“Another one bites the dust” blared from the arena loudspeakers as Al Capone wasted no time tossing the cowboy high into the air the instant the chute opened. Al was a big Brahma bull, tan in color which belied his fiery nature. Like his Chicago namesake he had no tolerance for fools, especially the scrawny kid who mistakenly thought he could take him for a ride. As the boy bounced hard on the ground Al lifted his head high and as if he was the champion for the day he took a victory lap around the arena before the pick-up cowboys herded him to the corral gate. Next up was Lightening, a black and white bull who laughed at the flea of a cowboy on his back. In round one eight cowboys came to ride and eight went down hard and no one claimed the purse.
It was my first rodeo and we managed to snag ringside seats in the blazing eighty degree February sun. Like a county fair, vendors hawked every kind of fried food from corn dogs to ice cream, rock music blared from several stages and the screams of kids on carnival rides filled the air. Tattoos and cowboy boots were everywhere as we stood in line for the rodeo. For this was the main event! The arena was the size of a football field and the steel bleachers rose high to block the blistering sun. A heavy steel bar fence separated us from the action. Dust cloud after dust cloud swept over us as the horses and cattle raced around. The first rodeo to be recorded was held in Arizona in 1864 and the sport began when bored cowhands decided it would be fun to compete against each other in skills they used in their work. Rodeo is big here in the southwest. In fact, when the rodeo comes to town in Tucson the children get a day off school! I am not sure if that’s the case here in the Phoenix metropolitan area but it was Saturday and the crowd was huge.
I always thought rodeo was a wild sport using wild animals. In fact when I was a child I remember the bull my uncle and aunt owned up on their dairy farm in Wisconsin. The bull was mean or so we were told, a surprising thing since he had so many ladies. He had a ring through his nose and was chained up something I always thought must hurt like the dickens. Was that behind his fiery temper? No matter but that long ago bull came to mind as I watched the Brahmas tossing cowboy after cowboy around the arena. After dumping their riders most of the bulls ignored the pick-up cowboys and simply trotted off to the corral gate. In fact I noticed the bucking broncos and the steers did the same and I discovered a surprising fact. These were trained animals! Raised purely for rodeo events! Riders were matched to animal by the luck of the draw. A bucking strap was placed around each bronco and each bull and pulled uncomfortably tight. The strap was the animal’s cue to buck and buck they did until the strap was released. The pick-up cowboys were efficient and slick, herding the animal away from the cowboy on the ground and reaching down to release the strap. I felt the bucking strap a bit unnecessary for, after all, the bulls had reputations to uphold. It looked like they bucked for the sheer pleasure of it. As I watched it seemed that each bull was quicker than the previous one in dumping his rider. The cowboy on Al Capone barely made it out of the chute! Did that bull just snicker and snort as he flipped his rider? I imagined the bulls huddled together before the rodeo placing bets amongst themselves as to who could flip his rider fastest. Al won that bet hands down. As the bulls fearsomely kicked and stretched I thought I caught a whiff of an air of arrogance as if this was really all beneath them. But they also had a little ham in them and I swear I caught a few playing to the audience, tossing their heads up and high-stepping like a Clydesdale.
Round two of the bull riding began and it seemed to be a repeat of round one until a young college student named Justin climbed atop a black and white Brahma. Thin and gangly, I thought he didn’t stand a chance. He wasn’t even dressed the part opting instead for blue jeans, a short sleeve black t-shirt and a bicycle helmet. The corny rodeo announcers poked fun at the helmet but were put quickly in their place as Justin held on for the qualified seconds. When the buzzer sounded Justin crashed to the ground landing on his tail. His bull hung his head in embarrassment that he had been bested by this scrawny boy and ran quickly for the corral. A second college kid followed suit and these two non-cowboys were the only ones in the running for the money. The rider is judged on two things: his control and ability to keep his seat and the feistiness of the animal. The harder the animal bucks the more points the rider earns if he manages to hang on. Despite the fact he came up limping, Justin won by a good ten points thanks to his bucking Brahma bull. One of the pick-up cowboys gave Justin his mount, helped him swing his gimpy leg up and he rode around the arena in a victory lap waving to all.