Angry Cowboy – Rodeo
For those of you who don’t know, the National Finals Rodeo is going on inLas Vegasas we speak. Ten days of the best cowboys and animals in the world. “Ten days!”, you say, don’t the cowboys get tired and beat up. Oh yeah, the injuries are accumulating. There’s nothing funny about a cowboy hobbling out of the arena modestly grabbing his thigh, when you know that’s not actually where the pain is, but the money is good and no one’s complaining.
I hate sports; have since 5th grade, but rodeo is different. We Americans are drawn irresistibly to sports that involve violence, severe injury, and occasionally death. It’s no mystery why football has replaced baseball as our national obsession. Basketball. I just don’t know. Freakishly tall guys who bounce a ball incessantly and seem to have a perpetual grudge against glass back boards. And the injuries are not nearly frequent enough. NASCAR involves, not only fiery death and mutilation but our other obsessions: loud noises, cars, speed, beer, mind-numbing repetitiveness and anything that wastes fossil fuels. “Hillbillies, driving in circles,” as my friend Harold says admiringly.
Another national characteristic is that we can turn any activity into a competitive sport, with elaborate, ever changing rules, expensive equipment, weird costumes and reams of statistics. I have many redneck friends, whom I know for a fact can’t do long division, that are virtual data banks of memorized statistics which they can recite with a speed that puts my outdated Microsoft to shame.
Rodeo also provides generous doses of another perennial favorite, “the agony of defeat.” There’s so much luck and unpredictability in rodeo that it’s irresistible. “There ain’t a horse that can’t be rode or a cowboy that can’t be throwed.” Long years of practice, guaranteed painful and life threatening injuries, no health insurance or job security, and total dedication to the sport do not mean that you won’t be thrown face first into the dirt in less that two seconds by a brainless, two ton behemoth in front of several million screaming fans and forced to limp (or be carried) from the arena in total humiliation. These guys make cage wrestlers look like pussies!
The sport originated as informal ranch competitions and slowly gained acceptance in the rest of the country as people realized how dangerous and frankly insane it was to challenge a beast approximately the size and weight of a naval destroyer and that the bulls seldom got through the gates and wreaked havoc among the spectators. You could watch and cheer in comparative safety. “Dis I gotta see”, said patrons from theCowPalacetoMadisonSquareGarden, and by the 50s rodeo was on its way.
A few years ago a bull actually did knock down the south gate at the Tehachapi Rodeo (twice) and proceeded to maul a Keefe & Son Ford (“the No-Bull car store”). Despite my advice, the Keefe Brothers did not take advantage of this heaven-sent chance at a big advertising bonanza. But that’s another story.
Rodeo has done nothing but gain popularity since the days when Casey Tibbs (perhaps the most colorful and talented rough stock rider ever) thrilled ‘em inManhattanandSan Francisco. As always happens, the ante has been upped. Numerous stock companies make big bucks doing nothing but breeding, raising and leasing bucking broncs and bulls to rodeos everywhere, year round. The competitors and the money has gotten better. The cowboys and cowgirls are sometimes “professionals”, i.e., make a living at it. After thousands of injuries some roughstock riders actually wear Kevlar vests and (gulp) helmets with face protectors.
From what I’ve read, the early days were much rougher, with the cowboys (and sometimes girls) staying up late boozing, bar fighting and riding hungover. These days they’re very professional, keep decent hours, train and do stretching exercises behind the chutes. It’s not as colorful, but as a 25 year veteran of playing honky tonks on the road, I can tell ya, sometimes you have to use a little sense or die. Most of my heroes are dead.
I should explain for those of you who are really dense, “rough stock riders” are the competitors who ride bucking brutes. Broncs (horses) are ridden in two events: saddle bronc, where the cowboys ride stripped down western saddles (the committee tree) and hold a big soft rope attached to a halter on the horses muzzle. They must also spur at every jump. This combines exquisite balance , spurring the horse from neck to belly with harmless spurs, while being tossed around with the violence of a force ten hurricane by a highly unpredictable horse. And these are not Arabs or Saddle Breds; they’re huge equines with the personality of Mike Tyson. It’s my favorite event.
Bareback involves riding a bucking bronc without stirrups and doing the spurring while holding to a small handle on a “saddle” the size of a teacup. It also involves banging your head into the horses rump at every jump and leaves many riders talking like Mohammed Ali before they reach thirty. It’s my least favorite event. Oh, yeah. Sometimes the riders get “hung up in the riggin’” and are mercilessly thrashed by the bronc. What the….?
The last roughstock event is bull riding. This event has mutated from riding fairly harmless (as harmless as riding a one ton animal with a bad attitude and horns can be) bulls, to riding animals that are simply bred to be big and pissed off. Hmm. Reminds me of some of my neighbors with whom I drink beer and talk politics here inSandCanyon. Bullriding has become so specialized that many of the riders have split off and formed the Professional Bullriders Assn. I like a rodeo with all the events. Watching nothing but bull riding is kind of like eating nothing but chocolate or strippers with 95” triple H implants; too much of a good thing.
Originally almost all bullriders were small, wiry guys who had spent a lot of time in hospitals and talked in very high voices. Now the sport has been taken over by large, muscular Brazilians who generally don’t even know how to sit a horse. They just ride bulls.
There are two roping events; team roping and tie down calf roping. Both events are grueling and require a lot of speed (they’re timed events), but oddly often involve really big men. Team roping, as the name implies, involves two guys. One ropes the head and the other the back feet. There are remarkably few fist fights between team mates. These guys are fanatics who would rather rope than eat fried chicken and wear baseball caps. The only time they put on a cowboy hat is to compete. They live in a small, inbred world where everything but team roping is a minor annoyance. And they’re incredibly fast. Both riders have to “dally”, which means wrapping the rope around the saddle horn at lightning speed as soon as the loop is cast and occasionally results in a lost thumb.
Tie Down Calf Roping is just one guy with a rope, a steer and a hazer (the guy who rides on the right side and keeps the calf from dodging out of range of the loop.) The rider ties “hard and fast” instead of “dallying”. In song and legend the working cowboys fought eternally over the merits of each practice;Texas cowboys “hard and fast”,California vaqueros “dallying.” When the calf hits the end of the rope, the cowboy dismounts on the right, runs up the rope to the calf, picks him up and throws him on his side and ties up three legs with a “piggin string”, which he carries in his mouth. Considering how a “piggin’ string” must taste, it’s amazing to me that most of these guys have enough appetite to be so bulky.
The roping horses in these two events are very expensive and highly trained. A lot of the ropers save the expense of transporting their own, and just borrow one. Most of the winners this year rode the same flea bitten gray (this is a real term, not an insult to the horse), who knows his business way better than most of the US Congress (I would vote for him). I’m pretty sure this infinitely wise and patient horse thinks some of his riders are idiots. Since the borrowed horse’s owner gets a share of the winnings, this guy is laughing all the way to the bank without having to grip a “piggin’ string in his teeth or be publicly humiliated by a pubescent bovine.
Steer Wrestling, or bulldogging was invented by Bill Pickett, a blackTexas cowboy and simply means diving head first off a speeding horse, grabbing a steer by the horns and nose and laying him out flat. There are no small bulldoggers. Most of them can’t see their own trophy belt buckles. The injury rate is actually low, but it’s like diving off the high board; I wouldn’t do it for all the US Treasury Bonds inChina.
The last event is barrel racing, the lady’s event. In the early days women actually rode rough stock, which is the subject of Ian Tyson’s latest single, Saddle Bronc Girl. Those days are gone, and the girls compete in a timed event where they ride very fast, agile horses around 55 gallon drums in a cloverleaf pattern. Their times are measured in hundredths of a second, and it’s amazing how few tantrums result from a knocked over barrel or losing by.03 seconds, but then we don’t see them on TV until they’ve had a chance to calm down. The girls are usually tiny and young. The event has lost some of its luster since Charmane James retired. She rode in a transparent top with no bra, ‘Nuff said.
No writing would be complete without a tip of the hat to the “Bullfighters.” These fearless lunatics risk their lives constantly to protect the cowboys in roughstock events. They’re not to be confused with “clowns”, who wear goofy clothes and tell jokes that would embarrass a second grader, mostly involving “guacamole” (bull poop. Bulls seem to have perpetual diarrhea.). They were much more entertaining in the silent era (before cordless microphones.), when their act consisted of double takes, falling down and hurting themselves in various ways with brooms.
Commentators (rodeo announcers) are generally more interesting than, say a baseball announcer who has about the same excitement factor as a golf announcer, but gets to talk louder. Two of my favorites are Donny Gay, a former Bullriding world champion, and Joe Beaver, a former bulldogger. My all time favorite of course is our local hero, Doc Bone. Dal is perhaps the only announcer I’ve ever heard with a normally pitched voice. I speculate that, like myself, he has never intentionally gotten on a wild creature he knew for a fact was going to try to injure his groinal area. I take that as a sign of intelligence.
Eternal thanks to my unflappable, wife, JoAnn who doesn’t seem to notice that I lose what small measure of dignity I have at the best of times and make a complete ass of myself at the rodeo. What can I say? I love rodeo!
I urge you to clip this article and put it on your refrigerator to review before you attend the events here in Tehachapi on July fourth and during Mountain Festival. If you don’t attend these events, and I know where you live, I’ll leave a flaming paper bag of “guacamole” on you doorstep next Halloween. But that’s another story.