I went to the rodeo last weekend. Don’t laugh. I adore the rodeo and go every year. Denver and Diane have never been, so this year I invited them to come. Everyone needs to experience a rodeo at least once. Mark went to an arts auction fundraiser and didn’t make it back in time to join us. Honestly, I don’t think he worked that hard to get home at the designated time. He likes the rodeo, but there are other events he enjoys equally as much, and I didn’t mind him skipping it this year. He was having fun with a friend and I think that’s important. Besides which, it gave me free reign to ogle the cowboys.
I am always impressed with the rodeo participants. I marvel that there are people in the world who are willing to get on a wild beast to prove their manhood and show off their unique skill of handling livestock. It is like watching history and a slice of timeless country culture all at once. The competitors share a supportive camaraderie. They maintain a sense of humor and respect for each other as they vie for purses and titles.
You find die hard advocates involved in every human interest – dance, beekeeping, horseback riding, winemaking, raising angoras, gardening, woodturning, basket making, collecting, – you name it. It always intrigues me that every endeavor you can think of seems to have a sub culture of people who take it to the next level. If there is any kind of definable interest, their will always be a group of people obsessively involved. There are competitions to validate talent, seminars to explore the latest research or techniques, and organizations to keep the people with the shared interest in communication. You can pick the most obscure thing, and before you know it, you discover there are tons of people totally in to it.
The rodeo (participants, not the audience) is another sub-culture – a world of horse lovers, trainers and ranch hands, taking their particular interest to a new level. It’s an event designed so cowboys and cowgirls can vie for the highest standing in competency tests for roping, steer handling, bronco riding, barrel racing etc…. They win prize money and recognition. It’s also nice for the ego and I suppose it’s a way to gain income to support their fondest pleasure – spending every waking moment working with horses.
The rodeo is a bit like a circus, only instead of sequins, the performers are covered in dust. If you sit up close, you dodge flinging mud rather than confetti thrown from a clown’s bucket. Gorgeous beasts parade around, muscular and wild. The cowboy’s mounts are impressively trained, quality horses – it’s obvious these boys love their equestrian best friends. The display of fine animals alone, working in harmony with man, is breathtaking.
We found a seat in the first row of the stands, balancing some “chicken on a stick” (barbeque) and some fried chips. First, there was the parade of horses and the introduction of those competing. Next, we sang the national anthem and watched a big, fully-loaded Ford truck drive around the ring – at half time, three names would be chosen to toss a boot into a bucket from 20 feet away. Dunk the boot and you drive home the truck. I’ve never seen anyone win.
Then the riding events took place.
When the first gate opened, a wild horse came charging out, bucking and rearing as the young cowboy hung on with one hand, the other flailing in the wind, barreling past us and slamming into the gate where we sat. Diane and Denver both squealed and almost dropped their chicken on a stick.
“Holly shit!” Denver said. “That looks so dangerous. This is like . . . REAL.”
“What did you think? The rodeo is not like wrestling, where they stage pretend matches and growl and posture for entertainment. Animals react by instinct. The gifted cowboy is ready for whatever is dished out. But aren’t the animals magnificent?”
“Magnificently? More like wild! Someone is going to be killed.”
“Not likely. The boys get hurt sometimes, but they consider a few broken bones a badge of honor.” I pointed to the ambulance at the ready at the back of the horse paddocks. “These boys are good at what they do – they travel the rodeo circuit months at a time, and make a living this way. The clown cowboys are there to distract the animals and help when dangerous situations occur. It is a controlled environment, even though the animals seem out of control.”
Denver and Dianne were instantly enthralled, enough that they even ignored the cotton candy man. Neva had the presence of mind to stop him, however, which is good because I love cotton candy almost as much as I love the rodeo. Denver was amazed that when the cowboys were thrown, they simply picked themselves up, brushed off their jeans and limped to their friends with a shrug.
She said, “They look so young . . . and so cute. They look like they’re only 18 – 24. Just about my age.”
“Anyone much older can’t handle the physical challenges. And I think a mature person just grows smart enough not to engage in something that may end up giving them a concussion and three broken ribs. Most of the bronco riders are young. Some of the ropers are adult men. Early 30’s. ” I said, imagining my daughter toying with the idea of becoming a rodeo groupie now, thanks to my invitation.
Denver perked up in her seat. Ha! She thought she was coming to the rodeo to see the animals, but now that she realized this was a prime opportunity to watch young he-men strutting around and spitting, she recognized how important it was to pay attention.
“Ah, that one fell hard. He needs someone to kiss it to make it better,” she said with a grin. “But I wouldn’t want one of these fellows as a boyfriend. You don’t want a boyfriend that can get broken at work.”
“No, that would be inconvenient.”
Dianne kept wincing as if she could feel each participant’s pain; also as if she was sure a horse would bash through the fence and ride right over us at any moment. She kept asking what they were doing and trying to accomplish. I explained the best I could. I still don’t know how they determine points. But I do know the basic goals of team roping, bronco busting, barrel racing, and things like wrestling a young steer down to the ground in less than 10 seconds. I shared my skimpy knowledge between shouts and exclamations of delight as I watched the feats of skill in the ring.
Every few moments an animal would ride by us, snorting and sweating, kicking mud our way. We could catch the face of the young man riding by, grim determination matching his struggle to keep astride. We could feel the breeze and heat from the animal, hear its hoofs hit the dirt, and see the wild look in its eye. Few things in the world feel this real anymore. I love the raw, upstaged element of a rodeo. It is so unlike theater performances or movies or other amusements. I love the earthy wildness of it all. The rodeo is passion, nature and masculinity all rolled up in an entertaining package.
There’s comedy to keep the night moving too. While the techies change out animals, the announcer introduces silly events, just for the fun of it. They call all the kids under 8 into the ring and let a calf out with a ribbon tied to its tail. A hundred little giggling kids chase the calf, trying to snag the ribbon to get a prize. Next, they do this with the kids 8-12, and you can bet Neva was at the head of the line. Alas, the calf darted a different direction and someone else got lucky.
I’m shocked that in this day and age they’ll let a bunch of pedestrians into a ring littered with horse dung and a live, scared animal, without first making everyone sign some kind of legal release. Kids slip in the mud, get run over by the excited calf, and get shoved into the fence. They crawl back through the fence dirty and smiling. But no one cares or runs to their little darlings to fawn over their boo boos, cussing the organization. This must be the last place on earth where kids can be kids and parents don’t threaten to sue.
As they set up the stalls with the next animal and a rider gets into position, the audience listens to jokes and watches the antics of a cowboy clown, who works to keep our attention on the center of the ring and off the angry banging in the paddock. To the side are games for kids, like rock climbing or bungee jumping and all manner of food – corn dogs, fried pickles, popcorn, barbeque and snow cones. You can wander over to see the young steers awaiting the next event, where they will be chased, roped and hog tied. They look lazy and bored, but you know in an hour they will be bleating and running full force, giving the cowboy a run for his money.
The thing is, you simply can’t get bored at a rodeo. It is loud and stimulating. People shout, stomp and clap to get the animals worked up. Music fills the air, sweaty heroes are on display, junk food, good attitudes and smiling people abound. It isn’t sophisticated, but it is full of life. I just love it.
This year they sponsored a recreational event where local business owners could send a team of three into the ring for a special challenge. Each team was given a shirt, pair of pants and a hat, and they had to catch a young steer, bring it to the ground and dress it. The team that accomplished this first would win a prize. It was funny, because half of them couldn’t even catch the calf, and the ones that did had an awful hard time getting it to the ground, then figuring out how to dress it. All these mature adults were slipping around in the mud, shouting at each other and the cows. Meanwhile, a half dozen calves are darting to and fro as if they didn’t want to get anywhere near these inexperienced clods. Those that had the cow down were dodging its hooves and arguing about how to put a shirt on the dang thing. We had to laugh at the failed attempts of these three stooges groups, each trying vainly to tackle a baby cow and work as a team.
I was like, “LET’S DO THIS NEXT YEAR! We’ll have the coffee shop so we can be the Bean Tree Team. This gives me an excuse to buy a young cow! I’ll tell Mark we NEED a baby cow. . . . we have to practice dressing it. . . for the sake of the biz, ya know. Yessiree, we could win this competition next year and that will put us on the map.”
“I’d like to see you catch one of those cows, Mom. Besides which, who would wrestle it to the ground? Not like you can talk Dad into doing that! (Denver had a point. It’s pinning the cow to the ground, grabbing it by the horns as it darts by full speed and twisting it to make it fall and roll that obviously takes a great deal of muscle and daring.)
“I’ll find someone with more ranching experience to join our team, just to do the cow tackling part. You can put the pants and shirt on it. I’ll stand by and place the cowboy hat on its head and collect the prize.” I said.
Denver crossed her arms. “You get to do the hat? Why can’t I get the hat?”
“I’m the boss. And I’ll be the one to remember to bring the hat.”
She laughed, knowing I was kidding, but from the look in her eye it was clear she wouldn’t put it past me to sign us up someday. Yes, this subject is not closed. But then, my family knows you simply can’t take yourself too seriously if you want life to be fun. Frankly, I’m not afraid to try anything once, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s mandatory to drag your kid into un-chartered waters because it gives you ammunition to tease them for the rest of their life. Priceless stuff, ya know. Anyway, we couldn’t look any more foolish than those mud-plastered, grinning, work buddies we were watching in the ring, if we tried.
It was a nice night. If you haven’t seen a rodeo, make it a point to go. Study the cow dressing – then, give me pointers if you can. Better yet, if you beg, I might even let you join my team. But I get to do the hat.