Carmen Buckingham, from Bruneau, Idaho, was on the winning team at the first Women’s Ranch Rodeo team at the Western States Ranch Rodeo in 2013. […]
On the Trail with James Hajek
Written by: Lily Weinacht< Back to Articles
James Hajek is a cowboy by blood and by choice, making a living in the stock pens and arenas of the South and Midwest since he was a child. Today, the 32-year-old from Hennessey, Oklahoma, is known for his finesse as a pickup man, finding his niche in the rodeo world while attending Northwestern Oklahoma State University.
“My dad used to rodeo and he co-owned Carpenter Rodeo Company in Kansas, so from the time I was little, rodeo is all I’ve done,” says James. “Growing up, I knew where every playground and park was in Kansas. We went somewhere every weekend, and I had friends all over the place. I didn’t know any different, or what it was like to go to the lake, but I loved it!” James and his older sister, Jena, became all-around hands, even riding a pair of mini mules to move cattle. “They were about the size of Shetland ponies, and we’d take them to every rodeo and drive cattle out. If there was a return alley, we’d bring the timed event cattle back up. We ran 140 – 150 team ropers a night, so we’d be there a while.”
When James was ten, his parents, Danny and Aronda Hajek, sold their half of the rodeo company. They kept a handful of bucking bulls, and James and his dad continued to raise bulls until 2014. In 2004, the rodeo coach at Northwestern Oklahoma State University had offered James a scholarship for supplying the team’s bucking bulls. Rodeo clown Justin Rumford was also a NWOSU student at the time, and James recalls, “We weren’t in very many of the same classes, but we did lots of extracurricular activities together. There were always good times to be had with him around.”
James also watched rodeo practices and helped run the roping chutes, but the itch to be doing something more was always there. His sophomore year, James brought a trailer full of broncs to college, partnering with Andrews Rodeo Company, who sends James colts to start bucking every year. They’ve started a number of WNFR broncs such as Cool Water, PTSD Power Play, and Fire Lane. Picking up broncs naturally came next, and though James hadn’t spent much time on horseback during his teens, the muscle memory was still there. “When we sold the rodeo company, I’d sold my horse and mules, and I never even rode when I was in high school. I’d mainly worked rodeos, and I never had too much interest in competing since I was guaranteed a paycheck. I started picking up at practice, and the finessing and fine-tuning took a while to learn, but as far as setting riders down, I’d cowboyed enough to know where I needed to be and what to do.”
Nearly 12 years later, James works as many as 25 rodeos a year, along with bull ridings like ABBI and PBR. “I work all of Andrews Rodeo Company’s rodeos, and I’ll fill in for Phil Sumner, who partnered with my dad on some rodeos.” This is James’ seventh year picking up pro rodeos, and he’s also picked up for Beutler & Son Rodeo Company and Frontier Rodeo Company. “I’m just enough of an adrenaline junky that I really enjoy that part of it, and it’s fun to be doing so many things at one time, even if nobody can see it all.”
Yet those unnoticed moments are what catch a photographer’s eye, as is the case with the cover photo, taken at the 2015 Rylee Miller Memorial Ranch Bronc Riding in Cherokee, Oklahoma. James started the annual bronc riding in memory of his girlfriend, who passed away in 2013. “We did a winter series jackpot bull and bronc riding first, and after that I decided I wanted to set up a scholarship fund and do the ranch bronc riding,” says James. “Phil Sumner and Jaymie and Rooster Swartz have brought horses to the bronc riding, and we do it early in the year so the horses are coming in fresh and ready to go. That makes it pretty wild. We’ve also had women’s bronc riding, junior broncs, and mini broncs, which are a crowd favorite. We won’t be able to hold the bronc riding this year, but the goal is to come back next year and do it bigger and better.”
While he’s on the road for the summer, James’ family and friends look in on his livestock. He has 125 head of cows, originally starting with 30 – 40 head to help pay for his rodeo habit. “I work at a sale barn about twenty miles from the house, and I buy cows like some people buy shoes. I’ll go to work a sale and come home with four or five more. My fiancée, Jill Shaw, and I are partnering on forty head of mama cows, so we have a nice little ranch, and it keeps me going in the winter. It’s also something to do with my horses to get their minds back after a long summer of rodeos.”
James says his horses share his love for adrenaline, adding that they have to be gritty and tough, with plenty of run in them. “They’re all a little kamikaze with no hesitation in them. My dad said you know you have a good pickup horse if you can run them into a brick wall. I run my horses at anything I think they’ll be scared of.” Scooby, a 19-year-old gelding, is his best horse, starting out as Jena’s barrel horse in college. “Scooby had a motor on him, but he didn’t want to run the pattern, so Jena asked me to ride him a while. I was working at three sale barns at the time and cowboying. Scooby picked up rodeos so well, I told Jena she could either sell him or give him to me, because I wasn’t giving him back.” James found another of his horses, Colonel, in college, while he recently purchased Peso from Cody Webster. He also rides Cisco and Pepper, while the red roan featured on the cover is a former Canadian bronc. “Bromby didn’t have an ounce of buck in him, so I bought him from Sammy. I don’t pick up on him very much because he’s seventeen hands and it’s a long way to reach some of those broncs.” Bromby and James received a standing ovation several years ago at a rodeo in Longview, Texas, when a barrel truck was stuck in a muddy arena. James threaded his rope through the front tow of the truck and Bromby pulled it out within minutes.
“I think pickup horses are about the toughest horses in the rodeo,” James adds. “We get them hot and tired as they can handle, but then we don’t always have time to cool them off before getting another horse and going back to work. Jill takes off work to travel with me, so she’ll go back and cool horses out for me between events.” James met Jill six years ago at the North Texas State Fair, which her family has helped produce for many years. “Jill is part of a drill team and a flag team down there, which she’s really passionate about, and she runs sponsor flags. I met her while I was working that rodeo, and in 2015, we really hit it off and dated for about a year. I proposed to her in the arena, and we’ll be getting married in September in Texas.” The couple is taking their longest trip yet in August, on the road for two weeks traveling to rodeos. “We’ll see how much she likes me – it’ll be me and her and five dogs,” he jokes.
James’ one-year-old son, Hagen, is also showing interest in the western lifestyle. “Whenever he goes to feed with me, all he pays attention to is the horses and cows. He may be the only kid around with a seventeen hand Canadian bronc for his first horse.” Any time at home is spent with Hagen, while James also enjoys catching up with friends and doing day work in the area. One of his goals is to bring the Rylee Miller Memorial back in 2018. “We always have good horses, and I’ve even had guys talking to me from Idaho and northern California about it. I want it to become the premier ranch bronc riding in the country, and I think we’re fairly close.”