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January 25, 2015

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national finals rodeo:

On the lookout for buckle bunnies in Las Vegas

The ladies drawn to rodeo competitors — and their belt bling — aren’t all groupies

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Connie Cooper's 1989 International Professional Rodeo Association buckle.

Light hits every rhinestone on her hips, and her hair swings in time to the click of heels that have never seen dirt. You can’t miss the cut of her jeans or the cinched-on hardware, which looks heavy, real, borrowed. Maybe she won it with her own sweat. But chances are she did what Buckle Bunnies do — charmed it off a cowboy.

It’s the second week of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and I’m bunny hunting. So far, Mustang Sally and her rhinestones are the surest bet, though many women are wearing bigger, shinier belts than you would normally see on a Wednesday, even in Las Vegas.

I spot a platinum blonde taking a long drag on a cigarette, her shimmery lipstick echoing the shine on the buckle she’s wearing. I ask if it’s hers. She laughs. It’s a 1989 International Professional Rodeo Association buckle, the kind you wear when you’re a world champion barrel racer. Connie Cooper is. The 51-year-old Oklahoma native has been riding since she was 5. I ask if she minds the bunny stereotype.

“When is there not some kind of bunny,” Cooper says.

The next buckle I see is on a stylish woman taking a break from the action in one of the arena bars. She has turquoise eye shadow, but she doesn’t give off a bunny vibe.

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Sindi Jandreau shows the buckle of her son, a 2009 high school rodeo champion from South Dakota.

“It’s my son’s,” says 44-year-old Sindi Jandreau, running her fingers over the buckle’s intricate, jeweled inlays. Her husband is a judge tonight. Her son, Dawson, is a saddle bronc rider, and the buckle commemorates his 2009 state championship win for high school rodeo in South Dakota. When I mention bunnies she smirks, tells me they were around when her dad was in rodeo.

“They want the guy with the buckle on,” Jandreau says. “You can just tell the difference, if they know the game or they don’t. If they’re wearing funky hats they’re probably not cowgirls.”

Allie Jordan, 18, isn’t wearing a funky hat or her buckle. She’s a barrel racer and goat tier from California, not to mention the daughter of an NFR judge and the girlfriend of a Professional Bull Rider. She says the bunnies are after buckles for bragging rights, though they are much less sacred than a cowboy’s hat.

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Brittany Pittman's belt buckle touts the Jack Daniel's brand.

“You can always get another buckle,” Jordan says, joking that the only scenario where a rodeo guy lets a bunny wear his hat involves extreme intoxication.

Brittany Pittman is a bunny by default. The 23-year-old is promoting Jack Daniel’s at the arena tonight, and her sexy chaps draw the eye to a buckle made especially for the brand. The Colorado expat says she has some experience on horseback and is dating a cowboy. She doesn’t wear his buckle, though she says they’re sometimes given like class rings. “You’re saying your girlfriend is your prize, too,” she says.

I ask if she has her own buckle at home. Without hesitation, she says the only thing that can prove she’s not a bunny: “I haven’t earned one.”

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