WALLA WALLA — Buster Barton has discovered a way to double down on his love of rodeo.
Not only is he still pursuing his career as a successful steer wrestler in the Columbia River Circuit, as the coach of the Walla Walla Community College rodeo team he uses his many stops around the Northwest as a valuable recruiting tool.
"It’s been great," the 34-year-old said of his dual identity as cowboy and coach. "At every rodeo I go to, I’m introduced as the head coach at WWCC. And I’m always recruiting, always talking to people at the rodeos."
Barton took over the WWCC rodeo program in 2004, and his men’s and women’s teams have been regional powers and national qualifiers on a regular basis ever since. His 2008 women’s team claimed a national championship in Casper, Wyo., and his men’s team finished third that same year.
A native of northern Nevada, Barton arrived in the Walla Walla Valley in 1997 after being recruited by then-WWCC rodeo coach Pat Beard.
"I’d never been to this part of the country," recalled Barton, who gave up a job on a dude ranch near Cody, Wyo., to enroll at WWCC. "I still remember driving over Meacham and finally looking out over Pendleton. That’s when I fell in love with this area, and I’ve never left."
Barton spent his early years in Jarbidge, Nev., a wide spot in the road a few miles south of the Idaho border and just north of Copper Mountain.
"It was out in the middle of nowhere," Barton said. "Maybe 100 people lived there."
Since Jarbidge didn’t have a high school, the family moved to Twin Falls, Idaho, when Buster’s older brother reached high-school age. They remained in Twin Falls until just before Buster’s junior year, then returned to Nevada and settled in Wells, where he graduated in 1994.
During his high school years, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Barton was the middle linebacker on the football team, played forward on the basketball team and was a heavyweight wrestler.
"I was big from the eighth grade on," Barton said.
And size can be an advantage when it comes to bulldogging a 600-pound steer that doesn’t want to be bulldogged.
Barton was lured into rodeo because his brother and sister were involved. And he tried his hand at everything from calf roping to team roping to steer wrestling to bronc riding.
"I had a real short career in bareback riding," Barton said.
By the time he arrived at WWCC, steer wrestling was his specialty. And focusing on a single event paid immediate dividends.
"I rodeoed at WWCC for three years and qualified for nationals all three years," Barton said. "The second year, I was the reserve national champion in Casper."
Bulldogging appeals to Barton, he said, because it is the only rodeo event that "shares a rough stock and timed event mentality."
"It’s unique in that way, and it’s quite technical," he said. "To the naked eye it’s just a bunch of cowboys throwing steers down, but once you get involved and learn the sport, you understand that there’s a whole lot of technique to it.
"That’s why you see a lot of lighter guys who can still win, because their technique is so good. They know they can’t just take advantage of their size."
Barton remained an amateur bulldogger throughout his college career, then applied for his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association permit in 2000.
"You can’t just become a professional," he explained. "You buy your permit, then you have to win $1,000 on it before you buy your PRCA card. I can remember winning a round in Hermiston that put me over the top, and I bought my card in 2001."
And for the next few years, Barton rodeoed hard on the PRCA circuit.
"In my rookie year, I was in the hunt for the overall rookie of the year title," Barton said. "I wound up second, but I was the Columbia River Circuit Rookie of the Year in 2001."
Barton’s best year was 2004 when he traveled with fellow Walla Wallan B.J. Taruscio and Touchet’s Brad Gleason, a former national steer wrestling champion.
"I was fourth that year in Cheyenne and fifth in Houston," Barton recalled. "And I placed at Red Bluff (Calif.) and in Pendleton. I ended up 38th in the world that year."
By then, however, he was also into the coaching stage of his career, and it and family demands caused him to scale back his competitive schedule.
A broken leg in 2007 and a torn pectoral muscle in 2008 limited Barton even further.
It proved to be a good time to hone his coaching skills.
"It’s a lot different coaching, and sometimes I consider myself more of a team manager than a coach," Barton said. "Because there are really nine different sports under the rodeo umbrella, and the only sport I can hands-on coach is steer wrestling.
"In order to teach the fundamentals of each event, it’s my job to bring in a lot of outside help and put the right people in front of the kids."
Healthy once more, Barton has made it to about 30 rodeos in 2009 but hasn’t traveled outside of the Columbia River Circuit. He’s in contention to make the circuit finals in his event, and some quick runs at this week’s Frontier Days Rodeo in Walla Walla would come in handy.
Barton gets his first steer during Tuesday morning slack when the first round in all three timed events will be contested at the fairgrounds arena beginning at 7 a.m. He has drawn his second steer during Saturday night’s performance.
This will be Barton’s seventh appearance at Frontier Days. His best showing came in 2004 when he clocked a 3.9-second time and won one of the two rounds.
"It always means a little more being in your hometown rodeo," Barton said. "And they always say your hometown rodeo is the toughest."
Barton is also entered in rodeos in Salem, Ore., and in Ellensburg this week. And then there’s Lewiston next week and the Pendleton Round-Up the week after, plus a few others, so Barton will be on the move.
That’s the life of a rodeo cowboy. It’s the life Buster Barton loves.