Flying Cowboys

Flying Cowboys

A Day At the Rodeo.

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT a cowboy. The hat pulled down over the eyes, the nothing-but-blue-jeans wardrobe, that leather-chaps strut. He’s a time traveler, a piece of living history, as romantic as the cover of a gothic novel or a silver-screen hero with a white hat and a palomino for a best friend.

The myth of the American cowboy is so dashing, so rugged, so “Aw shucks, ma’am” irresistible that 20th-century guys who could find jobs that don’t require daily chiropractic treatment still choose to ride ’em, rope ’em, and wrestle ’em at rodeos across the country. And lots of women—along with families, ranchers, city folks, and little boys who want to grow up to be cowboys—love to watch ’em.

Rodeos in the United States attract some 20 million people every year, and that’s only counting the sensible ones who sit in the bleachers. Another 6,000 or so contestants register with organizations like the Profesional Rodeo Cowboys Association to compete. And every one of them wears a hat.

I wore my own buckskin-colored Resistol cowboy hat to the State Fair last year and left my dress-up Stetson at home. Good thing. Halfway through the saddle bronc riding event, right in front of my ringside seat, a horse went south, the rider went north, and clods of arena mud rained down on me, my hat, and my popcorn. Well, I hope it was mud.

What goes on in a rodeo is fascinating to watch, even if you’re a city girl silly enough to ask the fellow sitting next to her if all bulls are males. I’m not saying I did, and I’m not saying I didn’t. How can they get a horse to stop dead in its tracks the moment they’ve got a calf roped, when I can’t train dog to heel? It’s impressive to watch the way the horses work with their riders, and the way the riders hold onto their mounts. There is barrel racing, team roping, and breathtaking trick riding. There are clowns, announcers on horseback, and girls riding ponies and carrying flags. Then those Belgian and Clydesdale monsters come out pulling that beer wagon and make you believe in dinosaurs all over again.

It’s a sport with its own culture. In a rodeo area, God is mentioned without shame, as is the flag and the family. Red, white, and blue bunting is everywhere. People, even people from Duluth, suddenly speak with Texas accents. Touching the bring of your hat and nodding is an accepted form of communication. Men have courtly manner—“Yes, ma’am,” “No, ma’am,” “Take my seat, pretty lady”—but the emcees tell jokes based on gastrointestinal processes, and the clowns perform slapstick with chickens. Cowgirls compete, too, and it must be great exercise, because not one of them was bigger than a size six.

I ride a horse once every five years, so it took me a while to decipher the rodeo program. For the first half of the show, I thought lots of guys named their horses Skoal until I figured out that cowboys, like race care drivers, have corporate sponsors. Horses actually have much cooler names, like Howlinathemoon, Flaming Mite, and Pants on Fire. Lake basketball, rodeo has its legends—such as Tuff Hedeman, a three-time world-champion bull rider who looks like a model in a Calvin Klein jeans ad, or six-time World All-Around Cowboy Ty Murray. And like basketball stars, rodeo legends endorse products, only they sell western shirts, boots, and jeans instead of soft drinks and sneakers.

Rodeo is the only sport in the world that developed from skills required in a work situation. unless changing a diaper with one hand tied behind your back ever catches on with ESPN. Calf roping was necessary to catch and immobilize sick or injured calves for treatment, and bareback riding came from breaking horses. Steer wrestling doesn’t seem like a very sensible event, though. A cowboy slides down the side of his horse until he reaches the steer’s horns—neither steer nor horse is standing still during this, mind you—grabs them, digs his heels in the dirt, and uses leverage (oh, sure) to bring down the steer in three seconds. Seems dangerous.

“Well, yeah, sometimes you get a horn in your side and it kinda rubs on you and hurts,” cowboy Brian Whittaker of Victoria Farms in Victoria, MN told me. A horn in your side. Kinda hurts. Uh-huh.

If a cowboy doesn’t rope his steer fast enough or falls off his bucking something-or-other before he was supposed to, then he must brush off all that brown stuff he fell in and stagger painfully back to the fence while listening to the announcer shame him publicly. “Tim, have you ever don’t this before?” “Well, Bobby, you failed.” “Your time was worse that a 47-year-old man” got a big laugh. It he wins, he might get a belt buckle or something. Top cowpersons may break into six figures annually, but if a competitor doesn’t place, he and she doesn’t bring home any jingle.

They all do, however, get to join the ranks of Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper and John Wayne. They get to sit tall in the saddle, ride one more time around the ring, wave to the crowds and be the thing all of us have wanted to be since we were old enough to dream about riding off into the sunset—a real, live, American hero.

This was published in Minnesota Monthly, July 1996, p. 16-18.

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