Rodeo is a fast, furious and adrenaline-filled tradition of cowboy culture in the United States. And while it would be little without the cowboys and girls who get down and dirty in competition, Don Jesser is the man who brings all of the rural elements together for those gathered in the grandstands.
As one of the nation’s few horseback announcers, the moment Jesser swings into the saddle atop his mount… and hollars. “It’s Time to Rodeo”
Contestants and onlookers alike are greeted by his confident, deep voice through the tiny reverberations of loud speakers as he rides into the arena. When Jesser asks, “Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to rodeo?” he means it.
The enthusiastic responses drawn by his inquiry can often be heard far beyond the arena as fans whoop and holler in anticipation of the excitement and suspense ahead of them.
While most rodeo announcers narrate events from elevated booths, Jesser prefers to remain part of the action. Amongst a backdrop of freshly churned dirt, wearing his signature crimson chaps and vest, Jesser rests above “Crusher,” his caramel and cream steed as he announces the rodeo.
“It takes a very experienced person in rodeo to be a horseback announcer,” the Twin Falls resident says. “There are a lot of guys who have no business being in arena announcing because they can’t talk and ride a bicycle at the same time, let alone a horse. But my circumstances are a little different.”
Jesser spent the first seventeen years of his rodeo career tempting fate by lowering himself onto the back of cunning and feisty horses. A slight nod of his head would send the chute gate swinging open as he attempted to best the animal for eight seconds. Though he met much success in his rough stock ventures, the “rough” caught up with him, along with a three-time broken back.
Knowing that his competitive days were over, Jesser opted to become a pick-up man instead of giving up rodeo completely. For several years he rode up alongside his fellow cowboys, helping them dismount their bucking horses after successful rides. Soon after, he began announcing small rodeos throughout Southern Idaho. In 1992, after just two years announcing in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), Jesser was able to leave his lifetime of long, hard days in the saddle cowboying across the West behind him to become a full time announcer.
Because of his experience competing in rodeos and later working as a pick-up man, Jesser knew where to be and where not to be during the more dangerous events, allowing him to take on a horseback vantage point while announcing.
“Being in the arena I am able to relate to the crowd so much better,” Jesser says. “I can ride over, talk with the crowd and connect with them so much easier than from a booth. They associate me as part of the rodeo.”
However, arena-side announcing has not been without its challenges for Jesser. Each rodeo requires a large amount of research and memorization about the contestants and stock being ridden.
“I can’t just read off a piece of paper like if I were in a booth, so I do a lot of homework,” Jesser says.
From knowing award-winning bucking bulls to which cowboys are world champions, Jesser harbors a substantial cowboy encyclopedia under his black felt hat.
To give him an extra edge in the field, Jesser developed a wireless communication system to use with his wife Anita, who travels with him to all his rodeos. During timed events such as calf roping and barrel racing, Anita communicates the time on the run, allowing Jesser access to the information immediately. Out of necessity Jesser invented the system over 20 years ago after some clever engineering involving an old motorcycle helmet.
“It’s a secret,” Jesser chuckles of his discovery, “we don’t tell the rest of them.”
Although his demanding schedule requires traveling roughly 75,000 miles around the country each year, Jesser admits that there’s no other profession he would rather be in.
“Rodeo is a huge, huge family,” he says, “And it’s so rewarding to ride in that arena and hear 8,000 people roar and go nuts. It’s like George Strait stepping out on the stage for me. Announcing a rodeo is just outstandingly special.”
Jesser knows that the difficult job falls on him to help rodeo newcomers appreciate and understand the rugged sport while also keeping the seasoned folks drawn in.
“If an announcer doesn’t have it together it can ruin a rodeo. It’s my job to make it smooth and to keep the energy up through all of the events, not just bull riding,” Jesser says. “It’s all about keeping the Wild West alive and taking people back to yesteryear with modern day professional rodeo cowboys. Most of the events originated from everyday ranch work and those cowboys need the spotlight as well.”
His job may be complicated between dodging angry bulls on the loose, coordinating banter with goofy clown acts, committing hundreds of rodeo facts to memory and knowing how to read a crowd, but Jesser has his work down to an art. And he must be doing something right – he’s one of the most in-demand rodeo announcers with his schedule filling up far in advance.
“I plan on announcing until they tell me I can’t,” Jesser says. “You can’t beat the camaraderie of the rodeo world. Seeing world champions help young new guys get on a bucking horse is the way that rodeo was meant to be. If you leave it to the trueness of what it is, the genuine event of rodeo, you can never go wrong.”
To unwind from his hectic schedule, Jesser enjoys picking up a guitar and crooning out old time classic country at a few county fair performances.
“I really enjoying singing Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” because I can do a train whistle you wouldn’t believe,” Jesser says with a grin.
When he’s not out traveling the rodeo trail, Jesser enjoys a pastime not typically associated with cowboys: Golf.
“It is the only sport in the world where if you don’t do good it’s your own fault. It’s just you and a little white ball out there trying to kick your butt.”
However, Jesser finds his true sanctuary out among Idaho’s pristine wilderness.
“The mountains are my second home,” he says.
As soon as his schedule calms and the chores are reasonably caught up on his small ranch south of Twin Falls, Jesser heads straight for the pasture where his horses and a few mules have been waiting patiently to head into God’s country for a rejuvenating pack trip. Although he enjoys such respites, Jesser is always ready for the next season, when it’s time to rodeo once again.