By Neal Reid
Springer’s Photos Have Become Popular Tradition
at Wrangler National Finals Rodeo
LAS VEGAS – It’s no secret the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo is steeped in tradition.
Some aspects are oft-publicized and known by the masses, while others are behind-the-scenes treasures known only to a select group of folks “in the know.” Kenneth Springer’s one-of-a-kind head shots – featuring barrel racers alongside their trusty mounts – fall into the latter category and have become part of the frenzied non-stop activity in Las Vegas.
Springer meets up with the barrel racers and their horses at the Wrangler NFR barn adjacent to the Thomas & Mack Center or at their trailers and snaps shots of a few of the dynamic duos each night until he has images of all 15. He lets the horses dictate when they’re ready for their close-ups and says it’s best to have the process be laid back and organic, rather than forced or static.
“It’s a process,” said Springer, who also has taken similar head shots at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo through the years. “You don’t just go out there and bam, bam, bam and you’re done. Some of the horses are very cooperative, and some of them are not cooperative at all.
“Part of that is they’re here for a reason, and so you don’t want to be intrusive and you don’t want to alarm the horse. You don’t want to fuss with it very much. You want to ease in and ease out.”
He began taking the head shots at the NFR in Oklahoma City in the early 1970s, and they have become part of the fabric of the event. For Springer – a longtime WPRA photographer and WPRA News contributor – the photos have always been a fun way to feature the talented cowgirls and their impressive horses, while also providing quality images for the association.
“It was just mostly for the WPRA’s use, and they were very generic because there were a lot less photographers then,” said Springer, who has photographed barrel racing in the arena every NFR since 1978. “If someone won a rodeo, at least the office had a head shot to use in a pinch if they didn’t have an action shot.”
The idea for the unique shots came from a journalist back in the early 1960s.
“The idea goes back all the way back to 1962 or 1963 when Ray Davis, the field editor for Western Horseman, went to Dallas when the GRA had their finals there,” said Springer, who worked for City of Waxahachie, Texas, for nearly 30 years to support his photography career. “As a kid, I saw his coverage in Western Horseman and thought it was interesting that he had taken a head shot with their horse. You can look at 1,000 action shots and not really see what somebody looks like.”
Springer was exposed to rodeo at an early age in his hometown of Midlothian, Texas, south of Dallas, and he was hooked from the start.
“As a kid, we had a weekly rodeo in the summer in the town I was raised, and daddy would ride in the grand entry and I loved the rodeo and the atmosphere,” Springer said. “I liked the bull riding and the barrel racing. I just continued to like the event, enjoyed watching the horses and it always seemed glamorous to me.
“There’s no event where the contestants love their horses more than in the barrel race, nor is there any event where the horse is more important.”
Rodeo photography is a passion project for Springer, who began taking photos with a $135 Nikon Nikkormat 35-mm camera nearly five decades ago. He got involved in rodeo photography while traveling with Terri (Patton) Gay – the future wife of eight-time World Champion Bull Rider Donnie Gay and longtime PRCA rodeo secretary and timer – and her mother, Nelda Patton.
“They were competing all over Texas, and I started going with them everywhere,” he said. “It was her mother who suggested I buy a camera. She said, ‘Nobody else is taking pictures.’ That was in 1970.”
Springer – the 1989 WPRA Outstanding Individual Award winner and a two-time WPRA Media Award recipient (1999, 2011) – has become a trusted and beloved member of the WPRA community. The barrel racers know they can trust him completely.
“He’s not just a photographer taking pictures, and we know that,” said 13-time Wrangler NFR qualifier Lisa Lockhart. “He’s very vested in what he does and always has been. He really knows the girls and their horses and has a long history of being a part of it. He has a personal interest in it, and that makes it pretty special.”
Taking the photos at the NFR is fun for the contestants as well.
“It’s very cool for us,” said Lockhart, a two-time NFR average champion. “We don’t really get an opportunity get that stuff done normally, so to have behind-the-scenes photos is very special because it’s so unique. Obviously, he’s done it a long time, and it’s something that’s appreciated because we wouldn’t do it on our own accord.
“To top it all off, he’s amazing at what he does, to say the least. When it’s all said and done, to have those memories is fantastic.”