This month, National Geographic interviewed Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist John Branch on his new book, The Last Cowboys.

Who are the “last cowboys”? The Wright family of Mesa, Utah – a seventh-generation cattle ranching family. Branch first approached the Wright family for a New York Times article, but became so fascinated with their way of life that he kept coming back until he had enough material for a full book.

Resilient and unafraid of hard work, one hopes the Wright family aren’t really the last cowboys. Read Branch’s description of what it takes to be a professional rodeo cowboy:

The Wright brothers, led by Cody, are among the best saddle bronc riders going these days. Five brothers are professional rodeo cowboys and now three of Cody’s sons have become professional rodeo cowboys, too. A brother-in-law is a saddle bronc rider, as well. They were recently at a rodeo where nine of the contestants were Wrights. [laughs]

The key is Cody, the oldest brother, who became one of the best in the world. Part of it is just fearlessness. I’ve been around these animals and they are big and mean and do whatever they can to throw you off. So rodeo requires not only talent and fearlessness, but also the willingness to go through the grind of hundreds of rodeos. They’re putting 100,000 miles on their trucks to go to these rodeos and there’s no guarantee that they’re going to get any money out of them. I’ve seen them drive hundreds of miles to a rodeo, hoping to stay on for eight seconds, and walk away with zero dollars.

Some of them may win a $1,000 prize or even $10,000 or $20,000. Cody won a $100,000 grand prize a few years ago in Calgary. They’re chasing to become one of the top 15 earners for the season. If you’re in the top 15, you get invited to what they call the National Finals Rodeo, which is like their world championship. It’s over 10 nights in Las Vegas and you can make $200,000 or $300,000 if you’re hot. But unless you’re really good, and can get some consistency in your paychecks, you’re chasing rodeos and not making anything.

I’ve covered a lot of professional athletes in this country, from professional football to hockey, and I’ve never seen athletes who are tougher than rodeo cowboys. Part of that is the culture. You expect to get hurt but then move on to the next rodeo. Cody has metal rods in both his legs. But if they get hurt, they will make zero dollars, so it’s in their best interests to just suck it up.

Read the full story on National Geographic here.

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