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Learning The Ropes

Updated: Apr 15, 2020

My first day of work for Hi Lo Pro Rodeo started at sunrise. Russell and I drove to work in the dark. The tall boles of wet trees began to stand out from the mist, staying black as thin stripes of night against the brightening clouds. Soon, the grass is green and the earth is red. The white sky hangs blank and still.

Russell’s jeans are clean. I know that because he taps his finger on his leg while he talks. He works on the ranch, with Earl and Joe, and has been friends with Van since their riding days. His kids are all grown, so he’s taking care of me while the electrics get fixed up in my motorhome. Today, like yesterday, Russell’s wearing square glasses on his round nose, double denim and a beige cowboy hat. His finger stops tapping for a moment to point out of my window, “Them horses over there’re the mares.” 30 horses half-raise their heads as we drive by. In the next field are 12 bulls with blunt horns, most of which have bulbous humps on their necks. That means they’ve got Brahmin blood. All the animals start heading towards the gate; they know it’s time for breakfast.

These are all bucking horses and bucking bulls. People like Van dedicate their lives to breeding together the best bucking genes they can. The better your animals buck, the bigger the rodeos that will want to use them, and that brings the stock company prestige, honour, and cash. A horse that only kicks its back legs while hopping along on its front is known as a ‘hopper’, and that’s not what you want. To get a horse into the National Finals it’s got to lift its front hooves, push off with its back legs, and hang suspended in the air for a moment, before landing on its front hooves, and kicking out behind. That’s what you call good ‘drop’. Until now, I thought that the horses in the National Finals would be the craziest ones; the ones that make it hardest to hold on.

One of the Hi Lo mares, a bay called Wilson Sanchez, has made it to the National Rodeo Finals five times. I watched her bucking on the telly last night. It was a 2016 re-run. The Cowboy Channel hasn’t got any new rodeos to broadcast; they’re all cancelled, like everything else. But, I was glad of the chance to watch Wilson Sanchez show her talent, bucking with the perfect blend of strength, rhythm and flare that enabled the cowboy to show his talent too. The cowboy doesn’t win by holding on for the longest time. He only has to stay on for 8 seconds, but in those 8 long seconds, he’s got to kick and lean back and forth in perfect unison with the horse’s timing. When the judges give their final score, half of the score is on the cowboy, half is on the horse. It’s a team effort, in a way, except that the cowboys don’t get to choose and train their mounts like jockeys do. The cowboy only finds out which bucking horse he’ll be riding on the day of the rodeo, and then he gambles his career, his money, and his life on that horse’s back.

Last-night, Wilson Sanchez shone like the star she is, cheered on by thousands in the NFR arena in Las Vegas. Today, she nickered gently while I poured food into a big concrete bin, her big curious eyes skating over this new figure in the field. Her body’s broader than her face would imply, even with her fluffy coat flattened in the deepening rain. She seemed alright, from here. It was odd, being in the field with the bucking horses. They’re not halter broken; you can’t just lead them along like you would a normal horse. You can’t even touch them. “If you do, that means there’s something wrong with’m,” says Russell. Apparently they’re the wildest horses I’ve ever known, but they don’t seem that way.

Oddly, neither do the bulls. We loaded up the truck with 50lb sacks of food and headed to the bull pen. Here, we don’t let the bulls into the feeding pen until we’ve rationed out all the food, just in case. Black, and brown, and white, and black-and-white bulls all line up outside, lowing while the sweet smell of grain builds in the morning air. Russell opens the gate for them and slowly makes his way out while they plod in across the mud, preferring to share a bucket with a fellow than to walk the extra two metres to get a bucket of their own. Sometimes they’ll step vaguely towards another bull to move them off, but you can tell their heart’s not in it. In Spain, the fighting bulls, toros bravos, would swing their horns at each other for prime position in front of the feeder. These bulls are slow and gruff, as if they need an extra hour’s sleep. Still, I won’t be stepping up to ride them any time soon.

We got through over 1000lbs of pellets today. Feeding the animals took all morning, what with several different fields of horses to deal with, and the trucks getting stuck in the mud at almost every gate. Russell says he won’t complain about the flooded fields because, before you know it, we’ll be begging for rain.

I asked Russell if he ever rodeoed. Yes, but he wasn’t any good at riding. Roping was his thing; that’s what you call work with a lasso. Except the Americans don’t call them lassos, they call them, obviously, ropes. The ropes aren’t made of rope, they’re made of plastic. All the ones on telly are blue, or pink, or yellow, often matching the cowboy’s snazzy outfit. Ropers work as a team; the ‘header’ ropes the young bull’s horns first, then the ‘heeler’ catches the back feet together. It all happens in about 4.2 seconds. Even with the slow-motion replays on telly last night, Russell didn’t have time to explain what was happening before the bull was caught and the next lasso was already thrown. There was time for Russell’s eyes to light up, though. Back in the day, he was a ‘heeler’, and it’s obvious in his face how much he prefers watching roping to bronc riding.

He made us both some lunch at home, and then appeared with a pair of spurs. The sides are decorated with little metal ropers, heading and heeling.

“Won these in the late eighties. They were always too small for me so, you know, I reckon about you can keep’em.” He opens the door. “C’mon.” He drags a little sledge shaped like a bull out of the barn and grins, “We gotta get you roping, girl.” His wrist flicks expertly, the yellow rope floating in figures of eight over his head, and, before I even know it, wha-chsh, the loop catches the horns with a plastic clatter.

Getting started was harder than I anticipated. Even though the rope’s pretty stiff, mine kept twisting back on itself and hitting me in the face. I took my hat off for a while. Then I decided there was no use learning to rope if you couldn’t do it with your hat on. Russell set to cleaning the rust off those old spurs of his. Eventually, I got it. By accident, at first. The rope bounced off something else and got the bull. But then I did it on purpose. And then another time. Russell presented me with the spurs and a beer. “Nice going, girl.”

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