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I Changed My Mind About Rodeo

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

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I’m as green to rodeo as the Montana grass is long. But, one way or another, I’ve collected my thoughts, trying on ideas like other people’s shoes, until I’ve found the ones that fit. It takes time for one’s own feelings to shift and settle, so they no longer creak with newness every time you open your mouth.

Shoot me. When I arrived in Argentina, eight months ago, I was anti-rodeo. I had never seen a rodeo, but the prospect of breeding crazy horses, just to torment them into bucking week after week was horrifying to me. That prospect still is horrifying. The point is: that’s not rodeo. Likewise, mad cowboys getting aboard horses whose only aim is to throw them off – clinging on for as long as they could, just to delay the inevitable wreck, the almost certain breakage – also horrifying. Also untrue.

What, then, is rodeo? For the cowboys, it’s a lifestyle; for the spectators, it’s a party, and for me, well, I haven’t got there yet. I spent months feeding, moving and doctoring these horses before I ever got to see a horse buck. They got to know me and I, them. Every morning in Montana, I look forward to seeing the stallions gallop along beside the feed truck, tails high with excitement, and I giggle watching Romeo rub noses with the dog, ears all a-twitch. They’re wild as birds, but they’re not screw-loose. More than anything, they’re free.

Forgive them if they’re a pain to gather. Life beyond the chutes is a good life. At the Sankey ranch, 292 horses graze on 8,000 acres of lush Montana grassland. Hi Lo Pro Rodeo is no different. I remember standing in the rain in a pasture in Arkansas, and watching Russell smile in his close-lipped way at the colts and say, “You know, if I had to do it all again, I’d about like to come back as a buckin’ horse.” If the guys who look after the horses feel that way, who am I to disagree? And, they say the horses enjoy bucking. I think so too, but we’ll get back to that.

I thought about all of this the night before our second Drive-In Rodeo, while the horses circled the arena, a handful at a time. Wade was manning the out-gate on horseback. They’d gallop around for a moment, sometimes bucking, always snorting, and then pause quizzically. Wade lets the horses get their bearings, eyeballing the banners and the speakers, then pushes them back through the out-gate and into the pens. That’s the kicker. Tomorrow, in the heat of it all, the horses have to know where to go. Watching the cream of the crop, one can see the Sankey blood running strong, feathered, bay and drafty. Slowly I’m able to trace remembrances between the familiar bold names and last week’s cowboys. A broad-nosed palomino gallops out, furious, and I know he’s Exotic Blonde before Wade says a thing. I remember Trenton Montero riding him last week. I remember the wreck.

Wrecks are a part of rodeo. Before it starts, all the cowboys sign a waiver, and there’s a sign on the bucking chutes that reads, ‘Warning: It is the policy of the state of Montana that a person is not liable for damages sustained by another solely as a result of risks inherent in equine activities.’ This time, there were no damages. In one way, that’s the norm. Cowboys hit the dust time after time and walk it off like it’s nothing. But, I could swear I saw Caleb Meeks limping slightly, even if his head was high. Sometimes you can see the pain grinding between their bones like sand. Trenton has broken his collar-bone on so many occasions that it sticks out above his shoulder, and my friend Joe Harper fondly remembers the season he spent riding on a broken tailbone. When they get older, the grit will work its way into bowed knees and stiff wrists, but not one of them would have it any other way. The cowboys are tough, and those who care about them can’t quite phrase how they feel about it. Their brothers all do it too, so there’s no asking them, but their sisters and their wives all smile and look away with a shrug.

“It is what it is. But he loves it, so you’ve got to be happy for him. And he could hurt himself driving his truck or walking down stairs so, you know.”

One girl in giant pink sunglasses just laughed, “What? You’re so afraid of dying that you’re not going to live?”

Trenton’s wife is just glad he doesn’t ride bulls anymore. Put it this way: bull riders wear helmets. She remembers the days when he’d compete in the bareback riding in the morning, and the bulls in the afternoon. One bull ride put him out cold. “After that I could never enjoy the rodeo, just waiting for the stupid bull riding to get done.”

“But the cowboys choose to get on!” say the antis, “The animals don’t get a choice.” Correct. Nobody asks the animals whether or not they want to buck, and this is something I’ve chewed on a great deal. In the end, I think it’s okay. Ike Sankey, co-founder of Sankey Pro Rodeo, once told me that “There’s nothing you can do’ll make a horse buck if he doesn’t want to.” Ike is right, and yet we snag slightly on the flank strap. This is probably the most misunderstood piece of equipment in the whole industry. Contrary to popular belief, the sheepskin-lined loop around the flank is not at all tight, and (given that the best bucking horses are mares), its function has nothing to do with irritating the horse’s genitals. That said; horses don’t buck as well without the strap. They won’t kick out as much. So, if you need the strap to provoke the right kind of buck, do they enjoy bucking?

My only way to tell is by watching the horses. I’ve said before that they’ll buck in the pastures because it feels good, like a dog careening about the garden with joy. Watching them in the chutes, the younger ones might spook – like any colt – but the rest know why they’re there. 95% of them wait calmly, with one ear cocked back to their cowboy, and the other ear pointing into the arena, where another horse is bucking. I like it when they crane their big heads over the bars to watch.

When the cowboy steps over, the horse is all focus. It’s the same electric stillness I felt in my show jumping pony, right before we entered the final round. That same pony, Biscuit, would be at the pasture gate bright and early every Sunday morning – ready to compete. She loved it. But, would she jump the course by herself, if I wasn’t on her back? Of course not. The view I’ve settled into is this: being against rodeo only makes sense if you’re against horse riding altogether. The 5% of horses who mess around in the chute are the same naughty outliers that won’t load into a trailer at the end of a show, but nobody is claiming that the trailer is abuse. And, I was wrong to think that the horses were bucked day after day. The stock contractors who own these horses are businesses, selling the best buck they can. All horses perform best when they are happy, well-rested, and healthy. Truly caring for these horses is in the interest of the stock contractors’ wallets and their hearts.

I felt a shift in myself, watching my second rodeo. Even though I was closer with the cowboys and the horses than ever before, I wasn’t worried anymore. I trusted them. It had taken this long for me to realise that cowboys are skilled athletes who know how to get off a bucking horse even better than they know how to stay on. So I watched Joe step over the horse’s back and I held my breath and I watched and he spurred and all the rising in my chest was pride. The fear fell away. This thumping heart rate feels better, and more true. It’s hard to be scared for a cowboy when he’s grinning at you before and after he gets on his horse.

The deeper I get into rodeo, the more it swallows me. I can’t look away. Not just there, over the railings of the arena, but in my lifestyle and my life. Even if I missed every ride at the Drive-In Rodeo, there’s an openness to the group that I can’t bear to leave behind. When the horses are fed and watered, and the cowboys have unstrapped their wrists, and changed from their riding jeans into their wearing jeans, the stories begin to come out. The one time Trenton rode Virgil (as much of a rodeo legend as that Roman dude ever was), a lock of the horse’s mane got tangled in his spur. He’ll get out his wallet and show it to you, if you ask. Being open doesn’t mean that anyone is allowed in. Across and within cowboy circles of Arkansas, Colorado, and Montana, there are cliques – and that’s before you even start on the Flathatters. Being open means they’ll give you a chance. And, if you’re okay, well shit, have a beer, why not.


Interview on RFD-TV:

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