On The Rodeo
Helen Thompson’s guide to this most Texan of events.
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Every season in Texas is rodeo season, but the biggest rodeos in the state are in February and March. Here’s our guide to rodeos—how they got started, how they work, which is the best, and rodeo champions’ secrets to being the best. We’ll also give you valuable tips on how to talk about rodeo without putting your Gucci loafer-shod foot in your mouth—when, for instance, it’s ok to use the label “hooker” in polite company, and when a pickup man can save your life. Rodeos have a strong hold on our culture. Even in Texas, where they are so commonplace that you can find one almost any weekend in small towns all over the state—rodeos are still a big deal, no matter how lavish or how little they are.
How it all got started
Rodeo comes from the Spanish word, “rodear” which means to encircle or to surround. To the Spanish in New Spain (now Mexico) in the mid-sixteenth century, a rodeo was simply a cattle roundup. It is probably inevitable that a competitive and flashy culmination to these roundups would evolve: it was a chance for cowhands to show off their skills breaking an especially wild bronco or flaunt their flair as a roper. But it wasn’t until the mid-eighteen hundreds that these contests got organized into full-fledged celebrations.
Texas would like to take credit for the first rodeo celebration: In the early 1880s in the West Texas town of Pecos, cowboys would get off work and come into town on the Fourth of July (also known as Cowboy Christmas). They would thunder down Main street roping steers and corraling the critters in the courthouse square. By some historical accounts, this was the birth of rodeo. Even though Coloradoans also claim that distinction, Texans did have something to do with one of the earliest rodeos, this one in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1872. The occasion was the forerunner of the weeklong Frontier Days still held in Cheyenne. As the story goes, a group of Texas cowboys arrived in Cheyenne and decided to celebrate July Fourth with an exhibition of their steer-riding prowess. The even t must have been successful, because the next year local cowboys chose to do a little bronco-busting to celebrate Independence Day—down the middle of one of Cheyenne’s main streets. (Bronco-busting a hundred years ago didn’t have the advantage of a life-saving buzzer going off after 8 seconds—cowboys rode the bronc until either it or the rider gave out, and sometimes that was as long as twenty minutes.)
Rodeos emerged from the workaday world of the cowboy along with America’s growing fascination with the West: in 1882 Buffalo Bill Cody turned the west into lucrative entertainment with his first Wild West show. Cody used the term “rodeo” for these extravaganzas which included roping, riding, bronco-busting, and bull riding (always the thrilling finale). Sometimes as many as a thousand cowboys competed for prizes. By the 1890s rodeos were commonplace all over the catt le-raising regions of the West. Nowadays the rodeo has shifted away from its origins as a way for working cowboys to blow off steam: it is more of a show, and demands all the time and money a major theatrical productions might cost. An aspiring cowboy or cowgirl will have to compete in 80 to 125 rodeos a year, be well-subsidized (thousands and thousands of dollars can be spent on travel and entry fees alone, not to mention horses, equipment, and maintenance), and expect to spend at least 200 days a year on the road.
Today’s rodeos are glitzy affairs—and seem a far cry from the simple display of a cowboy’s working skills. Of course, no self-respecting cowboy would appear on the range in some of the gaudy get-ups they sport in the arena. They have the women to thank f or the change in rodeo costuming: in the early years of motion pictures, winning a rodeo championship was almost a sure way for a woman to break into silent films. Often these skilled equestriennes were performers anyway—in their divided skirts and spang led shirts they could wow an audience bulldogging steers, busting broncos, or balancing on two horses as they spun around an arena. Women began wearing colorful leggings and red velvet skirts with lavishly embroidered hems; in later years bright trousers, silk shirts, and dashing neckerchiefs were popular. Cowboys had to capitulate to please their fans—and that’s why most of them today look more like performers than like cowboys. Nowadays rodeos are a raucous amalgam of both America’s oldest, and newest, icons: the roundup, the Wild West show, and the movies.
How to talk sensibly about rodeo’s essential elements.
Average: scores on all go rounds (see below) plus the score on the short go (see below). Whoever has the highest average wins.
Bareback bronc: a horse whose rider isn’t using a saddle but is hanging on courtesy of a strap around the horse’s rib cage.
Barrel man: the rodeo clown, an important factor in the bullriding event. He hides in a barrel until he is needed to distract a dangerous bull from injuring a thrown rider; also leads a dismounted bull away from the cowboy and out of the arena; a good clown can also coax a better performance out of a bucking bull before he is dismounted.
Circuit finals: Regional finals before the championship. Texas is the only state that has its own circuit.
Clover leaf: the route contestants in the barrel race follow
Dogie: a motherless, or wild, calf
Free hand: in rodeo riding events one hand must stay free at all times
Go round: a contestant’s turn at a rodeo event
Good bucker: a bucking horse or bull admired by the contestants
Hooker: a bull who, when he bucks, throws the rider forward so that he can hook the rider with his horns.
Houlihan: the head-over-heels tumble a steer takes in the steer wrestling event
Low time: the winner in a timed rodeo event
Luck of the draw: the animal most likely to give a contestant a good (high) score
Marking out: the position of the rider’s feet over the shoulders of a bucking horse as it makes its first jump out of the chute
PRCA: Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association
NFR: National Finals Rodeo
Perfect score: One hundred points (fifty for the rider; fifty for the horse or bull). A rider can execute a perfect ride by not getting thrown, by having good style, and by riding a wild animal well. A horse or bull is perfect if they give the ride r a harrowing ride and then throw him at the last minute. There has never been a 100-point ride in the saddle-bronc event and only recently was a score of 100 awarded in bull riding, much to the consternation of rodeo performers everywhere. As saddle bron c rider Craig Latham notes, “If the bull or a horse does a perfect job, then you’re on the ground.” And that’s not a perfect score for the rider.
Pickup man: a rider in the arena who helps a contestant off a bucking horse
Saddle bronc: a horse ridden by a rider using a roughout saddle and a cloth rein.
Short go: a turn at an event in the championship round
Spinner: a bull that spins or turns as if chasing its tail. Scores high, especially if it spins both left and right
Stampede: an out-of-control herd of cattle
Team roper: a member of a two-person roping team, one of whom ropes the steer by the horns and the other of whom ropes the steer by the rear feet
Terms and meanings you need to know if you plan to talk about rodeos.
Bull rope: a flat braided rope wrapped around the bull’s midsection for the bull rider to hang on to Tip from six-time rodeo world champion Larry Mahan on how to ride a bull: “Before the gate is open, find the correct position on top of the bull and stay there. Stick your hand in the rope and stay as close to the back of your hand as possible. If you get back off your rope, a bull has a tendency to whip you down over his front end and slam dunk you onto the ground.
Chaps: leather coverings worn over riding jeans (originally worn by working cowboys to protect their legs from cactus and brush)
Cowbell: a bell on the end of the bull rope, used to drag the rope from the bull after the rider dismounts (or is dismounted)
Half-Hitch: a knot used by calf ropers to secure the rope around three of a calf’s legs
Hobble: leather strips wrapped around a horse’s front legs to keep it from straying
Latigo: leather strip
Loop: refers to a loop of rope which can be configured as a long or wide loop, or which can be thrown at an animal in order to bring them down in events such as Heading
Rein: rope made of woven cotton used in saddle bronc riding
Riding glove: worn by contestants in bareback and bull riding
Rigging: a handhold made of leather and rawhide used in bareback riding
Roughout: an unfinished saddle, sometimes preferred by riders when bronco busting
Stirrup: a foot rest hanging from both sides of the saddle
Professional rodeo has shifted away from its origins as a way for working cowboys to blow off steam: now it resembles a major theatrical production, not only in the time and money expended but also in the events themselves. Today’s rodeo events are the glitzy remnants of the old round-ups: bull and saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling and roping were daily occurrences on the ranch. The lives of the participants resemble more the daily grind of performers rather than working cowboys. An aspiring cowboy or cowgirl will have to compete in 80 to 125 rodeos a year, be prepared to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on horses, equipment, and maintenance—plus travel and entry fees. One place you won’t see a professional rodeo cowboy is on the ranch—because they are on the road traveling the rodeo circuit at least 200 days a year.
Craig Latham of Texhoma, Texas, is ranked as one of the nation’s top five saddle bronc riders and has been riding professionally for ten years. “You’ve got to get in time with the horse,” says Latham about how to win in this event. “Placing your feet in the top of the horse’s mane on the first jump out is essential,” he says. “You might as well get off if you don’t do that.”
Saddle Bronc Riding
Rodeos probably sprang from early competitions in this event. A rider begins his ride with his feet over his bronc’s shoulders—to give the horse the advantage. The point of this event is to stay on the horse for 8 seconds, until the buzzer sounds. T he contestant is disqualified if he touches the animal, himself, or equipment with his free hand or if either foot slips out of the stirrup, if he drops the rein he is holding in one hand, or if he fails to have his feet in the proper position at the begi nning of the ride. His score is also derived from how good his riding style is: a rider who synchronizes his spurring action with the animal’s bucking will get a high score. Other factors considered by the judges are the cowboy’s control throughout the ri de, the length of this spurring stroke, and how hard the horse bucks. Good spurring begins with the rider’s feet far forward on the bronc’s shoulder, sweeping to the back of the saddle as the horse bucks.
The rider should snap his feet back to the horse’s neck a split second before the animal’a well-conditioned and happy horse is the reason he wins: “Concentrate,” he says, “and always ride a good horse,” The horse’s comfort is topmost in Josey’s mind, and a well-padded saddle that lays across the animal’s backbone is key.
This event also sprang from an everyday occurrence on ranches in the old west (when a calf was sick a cowboy roped it so that he could administer medicine). Although it is not a showy event, calf roping is actually much more difficult than it appears and involves success in several distinct skills in a very brief time frame (eight seconds). In fact, in the 1995 National Finals Rodeo, no one even qualified in the event and no winning checks were awarded. Masterful calf roping depends mainly on teamwork bet ween a cowboy and his horse, but the luck of the draw is also a factor (a fiesty calf that runs fast or kicks hard can ruin a cowboy’s best efforts). The calf is given a head start and the horse and rider pursue it; the rider ropes the calf, dismounts, an d runs to the calf. After catching and flanking the calf (picking it up and flopping it down on its side or flank), the cowboy ties any three of the calf’s legs together with a pigging string he has been carrying in his teeth. If the calf isn’t standing w hen the cowboy reaches it, he has to get the animal to stand up and then flank it, losing precious time. During this time a good horse must lean back so that the rope remains taut so that the calf can’t wiggle free. Once the rider has completed his tie, he throws his hands in the air, remounts, and lets the rope go slack; if the calf kicks free within six seconds the run is declared invalid.
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A tip from six-time rodeo world champion Larry Mahan on how to ride a bull: “Before the gate is open, find the correct position on top of the bull and stay there. Stick your hand in the rope and stay as close to the back of your hand as possible. If you get back off your rope, a bull has a tendency to whop you down over his front end and slam dunk you onto the ground.”
This event is always last, and is always the most eagerly anticipated. It is similar to the bareback event, except that the bull is bigger and wilder than a horse. Also, a cowboy may choose not to spur his animal—although if he does, his score will be higher. As in all riding events, half the score is determined by the animal. The rider can not touch himself, the equipment, or the animal with his free hand in the eight seconds before the buzzer.
Ranch Rodeo Events
If you want to see how cowboys really work day in and day out, watch these events. Ranch Rodeos are competitions between ranches and are not part of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association circuit. They tend to be more-modest affairs, in small arenas, in small towns, but they maintain an authenticity that gives them an appeal that the PRCA rodeos can’t achieve.
One rider represents each ranch participating in the rodeo in this timed event. They ride, using a stock saddle, until either the horse throws them or the buzzer sounds.
A team of five cowboys works to remove cows from a herd in a specific numerical order. As the riders cross the starting line, the announcer calls a number; while four cowboys hold the herd, the fifth must cut out each cow from the herd in the order called. This is a timed event.
The objective in this timed event is to cut a designated animal from a herd, head it, and then heel it (which means: tie up its front legs and then with the same rope secure its hind legs).
A roper must cut away from a herd of yearlings (which weigh about 550 pounds each) a designated animal, drive it and rope it while a second cowboy heels the animal. A cowboy designated as the veterinarian dismounts and draws a chalk mark between the yearlings eyes. The lowest time wins.
Wild cow milking
Generally considered the most hilarious of the rodeo events, wild cow milking involves all members of a team. One rider ropes the cow while another milks the cow. Any of the four team members can run to the judges’ booth with the milk.
A timed event in which a roper crosses a start line and enters a herd of cattle. He ropes a calf and moves it across the line where his teammates position the calf on its side and remove the rope. This is the signal for the brander to leave his designated area and race over to the calf to apply the brand. Once branding is completed, the brander returns to his area and timing ceases.
Cowboys work together in this timed event to see which team can cut three designated calves from a herd of numbered calves and move them to a pen across the arena. The lowest time wins.
Steer roper Arnold Felts was world champion in 1981 (that means he won more money than anyone else) and four-time winner of the steer-roping championships at the national finals in Guthrie, Oklahoma. His best time is 8.7 seconds, but making a good time is n’t the hardest part for Felts, who lives in Sonora, Texas. “It’s the travel,” he says. Some of Felts’ steer-roping escapades sound like they could wear a person down, too. “There is a lot of torque at certain points,” he says. Felts knows from experience : recently he broke a rope just as he was about to make the throw—it snapped back and hit him in the face, badly cutting him across his cheek. The really hard part of steer roping is not beating yourself: “I’ve won even with a bad animal,” Felts says. “B ut you can’t win if you try to exceed your limitations.”
Although this is one of professional rodeo’s oldest events, you won’t see it performed often since it requires a very large arena. But get your fill of this exciting event at the National Steer Roping Finals at the Lazy E Arena in G uthrie, Oklahoma, every November.
Steer roping is similar to calf roping except the quarry is about seven times larger and there is only one legal catch. A cowboy must rope the steer around its horns and bring the steer to its side on the ground; then he must tie any three of its legs. As in the calf roping event, if the animal breaks free in the allotted six seconds the run is disqualified.
This event is a good example of the laws of physics at work—steer wrestling doesn’t require a huge display of strength but rather a good understanding of the principles of leverage. The cowboy begins his chase from behind a barr ier, after the six- or seven-hundred-pound steer has been given a head start. He is assisted by a hazer, another cowboy on horseback who must keep the steer running in a straight line. The bulldogger pulls even with the steer, eases down the right side of the horse and grasps the steer’s horns. Then he digs his heels into th e dirt. As the steer slows down the cowboy turns the animal and lifts up on the right horn while pushing down with his left hand on the left horn. He must either bring the steer to a complete halt or change the direction of the animal’s body before the th row. The throw is completed and timing stops when the steer is on his side with all four legs extending in the same direction.
Tee Woolman, from Llano, is a three-time wsition your horse, swing the rope, find your target, and deliver.
Team Roping, or Heading and Heeling
Don’t blink or you’ll miss this event—everything happens fast in team roping, which is the only team event in PRCA rodeo. The team consists of a header and a heeler—the header sets up the action for the hee ler to complete by chasing the steer out of the box on horseback and roping him around the horns or neck. A header is often compared to the quarterback on a football team. He must then turn the steer to the left so that his partner, the heeler, can rope t he steer’s hind feet. The event is completed when the steer is secured, the slack is taken out of both ropes, and the ropers’ horses are facing each other on either side of the steer.
Next to bull riding, bareback riding accounts for some of the most spectacular action in a rodeo. This ride begins in the same way the saddle bronc ride begins, with the rider’s feet placed about the break of the horseís shoulder. The cowboy’s feet must be in this position when the horse’s feet hit the ground on his first jump out of the chute or he is disqualified (it’s called a failure to mark out the horse properly). A cowboy will also be disqualified if he touches the equipment, himself, or the animal with his free hand during the eight-second ride. He must grasp the rigging (a handhold made of leather and rawhide) with only one hand. The best spurring action begins with the riders heels at the horse’s neck; the rider then pulls his feet, toes turned outward, to the horse’s withers until his feet are nearly touching the bareback rigging. In this event, the horse’s performance is also judged and accounts for half the total score.
Martha Josey is the only rodeo performer, along with steer wrestler Roy Duvall, to have gone to the PRCA national finals in all four decades. Josey’s secret to success is easy: “You have to be organized and you have to practice.” And there is one thing y ou should never do to your horse in this event where executing sharp turns is all-important. “Don’t pull on the reins,” she says. “When you want your horse to turn, use your body to show him which way to go.”
This event has traditionally been a “women’s” event, since only women participated in it. It wasn’t considered competitve because it wasn’t timed. Even so, this race around a course of four barrels set in a cloverleaf can be exciting.