By: Ruth Nicolaus
Abilene, Kan. (July 31, 2023) – The Abilene rodeo is the same excellent show, but fans, and especially contestants, will see improvements in the arena.
Abilene resident John McDonald has been working on revamping and updating the timed event end of the arena, the north end where the steer wrestlers, tie-down ropers, team ropers, barrel racers and breakaway ropers begin their runs.
He has installed a new timed event chute, built pens for steers and calves, built a new “arrow” chute (to load individual animals in), and constructed new arena fence. He also added pens, gates and a stripping chute at the end for the animals.
The changes will benefit the contestants; the ropers will be able to enter the box from the back, instead of going through the arena to enter through the front. Pens of steers and calves will be located on the north end of the arena, instead of having to send them through the arena during the show, and the steers and calves will be able to be placed according to the order they are needed for competition.
The roping boxes are set farther to the west, making a bigger area for the contestants.
Two new gates on the east side will accommodate implements that can be brought in to work the arena.
“There are multiple access points for people on horseback, as well as for personnel,” McDonald said.
The changes will also help the rodeo run more efficiently, he said, by eliminating the time it took to run the steers and calves from the south end, where they used to be penned, to the north end.
“Production and flow of the rodeo is a big, big thing,” McDonald said.
The wall on the north end limited the addition of pens, so the fair board and the city helped in moving it, so the new pens could be built.
The old arena fence was certainly functional, McDonald said, but as he got deeper into the project, he realized it wouldn’t match the fencing he put up on the north end. So he replaced it, so it would match.
The old arena perimeter fencing was stout, McDonald said, but so is the new fencing. McDonald said the new fence is round, two and three/eighths inch 13-gauge tube, larger in diameter than the previous fencing. “It’ll last a long time,” he said.
McDonald has a life-long attachment to the Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo Arena.
He started participating in rodeo in Oklahoma when he was four years old. At age nine, he and his family moved to Abilene.
In his new hometown, McDonald wandered down to the fairgrounds, where the committee men were setting up portable panels for the Wild Bill Hickok Rodeo.
“One of the old guys said, if you’re going to be in the way, you might as well help.” They gave McDonald a bucket full of steel pins to hand to them as they set up the panels.
“That’s how far my experience goes back,” he said, of his life of building corrals, panels, and portable arenas. He was around Ken Roberts, three-time world champion bull rider, who designed portable corrals on wheels.
“That was a huge influence on my portable corral career, later in life.” McDonald owns Rawhide Portable Corrals.
Before he was a business owner, he rode bulls starting at age thirteen, through high school, college, then professionally. Sid Hammond, a long-time Abilene rodeo committee man, drove McDonald to rodeos, and then, in college, flew him to rodeos.
The Abilene rodeo is special to him, he said.
He has a picture of himself and his four buddies, standing in the arena, before they went to the Kansas State High School Finals Rodeo in 1979. McDonald was a bareback rider, saddle bronc rider and bull rider.
And it was in that arena, at age 15, that he saw who would be his wife, Mary, for the first time. “I was standing on the back of the bucking chutes when the 4-H queen contestants came in on convertibles. That’s the first place I saw my wife.
“You see why I’m so attached to all of this.”
McDonald has donated his time and resources on the project.
Matt Engle, the owner of Lumber House, has started work on the VIP box seating on the north end. It will be above the chutes and pens and will be completed for the 2024 rodeo.
The rodeo runs this week, August 1-4. Tickets are $13 for adults and $7 for children ages 4-10. and are available online at WildBillHickokRodeo.com, at West’s Country Mart and other area retailers, and at the gate.
For more information, visit the website or call 785.263.4570.
The Abilene rodeo arena is where John McDonald found his love for arena design. The Abilene man has rebuilt the north end of the arena, including the timed event chutes. In this picture from 1979, he (on the left), is pictured with fellow Kansas High School Finals Rodeo qualifiers from Abilene: (from left to right) McDonald, Miller, John Greenough, Paul Whitehair, and Doug Baier, all Abilene residents at the time. Photo courtesy Beverly Willcoxon.
This picture, taken in the winter months of 2023, shows the early work done in preparing the north end of the Abilene rodeo arena for renovations. Photo courtesy DeLynn Farson.