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The Rodeo

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

A cowboy grabs a leather strap between his teeth and pulls. The gauntlet is not thrown down, but strapped on, and it’s show time.

Five minutes before, I was horseback at the other end of the arena, holding the weight of the American flag on my right shoulder, with no idea what ‘rodeo’ meant. I knew how much it meant to people, I had felt echoes of its force through the way cowboys talk about good men and great horses, but I didn’t know why.

Credit: Mary Peters

The rodeo life is lived on the road, with every cowboy crossing the States several times a week to give that spur and get that kick. Not this year. There hasn’t been a rodeo for months. We've Sankey Pro Rodeo to thank for this one. The community is collectively chomping at the bit, and as I ride into the arena with that star-spangled flag, the buzzing tension of every bated breath streams into the centre and collects in me. I’m ready to find out what it’s all about.

I head behind the bucking chutes, where twelve cowboys are stretching and testing out their rigging. They mount it on the ground, with legs outstretched and one arm in the air, making the ride of their lives on imaginary broncs. A goofy cowboy wearing jeans tied up with string let me try his. It’s one of those things where he can’t quite explain what he does or how he does it; he just sort of does, “and it works out ok, I guess.”

Then he starts getting ready in earnest. Bareback riders like him strap their gloves to their wrists and tape their boots to their legs. They’ve got one handle on the horse’s withers to hold onto, and after that it’s all heels and balance.

The goofy cowboy didn’t seem so goofy when the gate snapped open and he was suddenly Troy Kirkpatrick riding Lone Ranger, keeping cool over the force of the wildness beneath him. The horse bucked with the knee-jerk speed of a semi-automatic. Troy spurred just a hair faster. “You’ve got to get your feet to the horse’s shoulders before his front hooves hit the floor, that way you stay ahead of the whiplash.” On every buck, he draws his boots up and back, touching the horse high on its withers. Lone Ranger lets off his firecracker buck fourteen times in eight seconds and Troy’s there for every beat. The timer sounds. He’s made it.

Caleb Meeks riding Sankey Pro Rodeo's Equine Earthquake

I sighed my relief and immediately drew breath again. Lone Ranger doesn’t care about the timer. A tangle of legs rushed past the fence in front of my eyes and I realised we weren’t home and dry yet. Two pick up men on bandaged horses swoop in to the rescue. The one on the right gallops alongside Lone Ranger, keeping him in position, while Troy pulls his stiff glove out of the rigging and grabs the waist of the other man. He swings his legs off the bucking horse and over the other side of the pick up horse, to safety. He doesn’t land elegantly but it doesn’t matter. He’s okay. He smiles at the ground and tramps across the dust to the cheering cowboys behind the chute. His eyes are dazed and bright with adrenaline.

Tanner Hollenback dismounting Sankey Pro Rodeo's Chicken Brute

My world swells with awe and disbelief, and I’m still whirling when suddenly I’m being interviewed by the announcer, and I don’t know where my feet are. Nobody’s ever interviewed me before. He asks my story but, really, mine is the tale of a hundred borrowed stories. The interest is, and should be, in the people who lend me their lives and let me put on cultures more colourful than my own.

So, in turn, I get talking to the cowboys. Troy got on his first bronc at 14, “I was ready before that but my dad wanted me to wait until I was a little older.” His friend Luke Wozner only began at 20. He hasn’t been saddle-horse riding for three years. He shrugs, “Why would I?”

“Well why on earth would you get on a bronc?” I ask, laughing.

“See, that’s why women live longer,” says Tanner, a skinny guy with a thick accent from Idaho. “There ain’t no rules says women can’t enter the National Finals or be in the PRCA. They just don’t do it. You get shit-whipped a few times when you’re just starting out and you think, you know what, this ain’t too fun.”

“So why do you keep going?”

“Oh, I f-ing love it. I been doing this, well - ever since I was a little kid. First time I remember getting bucked off, man, I wasn’t six years old, I guarantee ya. My old man used to train other peoples colts and he’d grab me and my brother and throw us on ‘em, and I mean we can’t reach the stirrups, we can’t do shit. And he’s like ‘Alright, hang on.’ So you’d get bucked off and then, ‘Ok Dad’, you’d get right back on.”

Other cowboys started off in High School or College rodeos, usually testing their hand at saddle broncs, bareback broncs, and bulls before specialising. Some stock contractors will send their inexperienced horses to local teams, so the horses and cowboys can practice together.

“You can tell when them horses enjoy it,” chips in Tanner.

Another cowboy nods. “If they don’t enjoy it, they don’t buck. Or they’ll just be pretty wild and they won’t perform well. These really good ones, like the Sankey horses, man they love it. They just don’t want never to quit buckin’.”

There behind the chutes, I can feel the deeper sense in which rodeo is a culture in full swing. The cowboys who remember the greatest bucking horses of all time are still alive today, and still riding.

“Europeans spent hundreds of years trying to breed the buck out of horses,” explains Wade Sankey, a third generation bucking horse breeder, “It’s only in the last 100 years we’ve been breeding it back in.”

People talk about ‘the buck’ as if it’s bottled up like a genie inside the horse’s body; blowing out the pressure by kicking at spectral walls. Perhaps that’s what it feels like, as a horse. When the morning is fresh and the horses are feeling good, they toss their heads and let off bucks just for the fun of it, the release. When they’re in the chutes at a rodeo, they stand calmly and allow their allocated cowboys to put on the rigging and get onboard. It’s only after the gate opens that they let loose.

Sage Newman riding Sankey Pro Rodeo's Outlaw Tunes

It’s jaw-dropping every single time. And, the more time I spend behind the chutes, the more invested I am in the cowboys. None of them admit they’re scared beforehand. They’re obviously excited – most of them work day jobs during the week and just rodeo for the love of it; one or two would be rodeoing full time in a normal year. As the first set of horses finish, and the chutes are loaded again, there’s back slapping all around and beers begin to appear.

“Man, have I missed this!”

Nobody’s fallen off before the timer yet, and Ike Sankey (Wade’s dad) has got a sparkle in his eye.

“I know,” he says, “First two cowboys to fall off race England in the Hide Race.” “Aw shit” rings around the group.

Ike looks to me, “You’re not too puss are ya?”

I have no idea what a hide race is, but I’m no puss so I tell him I’ll race. Then I hear more than one bronc rider say, “Man I better hang on tight cause I ain’t getting on no hide.” Christ, I think, but you’ll get on a bucking horse?

The first guy to fall off was an Australian who moved here for the rodeo. When the next cowboy leaned back in the chute and set his face in the cowboy grimace, I noticed he had braces on his gritted teeth. Six seconds, and another one bites the dust. So these were my competitors. We’re each handed a beer – then Caleb’s beer is changed for a coke, cause he’s not old enough to drink. You’ve got to down it, then the rider gallops up to you, you jump belly-first onto the cowhide he’s dragging, and get pulled to the other end. What’s so hard about that? I thought. Well, the cowhide is so stiff that it didn’t change shape at all when Ike took it off the railings and set it behind the horse. I watch the other two go and think this looks great fun. And then I jump on and the horse speeds up and all the dust kicks up into my mouth while the hide bumps and jolts over every clump of dirt. By the other end, my knuckles are bleeding, but not as badly as the Australian’s. A rather cute cowboy tells me “Good job”, and I blush, and then he tells me, “By the way, you’ve got a moustache right now”, and I blush harder.

Credit: Mary Peters

The rodeo ended with the two winning cowboys riding the two best horses; Outlaw Tunes and Exotic Blonde. Sage Newman won the saddle bronc, and, pleased as he was, he stayed humble and quiet – more thrilled to have experienced a good ride than to have scored well. Nobody won any money today. It was just for fun, and, as Tanner said, “We were goin’ stir crazy without it. I don’t know what I’d have done if I didn’t get on a bucking horse soon.” Oddly, I had felt the same, even though I didn’t know what I was missing. Now the cancellation of the rodeo season is more frustrating than ever.

The spectators left after the dust settled on the final cowboy, and in true western form, a bottle of Pendleton was opened as the sun set. A campfire was lit, stories were told, and young cowboys sang old songs until long after the crickets had gone to bed. We made the most of what little rodeo we had. Here’s to many more.

Thank you, Sankey Pro Rodeo , Bronc Riding Nation, and Mary Peters Photography.

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*Support young writing by subscribing here or using the form below. It's free, and you'll get an email when (and only when) I publish new work.*

Instagram: @aliwhaley

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Dominic Benton
Dominic Benton
Sep 22, 2022

Thannks for writing this

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