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“My heart is in agriculture”: Cal Poly Women’s Rodeo team represents Central Coast at nationals

Cal Poly SLO rodeo team
Gabriela Fernandez
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Cal Poly SLO's womens rodeo team practices for nationals in their stadium

While most people are barely waking up at 6a.m., Cal Poly San Luis Obispo's rodeo team is ready for practice. The team holds 45 national titles, and this summer the women’s team won third in the nation making it one of the most competitive collegiate rodeo programs in the country.

The aroma of manure is in the air, as rows of stadium seats encase a crisp, dirt floor. The team is practicing breakaway roping.

“I have been riding horses since I was way, way little,” Gracely Speth said. She’s a grad student at Cal Poly SLO and has fond memories of her early days in the sport.

Cal Poly SLO
Gabriela Fernandez
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Cal Poly SLO women's rodeo team practicing for nationals

“I think my dad had me in one of those baby packs when I was about 18 months old on a horse,” Speth said. She grew up on a ranch in Bozeman, Montana, so this sport is deeply meaningful to her and her family.

“I grew up doing it. My heart is in agriculture and in horses. There's nothing better than having a horse as a companion,” Speth said. Her specialty for the Cal Poly team is breakaway roping.

She said there is a whole history to it. Back in the old days and even today, ranchers rope their cattle and tie their legs together. Originally it was meant to provide medical attention to cattle.

Now at rodeos, the technique is timed, and the goal is to rope in the cattle quickly all while riding your horse.

Ben Londo is Cal Poly SLO’s rodeo coach.

“The dedication that these student athletes show is pretty amazing,” Londo said. He’s been with the team for almost a decade.

“Cal Poly's always been known for having really strong teams. Especially [the] women's team this year,” Londo said.

This year, the team made it to nationals yet again. They competed in a variety of events, including breakaway roping, goat tying, and barrel racing. The men's team competed in events like saddle bronc riding, bareback riding, and team roping.

zoe's animal sanctuary
Gabriela Fernandez
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Zoe Rosenberg giving a tour of her animal sanctuary.

The competition took place in Casper, Wyoming this summer. Other colleges from California’s Central Coast, including Cuesta College and Allan Hancock College, competed to make it to nationals this year, but Cal Poly SLO was the team to make it.

“The team did absolutely amazing. Our women's team ended up third in the nation. It was a tight race, the girls did an outstanding job,” Londo said.

But, not everyone feels positively about the sport. Throughout the years, Cal Poly’s rodeo team has faced protestors. Local animal rights activist Zoe Rosenberg, who founded Happy Hen Animal Sanctuary in San Luis Obispo, said she sees the sport as inhumane and violent.

“I see it as violence because what's happening to these animals, it's just cruelty. There's nothing entertaining about it, there’s nothing impressive about it,” Rosenberg said.

Some places in California have even banned rodeo, but in a statement from Cal Poly SLO, a university spokesperson wrote that their rodeo program follows the guidelines from the Professional Cowboys Association when it comes to the welfare of livestock. The association’s website lists dozens of rules and regulations ensuring the proper care and treatment of the animals.

ben londo rodeo coach
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo
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Ben Londo leading practice at Cal Poly SLO's rodeo stadium.

Gracely Speth said protestors don’t understand the sport. “We love these animals so much that we would never hurt them. That goes for everything. That goes for horses. It goes for cattle, goes for bucking horses, and bucking bulls," Speth said.

She said they have a team chant they say at the beginning of each practice. “It's called ‘The Trail’ and one of those lines in the trail is we are Cal Poly Mustangs, and we respect and care for each other and our animals,” Speth said.

She said her team has so much pride in what they do.

Speth graduated this year from Cal Poly with a masters degree in Agriculture. In her final year of school, she placed sixth in the nation for breakaway roping.

Gabriela Fernandez is a general assignment reporter at KCBX News. She graduated from Sacramento State with a BA in Political Science. During her senior year, she interned at CapRadio in their podcast department, and later worked for them as an Associate Producer on the TahoeLand podcast.