept Thigpen practicing four hours a day four days a week in between rodeos.
“If you ain’t prepared and on your toes right there, that one makes you look stupid,” Thigpen says.
The night ended with a thud. Thigpen didn’t place in the money in the team-roping. Neither of his partners could tie down the calves’ heels. When Thigpen returns to the trailer, he’s drenched in sweat and breathing heavy. “Just didn’t happen tonight,” Thigpen says.
It’s 9:30 p.m., and people are starting to leave the arena. Thigpen will leave soon too. He and his partner, Payton Caudill, will pack up the horses and the feed and the tack and they’ll drive through the night back to Waycross with almost $5,000 in earnings from the weekend.
Thigpen is 35, and it’s getting harder and harder to leave home. Most cowboys get burned out by the travel. Thigpen recently went a stretch of four weeks without setting foot in Georgia. His wife, Laura, and two sons, Trent and Slade, spent most of it with him, and that made it bearable, but they eventually headed for home after a stop in Tennessee to get ready for the new school year. Thigpen had another rodeo.
“When you’re not with them, it’s long,” Thigpen says.
When the toll of the all-night drives and the non-stopness of this life hits, Thigpen turns to his dad. The former bull rider knows how to keep his son mentally locked in.
“I’ll be like, ‘I’m ready to come home,’” Thigpen says. “And he’ll be like, ‘Alright, I’ll sign you up at the union next week.’ … He’s the driving force behind me for sure.”
Thigpen has started to put other ventures in place for that day when his body can’t rodeo any longer. He trains horses for both rodeos and the general public. He’s a stock contractor that provides cattle for rodeos. He also produces rodeos in the Waycross area. His first ones begin later this month.
On Thursday, the slog continues. He’ll fly to Canada for a rodeo, continuing the push until November when the run of championship events will begin. He’s in for more late nights and more crisscrossing.
But Thigpen will push on. It’s the cowboy way.
“At the end of the year they give one gold buckle away to a champion,” Thigpen says. “They don’t give everybody a trophy.”