When is courage just stupidity?
The streets around the rodeo grounds were blocked off, and vendors sold Western gear, boots, hats, bandanas, and kids’ souvenirs. The stands closest to the grounds sold food — a variety of beef, beer, and fries. I love that greasy smell that permeates the bleachers of a fair or rodeo, the smoking of beef on a line-up of grills for burgers, kabobs, tips, and brisket sandwiches.
Spectators filled the stands, more locals than tourists. Rodeo attendees wore intricately leather carved and beaded or painted cowboy boots, western-style snap shirts, and jeans. Many sported turquoise jewelry or tooled belts with big silver buckles, and hats decorated with fancy bands. The rodeo was the place to show off finery, and Native people mingled with Caucasians at this rodeo.
My father grew up on a farm in Minnesota, so the rodeo seemed foreign from the county fair, where 4-H’ers showed heifers and other livestock, or garden cornucopia. The rodeo was fiercer and dangerous.
My home town was located on the Missouri River, and as John Steinbeck famously noted in Travels with Charley, the Missouri divides the Eastern United States from the West.
On the eastern side of the river were farms and fields of grain and crops. On the western side of the river, ranchers herded beef cattle across rolling acres of range land. One friend, when I was in high school, was a rodeo princess. Another friend’s father raised Arabian horses on the western side of the Missouri.
I wasn’t a stranger to rodeos.
It had just been a while. The last event I attended was at the Minnesota State Fair, where I watched the grand entry. The riders carried billowing U.S. flags, the emcee was over-the-top with patriotic aphorisms. We all stood to honor various veteran groups, the national anthem, and the pledge of allegiance. Then the events began.
Bull-riding scares me. It seems like we are waiting to watch a tragedy, as young men vying for purse money ride mad bulls twirling and kicking until the riders fly off and roll to avoid descending hooves on an animal who weighs a ton. Rodeo clowns tease bulls away and into the gateway exiting the arena.
I watched two milder events, bronco riding, and calf-roping, at the rodeo.
The bucking bronco event was first, the cowboy holding onto a rope with one hand and waving the other as the horse shook and kicked around the ring. The cowboy’s rawhide chaps were flying up, the announcer provided some background on the competitor and the horse, often with a threatening name. He excitedly gave the score awarded by the judges, inviting applause if the rider lasted until the buzzer.
The horses buck hard because they are cinched with a flank strap that pinches. Rodeos have used burs under the flank straps and electric prods in the chutes for events, per animal rights groups.
The calf-roping event was next, before the bull-riding. The cowboy threw his lasso around the calf’s neck, and the quarter-horse backed up, pulling the rope taut. The calf roper was quickly out of the saddle, body slammed the calf to the ground, pulled a short rope out from his clenched teeth, roped three legs of the calf, and raised both hands in the air to stop the clock.
The shirts of the cowboys were fringed or spangled or spanking new. The calves were bug-eyed and terrified. I didn’t like what I was watching. Although I had planned to spend the afternoon, I decided that I’d had enough.
Later, friends said they had been to a small-town rodeo, with less-experienced riders. In the two-person steer roping event, the timing went wrong and the steer was pulled in opposite directions by the cowboy lassoing his head and the one who had roped his feet. It was ugly.
In calf roping, the calf runs at full speed and is jerked backward by the rope, sometimes almost flipping. The calf is then body-slammed again by the cowboy. Pro-rodeo sites assert that the livestock is well cared for. Animal rights groups assert cruelty.
I left before bull-riding, but I think I watched Bodacious sometime mid-90s. Bodacious was a big, muscled yellow bull that had developed a reputation that matched his name. Over his four-year career, 135 cowboys mounted the bull in the chute; 127 were thrown off before the required eight seconds for a completed ride elapsed.
According to the best cowboys who rode Bodacious, the bull didn’t just want to throw you, he wanted to hurt you.
And he succeeded. His career was shortened when his owner decided to retire him before he killed somebody. Cowboys started turning down the ride if they drew his name. Even if you won, you lost — time recovering, injuries that might last a long time.
In his prime, Bodacious was described variously as the Secretariat or Michael Jordan, or the GOAT of bulls. While other great athletes want to win, Bodacious wanted to hurt. In the culture of rodeo, it made him a great bull. He had his own swag for fans to buy.
The rodeo had its origins in the skills cowboys needed on trail drives, or in the wild west shows of the 19th century. Skills for another century.
Like circuses with lions and tigers and elephants, maybe the rodeo has had its day — although it remains an iconic participatory event of the West.