What does it mean to “cowboy up”?
For former world champion roper Penny Conway, it means making those tough decisions in life or pumping yourself up for something tough, like riding a raging bull.
However, if you aren’t a cowboy, you probably never heard the phrase. Its message is something Conway is spreading throughout the country to students through her nonprofit organization, Cowboys and Kids.
Just in time for the rodeo, elementary students across Payson last week learned a little bit about the sport of rodeo and how they can use the cowboy philosophy in their daily life to make positive choices and build character.
“Even if you don’t realize it, you are a cowboy,” Conway said to the students at Payson Elementary School Wednesday morning.
“When you “cowboy up,” you are getting tough and strong in your heart.”
You are deciding to make your own path in life and stay out of gangs, she added.
“When you make a choice, it belongs to you.”
Conway explained the “cowboy up” message started right here in Payson 18 years ago when she realized students did not know rodeo history or the cowboy culture.
When she was a second-grade teacher at Julia Randall Elementary School, Conway said she realized students did not know basic rodeo terms, like what a lasso or a calf is. Nonetheless, they were drawn to the cowboy lifestyle.
Growing up in a rodeo family in Colorado, Conway knew she could take her rodeo background and educate students about the sport. Her dad, Milt Simon competed in the first National Finals Rodeo and her brother Mark Simon and nephew Shain Sproul are Wrangler NFR cowboys.
“I had all this background and knowing kids did not know about cowboy culture,” I knew I had to do something, she said.
Conway started teaching at-risk students the program and soon it expanded to include all children.
“It just all started making sense, but I didn’t know where it was going to go.”
The first year after starting Cowboys and Kids, Conway’s speakers had reached 15,000 students. After another two years of development, Conway had patented the program and trained others to deliver it across the country.
Today, two other instructors teach children from kindergarten through eighth-grade about rodeo events and history.
Conway starts her program off with an explanation of the American flag. She asks students if they know why the flag has stars and stripes. After explaining, the stripes represent the colonies and the stars represent sent the states, she explains the flag stands for freedom.
At a rodeo, the flag is honored during the singing of the national anthem. “We show respect by stopping and pausing for those who made it possible for us to have freedom,” she said.
Conway goes on to also discuss several rodeo events such a bareback bronc riding, saddle bronc riding, bull riding and team roping.
She finished by discussing the defining dangers of drugs and gangs and how high ethical and moral standards can overcome these obstacles.
Hired primarily by rodeo committees, such as the Payson Rodeo Preservation Alliance, Cowboys and Kids will reach 70,000 students this year. Conway estimates it has already reached 2.5 million students.
Bullfighter Dusty Duba said he used the “cowboy up” phrase a few times in his life. When he attended school, he explained, he wore western clothing including boots and a buckle. Other students would make fun of him for this because it was not popular, but Duba decided to stay true to himself, “cowboy up” and hold his head high. Since then, no one has made fun of him.
At the conclusion of the assembly, she had the students repeat a mantra.
“Starting today, I am going to make my own path, be tough inside, make good choices and cowboy up!”