The Catalena Cowgirls are out of a job next year as the opening act of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the world's largest such event, with an annual attendance of almost 1.9 million over three weeks.

The Cowgirls are a precision-riding drill team of 26 equestriennes. They work professional jobs by day and perform atop brown-and-white American paint horses on the side throughout Texas; they have appeared at the rodeo since 1996. Next year's event, scheduled for March 1-20, will open instead with pyrotechnics and other features "to keep our show fresh," said Leroy Shafer, the rodeo's chief operations officer.

The livestock show and rodeo was started in the 1930s and has donated its proceeds to youth programs and scholarships since 1957. Two weeks ago, it surpassed $100 million in scholarship donations, Shafer said.

Cutting the Cowgirls specialty act was "very much a business decision," he said. The rodeo's move to Reliant Stadium last year from the Astrodome made unnecessary some of the Cowgirls' functions as advertising banner carriers and pivot setters for performers. Stabling the Cowgirls' horses at the arena also added to the congestion on the stadium loading dock.

Shafer said he did not believe the change will upset too many fans. "Our most crowd-pleasing event is the calf scramble."

-- Sylvia Moreno

The Catalena Cowgirls have opened the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo since 1996, but next year a fireworks show will replace them.