SALINAS – Sitting in the falls, waiting for the door to open, Corey Walker tries to block out all the noise. Mental failure can be crippling when precision and seconds decide your fate.
Still, for a 17-year pro veteran on the rodeo circuit as a hooker on the stringing team, being home to compete in the California Rodeo Salinas is an adrenaline rush like no other.
“You cannot enter Salinas with a permit unless you have a card,” Walker said. “My goal when I started was to earn enough money to get my card and compete in Salinas.”
Four years after finishing fifth overall as a team, the 2006 North Monterey County High graduate is competing all weekend in one of the most popular events on the circuit.
This year’s field is the 112th running – the sixth oldest in the country – and the team lasso will feature 113 teams.
“This is the first year I’ve seen so many teams,” said Walker, who averages 10 rodeos a year. “Part of the popularity is that it’s an event where you can have longevity.”
Walker, 34, a father of two, pointed out that the peloton often has competitors as young as 18 and as old as 80.
“I wouldn’t call it a brotherhood,” Walker said, “but it’s a tight-knit community. Men and women can participate. You can hang out with different generations of people.
Team roping has also become one of the fastest growing events on the rodeo circuit in terms of revenue.
“It’s become a million-dollar industry,” said Walker, who works for Keithly-Williams Seeds in Salinas when he’s not running up the heels of cattle in nine seconds or less.
Having been involved in steer wrestling, cutting, and calf-strung in the past, Walker has primarily become a team-strunger, which reduces wear and tear on the body.
“Team stringing isn’t too physical,” Walker said. “That’s why I like it. I was never going to be a hardcore pro. But it’s something I can continue to do at a high level.
While the sport is unique, where its equipment is a reliable horse, rope and reflexes, Walker compared his event to golf in terms of muscle memory.
“It’s hand-eye coordination,” Walker said. “You react more than you think. You try to target steer movements like you would the greens of a golf course.
Having rodeoed since high school, Walker will be on the heel this year, that is, the rear. The competition at Salinas offers an obstacle that other rodeos don’t always present.
“What’s different about Salinas is there’s a barrier where you can’t leave early,” Walker said. “So the hooker is responsible for not breaking that barrier. It is an important element of this rodeo.
When the steering is released, riders must wait for it to pass through an electric eye, which releases the rope barrier, connected to the chute.
“When the pin is pulled, the rope drops and we can go,” Walker said. “The cow is about 35 feet ahead of us when we leave. This is an advantage for the cow.
Walker’s role will be to catch the two back feet. If he does only one, it’s a five-second penalty. If he crosses the barrier too soon, it’s a 10 second penalty.
In four days, it will chain four passages, including one at prime time when nearly 10,000 people will offer a boosted atmosphere.
“When you’re back in the box, you have to get into a zone and not think about people,” Walker said. “You kind of have to disconnect. But you can hear that roar. Salinas is more pressure.
While elite team stringers who compete year-round will clock times in the seven to eight-second range, Walker has been consistent in the nines.
“I actually placed with an 11-second run,” Walker said. “Sometimes heists are slower. And sometimes they run very hard. Some have never been roped. All rounds are different.
Growing up watching his mother train horses, Walker turned to rope, where he developed the skills to anchor a steer at full stride while reaching speeds of around 30 mph on his horse.
“I started following people I knew and got into high school,” Walker said. “For me, it’s so special to compete in Salinas.”