03 December 2008

Sports & Entertainment: Let's Rodeo!

By Jacquie Rogers

Rodeo is a modern sport and the only sport born in the United States that came from an industry--the cattle business. It's only natural that after the chores are done, the cowboys have a little competition to see who could win bragging rights of being the best, and maybe earn a few dollars, too.

The term "rodeo" is from a Spanish word meaning to round up or encircle. So rodeo actually is closer to our term of round-up than, say, tournament or horse show, terms used for early rodeos. Many claim to be the first rodeo. From the University of North Carolina:
The first formal rodeo was held in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1872. However, the first rodeo to deliver monetary prizes was said to be in Pecos, Texas in 1883, and the first rodeo to charge admissions was in 1888 in Prescott, Arizona. The rodeo emerged as entertainment between 1890 and 1910 due to Midwest shows and performances during July fourth celebrations and cattlemen conventions.
Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show also professes to be the first.
In 1882, the town of North Platte, Nebraska where Cody lived at his Scout's Rest Ranch, wanted to celebrate the 4th of July, and asked Colonel Cody to put the show on for them. Cody obliged, and put on what has been considered to be one of the first rodeos in America, and was called "The Old Glory Blowout".
This show is still on the road today, first under the guidance of Monty Montana, and now with Monty Montana, Jr., and the Montana family.

101 Wild West Rodeo makes the same claim.
It was 1905 when the Millers offered to perform what they called a 'round-up' or 'buffalo chase' as an entertainment incentive for a National Editorial Association convention. Visitors were said to come to the ranch in 30 regular and special trains, and the crowd estimated at nearly 60,000 was thrilled to the exhibition of cowboys recreating real life ranch work from bronc riding and roping to Tom Mix's debut as a roper and rider.
Most agree that saddlebronc was the first official event, but not in the format we know today. The eight-second ride hadn't been invented yet. Instead, the cowboy who rode the longest, providing that the horse was still bucking, was the winner. This, too, could be how we ended up with separate scores for cowboy and horse. (Modern day: judges score 50 for the horse and 50 for the rider, so there's a possible 100 points for an 8-second ride.)

One of the earliest saddle bronc stars was Waaya-Tonah-Toesits-Kahn, better known as Jackson Sundown. A Nez Perce Indian who, at 14, endured the Nez Perce Retreat under the leadership of Chief Joseph. Sundown made it to Canada, then moved back to Idaho in 1910 where he married and started a ranch. His name was legend, and he last won the saddle bronc world title when he was 53 years old.

No doubt about it, Bill Pickett was the man who brought bulldogging, now called steer wrestling, to modern rodeo. As the story goes, when Bill was a boy growing up in Texas, he watched the dogs subdue cattle, and he copied their technique. He could jump on a steer, bite its lip, and the steer would stop struggling. There's certainly no lip-biting in modern rodeo, but it's still spectacular to watch a cowboy leap from his horse and wrestle a steer twice his size to the ground. This is a timed event--no points for finesse in bulldogging.

The traditional events in rodeo are saddle bronc, bareback bronc, calf roping (tie down roping), team roping, steer wrestling, and of course the most popular of all events, bullriding. Of these events, only bullriding is of no use on a working ranch, although I doubt much steer wrestling goes on, either.

Women have a lower center of gravity than men, and even though they're generally not as strong, many women showed they could compete on the same level as men. During the 1910s until 1929, there were many prominent women who were champions in their own right, performing side-by-side with the men. But in 1929, Bonnie McCarroll (right) was killed in the bronc riding at the Pendleton Round-up in Pendleton, Oregon, 14 years after this photo. A huge outcry forced most of the rodeos in the west to ban women from competition, and the cowgirls headed east, but eventually, their opportunities died there, too. For a brief time in WWII, women were allowed to compete due to the lack of men, but as soon as the war was over, women were relegated to barrel racing. Some of the champion women athletes were: Prairie Rose Henderson, Goldie St. Clair, Bertha Blancett, Norwegian emigrant Tillie Baldwin (first woman bulldogger), and bullrider Tad Lucas.

Bullriding is a spectacular event, called the most dangerous eight seconds in sports. The only men in more danger than bullriders are the bullfighters--rodeo clowns, but their business is anything but funny. Some of the best I've ever seen are Wick Peth and Leroy Coffee.

I loved watching Leon Coffee fight bulls--he was an incredibly gifted athlete, the best at cowboy protection, and was a terrific entertainer. In Down Home Ever Lovin' Mule Blues, I patterned my hero's moves after Leon's style:
Brody did a little fancy footwork, loving the sounds of the boys' ooo's and ahhhs, then got a laugh out of them by snagging his green derby on one of the bull’s horns. For the grand finale, he teased the bull into charging, then did a handspring over the bull’s head and walked the length of his back, jumping off the tail end.
Another rodeo clown and bullfighter that I know personally is Jim O'Keefe. He gave me this scene:
Brody thrived on danger, just like all the other men she'd known until she moved to the city.

Fearless, daring, and downright foolhardy, Brody rushed to the side of the bull, jumped up, and jerked the bullrope's tail, releasing the hung cowboy's hand from the bull. The cowboy flew several feet in the air and landed off to the side like a sack of potatoes.

The bull whipped around and bashed Brody in the ribs with one huge horn. Even though Brody’s ribs were probably broken, he kept the animal away from the downed cowboy until the chute crew could drag the unconscious man off to the ambulance. Finally, the pick-up men herded the snorting bull back into the corral.
Jim's ribs have been broken a few dozen times. He has a plate in his head, steel rods in his spine, and has had well over 200 broken bones. This is actually fairly typical of a rodeo bullfighter.

Thrills and spills . . . rodeo is getting more and more popular as the years go by. Yes, the sport evolves, but it seems that the further away from the Old West we get, the more we savor the values of family, hard work, and an honest relationship with our animal friends and the earth.

Find a rodeo, put on your best hat and boots, grab the kids, and go have a great time!


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