Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rodeo Dusk

This past winter I went to a PBR event for the first time. Even in a big arena in a big city, I found the thrill of the bull riding palpable... and I cursed a lot under my breath as an involuntary reaction to what I was sure would be mortal wounds to the riders. I had been to a small town rodeo in the Colorado mountain town where I grew up, but I don’t remember being vaguely excited by it. I’ve never much liked horses, which I imagine has colored both my expectations and reactions to rodeos in the past. But after seeing the PBR, I was sold on rodeo events and the passion with which most participants compete.

One of the big things on my list for this summer was hitting a rodeo or two, and without even looking for one, I found the NRA event at the Blue Moon in Columbia Falls last weekend (during the Heritage Days celebration). I grabbed my camera and the big lens and motored back across the valley to see some cowboys (and cowgirls) and horsies and bulls.

The stands filled quickly, and the local brigade of the Outlaw Cowgirls came riding into the ring with American flags during the national anthem. There were lots of hats and boots, and not just amongst the riders (though it was mostly kids and older men in full western wear). Whole families turned out and the riders were from a good dozen of the neighboring and northwest regional towns. There were about eight events ranging from team roping (which could be mixed sex) to women’s barrel racing, bull riding and bareback riding-- with junior events (girls under 14) mixed in. The bareback riding and saddle bronc were exciting and new to me, as well as exceedingly dangerous it seemed.

In the bareback, several people got re-rides because their harnass was thrown off. Somewhere in there, a man went down with the horse, and another was hit in the head by the horse, a big red bloody spot appearing in the shape of a hoof as he walked from the ring, assisted. Later, during the bull riding, a man was thrown off and his cast (or perhaps a brace) remained stuck in the harnass on the bull. He was dragged for what felt like minutes, hanging from the bucking bull by this cast, not even by the grip of his hand. The animal bucked and ran in circles, and no matter how hard they tried, the bulldoggers and clown and other men could not get the animal to stop or corner him, nor could they help the man escape. It was difficult to watch. When the man was released, he fell to the ground, a look of pure exhaustion on his face. As they tried to get him out of the ring, his legs buckled, and he was half-dragged to the paramedics by the two men assisting him. I was sure at the very least that his shoulder must have been dislocated, if not other major damage done to the arm muscle and tendons after being dragged like that.

The mood of the audience seemed to shift a bit after that, but it soon got back on track. The sun had begun to sink lower in the sky and the ring now seemed the same uniform color of dust. There were just a few riders left, as talk in the stands shifted to the dance later that evening-- one at the Blue Moon and one at the Bandit in town. Little Miss Rodeo, a young girl of maybe fifteen, hair curled in big ringlets, wearing a western shirt, hat and tiara, came around selling 50/50 tickets. In the middle the Outlaw Cowgirls performed again, the four of them in black shirts with white fringe, riding in formation and then shooting standing targets as they rode (their guns sending sparks into the air as they shot, like firecrackers of the rodeo ring). And then, less than two hours after it began, and another full hour before it would be dark, it ended and I found myself wanting more. I could go see a rodeo each week, and in fact, I might.

It was thrilling to see the women turn those horses around the barrel, so tightly that the horses appeared to be almost parallel to the ground. They could make those three turns in less than 16 seconds. The roping and tying and steer wrestling I could have done without. I saw the tradition and skill, but it lacked the thrill for me. As much as I found myself looking away and cursing, sure someone would be terribly hurt, I was also riveted. For many of these competitors, this is their lives.

It felt like I was truly in Montana. Now, I just need a hat.

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