Jeans? Check. Western shirt? Check. Cowboy hat? Check. Cowboy boots? Hell yeah. Time to rodeo!
During the weeks of the Calgary Stampede, you can go to the rodeo every single day. We went twice, but that wasn’t enough. I could certainly go every day and be happy.
The rodeo consists of several events, preliminaries through to the finals. We got to see the first day of the rodeo and the last day. The first day was sunny and hot, the last day rainy and muddy. It was great to see both circumstances, and how it affected the horses, bulls, calves, and cowboys and cowgirls.
The first event was the barrel racing, a rodeo event in which a horse and rider attempt to complete a cloverleaf pattern around preset barrels in the fastest time. Though both boys and girls compete at the youth level and men compete in some amateur venues and jackpots, in collegiate and professional ranks, it is primarily a rodeo event for women. It combines the horse’s athletic ability and the horsemanship skills of a rider in order to safely and successfully maneuver a horse in a pattern around three barrels (typically three 55-gallon metal or plastic drums) placed in a triangle in the center of an arena. In this event, cowgirls ride their horses into the arena and have to make hairpin turns around barrels before shooting back across and out of the arena. They are timed on their run.
Our favorite rider, who ended up winning the event on the last day, was Mary Burger, a 68-year-old firebrand who ran hell-bent-for-election on every run.
Barrel racing seems much less dangerous than some of the events the men figured in, but these gals were no slouches in the saddle! Modern barrel racing horses not only need to be fast, but also strong, agile, and intelligent. Strength and agility are needed to maneuver the course in as little distance as possible. A horse that is able to “hug the barrels” as well as maneuver the course quickly and accurately follow commands, will be a horse with consistently low times.
The speed and grace of the horses was something to behold. On the final day, though, in the pouring rain, the riders were much more cautious with their horses, necessarily so in the mushy soup that the ring had become. Throughout the event, it was apparent how much the riders cared for their horses, and appreciated their efforts. The bond was obvious.
Next came the cowboy activities. (Many of these events are protested by animal rights activists. But, thanks to such activists and their concerns, modern rodeos in the United States are closely regulated and have responded to accusations of animal cruelty by instituting a number of rules to guide how rodeo animals are to be managed. In 1994, a survey of 28 sanctioned rodeos was conducted by onsite independent veterinarians. Reviewing 33,991 animal runs, the injury rate was documented at 16 animals or 0.047 percent, less than five-hundredths of one percent or one in 2000 animals. Given that these animals have not asked to participate, I see the concern.)
The first event was calf roping (tie-down roping). The goal of this timed event is for the rider to catch the calf by throwing a lasso around its neck, then dismount from the horse and run to the calf, where he restrains it by tying three legs together, in as short a time as possible. (A variant on the sport, with fewer animal welfare controversies, is breakaway roping, where the calf is roped but not tied.) The event derives from the duties of actual working cowboys, which often requires catching and restraining calves for branding or medical treatment. Ranch hands took pride in the speed with which they could rope and tie calves, which soon turned their work into informal contests.
I had no idea about the skills necessary to do this event; it’s really something, from working with a highly trained horse, to judging when to rope, how to tug the line taut, and when to hop off the horse to tie the rarely cooperative calf.
Here’s how it works: The calves are lined up in a row and moved through narrow runways leading to a chute with spring-loaded doors. When a calf enters the chute, a door is closed behind it and a lightweight 28-foot (8.5 m) rope, attached to a trip lever, is fastened around the calf’s neck. The lever holds a taut cord or “barrier” that runs across a large pen or “box” at one side of the calf chute, where the horse and rider wait. The barrier is used to ensure that the calf gets a head start. When the roper is ready, he calls for the calf, and the chute operator pulls a lever, opening the chute doors and releasing the calf. The calf runs out in a straight line. When the calf reaches the end of the rope, that trips the lever, the rope falls off the calf, and the barrier for the horse is released, starting the clock and allowing horse and rider to chase the calf.
Timing is critical. From a standstill, a rider will put his horse into a gallop from the box shortly after the calf leaves the chute, so that the horse saves valuable seconds by being at near-full speed the moment the barrier releases. But, if the rider mistimes his cue to the horse and the horse breaks the barrier before it releases, a 10-second penalty is added to his time. This is sometimes referred to as a “Cowboy Speeding Ticket.”
The rider must lasso the calf from horseback by throwing a loop of the lariat around the calf’s neck. Once the rope is around the calf’s neck, the roper signals the horse to stop quickly while he dismounts and runs to the calf. The calf must be stopped by the rope but cannot be thrown to the ground by the rope. If the calf falls, the roper loses seconds because he must allow the calf to get back on its feet before he continues with the throw-down and tying. When the roper reaches the calf, he picks it up and flips it onto its side.
Once the calf is on the ground, the roper ties three of the calf’s legs together with a short rope known as a tie-down rope or “piggin’ string”. A half hitch knot is used, sometimes referred to colloquially as “two wraps and a hooey” or a “wrap and a slap.” The piggin’ string is often carried between the roper’s teeth until he uses it. The horse is trained to assist the roper by slowly backing away from the calf to maintain a steady tension on the rope.
When the tie is complete, the roper throws his hands in the air to signal “time” and stop the clock. The roper then returns to his horse, mounts, and moves the horse forward to relax the tension on the rope. The timer waits for six seconds, during which the calf must stay tied before an official time is recorded. Top professional calf ropers will rope and tie a calf in 7 seconds. The world record is just over 6 seconds.
What an exciting event to watch! And, honestly, the calves didn’t seem to mind, scampering off once they were released, none the worse for wear.
After that came the steer wrestling, also known as bulldogging, a rodeo event where a horse-mounted rider chases a full-grown steer, drops from the horse to the steer, then wrestles the steer to the ground by grabbing its horns and pulling it off-balance so that it falls to the ground. The event carries a high risk of injury to the cowboy. There are some concerns from the animal rights community that the competition may include practices that constitute cruelty to animals, but the injury rate to animals is less than five-hundredths of one percent. Having seen the event, I can understand why the rate of human injury is much higher, but they’ve opted to participate, so I don’t have a lot of sympathy if they get injured. It’s sad, but not unexpected.
Historically, steer wrestling was not a part of ranch life. The event originated in the 1930s, and is claimed to have been started by an individual named Bill Pickett, a Wild West Show performer said to have caught a runaway steer by wrestling it to the ground.
The event features a steer and two mounted cowboys. The steers are moved through narrow pathways leading to a chute with spring-loaded doors. A barrier rope is fastened around the steer’s neck; this is used to ensure that the steer gets a head start. The rope length is determined by arena length. On one side of the chute is the “hazer,” whose job is to ride parallel with the steer once it begins running and ensure that it runs in a straight line. On the other side of the chute, the “steer wrestler” or “bulldogger” waits behind a taut rope fastened with an easily broken string which is fastened to the rope on the steer.
When the steer wrestler is ready, he “calls” for the steer by nodding his head and the chute man trips a lever to open the doors. The suddenly freed steer breaks out running, shadowed by the hazer. When the steer reaches the end of his rope, the rope pops off and simultaneously releases the barrier for the steer wrestler. The steer wrestler tries to catch up to the running steer, lean over the side of the horse (which is running flat out), and grab the horns of the running steer. The steer wrestler then is pulled off his horse by the slowing steer and plants his heels into the dirt to further slow the steer and himself. He then takes one hand off the horns and reaches down to grab the nose of the steer, pulling the steer off balance and ultimately “throwing” the steer to the ground. Once all four legs are off the ground, an official waves a flag marking the official end and a time is taken. The steer is released and trots off.
Following the calf and steer roping were the bull riding and bronc riding. Both bone-jarring events were cringe inducing, terrifying, and bewitching.
The bronc riding included both saddle and bareback riding, a rodeo event that involves a cowboy riding a horse (bronc) that attempts to throw or buck off the rider. Originally based on the necessary horse-breaking skills of a working cowboy, the event now is a highly stylized competition that utilizes horses that are specially bred for strength, agility, and bucking ability. Nowadays, the riders were protective gear (helmets, elbow and knee pads, and neck protection), which, given the falls they take, are absolute necessities.
Finally, we had the bull riding. Let me just say at the outset, those dudes are insane! Who would willingly sit on the back of a bull that weighs as much as a pickup truck, one that can dump you on the ground and then stomp you to bits?
Bull riding is a rodeo sport that involves a rider getting on a bull and attempting to stay mounted while the animal attempts to buck off the rider. In the American tradition, the rider must stay atop the bucking bull for eight seconds to count as a qualified ride. The rider hangs on by tightly fastening one hand to the bull with a long braided rope. It is a risky sport and has been called “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.”
A rider mounts a bull and grips a flat braided rope. After he secures a good grip on the rope, the rider nods to signal he is ready. The bucking chute (a small enclosure which opens from the side) is opened and the bull storms out into the arena. The rider must attempt to stay on the bull for at least eight seconds, while only touching the bull with their riding hand. The other hand must remain free for the duration of the ride.
The bull bucks, rears, kicks, spins, and twists in an effort to throw the rider off. This continues for a number of seconds until the rider bucks off or dismounts after completing the ride. A loud buzzer or whistle announces the completion of an eight-second ride.
Throughout the ride, bullfighters, also popularly known as rodeo clowns, stay near the bull to aid the rider if necessary. When the ride ends, either intentionally or not, the bullfighters distract the bull to protect the rider from harm. I’m telling you, these fellas are heroes. We saw them dash into harm’s way to protect the riders so many times that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that length-of-service is only a few events. But, apparently, there are men who have done this for decades!
Here you see a rider thrown off, and the clown racing in to distract the bull, by being lifted onto its horns! He was fine, and was out protecting the next rider immediately.
If you get the chance, you just have to go see the Calgary Stampede Rodeo, at least once, preferably several times. It is a piece of Americana that isn’t to be missed.