BY MARCUS DAY
An Englishman went to a rodeo and had no idea what was going on.
Sounds like the start of a silly joke, doesn’t it? … except it’s the truth. At least in my case.
Not so long ago, the word rodeo conjured up the following in my mind: folk in cowboy getups doing a boot scootin’ boogie at a honky tonk, clicking their heels and toes as bystanders with whiskey-flavoured breaths clapped in unison.
Had I been a quiz show contestant asked to define rodeo, I would have pressed my buzzer first and blurted out with all the confidence of a buffoon: “It’s a dance.”
Okay, okay, I might not have been totally wrong, for Google tells me there is such a thing as a rodeo dance. But the point is bull riding, bareback, saddle bronc, barrel racing, steer wrestling, tie down roping, team roping, junior steer riding, wild cow milking, doctoring and all the other fun outdoorsy stuff wouldn’t have entered my rodeo-deprived brain.
Well, that was before I came to Canada, or more specifically Alberta, then Saskatchewan.
Now, compared to my former self, I’m a rodeo connoisseur. Hell, I could probably put my name forward next year as an announcer, with a little encouragement from my two friends, Rum and Coke.
Just kiddin’. Warren Allin, Zane Anderson and Joe Braniff have no need to fear for their jobs. At least this year.
Nevertheless, my rodeo education has come on in leaps, bounds and near vertical bucks in recent weeks. First there was the CCA Rodeo, then the Ranch Rodeo, and, most recently, Thursday’s bull-riding spectacle, all at the High Chaparral Arena, a place that sounds as cool and history-steeped as Dodge City, Rio Bravo, O.K. Corral, Tombstone or El Dorado.
Easy to picture outlaws and lawmen at the High Chaparral Arena, tearing around in stagecoaches, unloading Winchester rifles and Colt Frontier 1873 revolvers at each other. John Wayne would probably be the US Marshal, all swagger and bluster, and wearing an eyepatch.
Of course, it would have been a perfect setting for the ending of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco squaring off during ten mesmerizing minutes of eyeballing, grimacing and sly hand movements. Perhaps there could be a Tuco neck roping event at a future rodeo.
“Hey Blondie! You know what you are. Just a dirty son … “
But I digress. Wildly.
Entering this year’s CCA Rodeo and Ranch Rodeo, I suffered a sobering thought as I clutched my program and searched for a place to settle with my camera: I was the last person in the arena, possibly in southwest Saskatchewan and beyond, who should be writing about what was happening.
What did I know about tie down roping, penning or branding?
Everyone around me appeared horribly clued-in about all things rodeo. Young and old, clad in their hats, jeans, boots and buckles, gave off a knowing demeanour like members of an exclusive club.
They were probably ranchers, farmers and former rodeo contestants, scribbling down times and points awarded and conferring with each other in a confederacy of knowledge. They knew all about rolling around in mud, wrestling a steer or unleashing loops of rope at horns, necks and legs.
They knew what to expect during the wild cow milking. They knew it would be all over in one frenzied rush, while I stood by the fence perplexed, unused camera in my clammy hands.
“Is that it?” I asked one spectator. “I thought I’d wait to see what it was about before taking a photo.”
She shook her head.
“That’s it, now we’ve got horse catching. You don’t want to miss that.”
Yet I did miss that in the blink of my inexpert eye.
At another point in the Ranch Rodeo, I thought “to hell with ignorance” and pretended to be one of the cognoscenti.
“He needs to tighten his rope,” the old cowboy next to me said, bringing his hands together. “He hasn’t got enough control.”
I nodded sagely as if to say “yes, the guy out in the arena is a complete dolt, obviously someone who knows diddly-squat about rodeos.”
“The rope’s far too loose,” I agreed.
Before going to each rodeo I had stared long and hard at the cowboy hat mysteriously hanging from a wall in my office. Should I wear it? Or would it seem like I was trying too hard to fit in? I decided against faking it.
After all, if I look like an Englishman, walk like an Englishman and talk like an Englishman, then I am probably not a cowboy, no matter what hat I wear or how much I agree with a fellow spectator.
“Who here has been to a rodeo before?” Allin asked at the start of the CCA Rodeo. Virtually every hand went up.
“Raise your hand if this is your first rodeo?”
Did any hands go up? I didn’t look around, but I doubt it. In Maple Creek, rodeo ignorance is a form of illiteracy, a dark secret perhaps best not divulged. Almost as bad as getting lost in the town.
I suffered the same angst going to last week’s “Showdown in Cowtown.” Why was I there? What did I know about Indian Relay Racing?
Many might argue that ignorance is an occupational hazard for every journalist. It’s a hard case to refute. Daily I speak to people far more informed than I am about a particular issue. Daily I attend events and meetings where participants are fully versed in everything that is occurring, while I, the outsider, am clueless. And yet I’m the one expected to deliver an authoritative report.
Still, the rodeo events didn’t seem too hard to understand, and the announcers did a great job in creating an atmosphere, knowing just enough about each rider to get you emotionally invested.
“This cowboy is about as tough as they come …”
I would say announcers are to rodeos what music is to a movie, one can’t survive without the other. Hard to imagine Star Wars or Jaws minus their iconic scores, isn’t it?
At the CCA Rodeo, I was most looking forward to the bull riding. I had been to a “bull-a-rama” in Alberta and became hooked by the buckin’, snortin’, heavin’, hurlin’, head-snappin’, pulse-poundin’ madness of it all. It’s the blue-ribbon event, the equivalent of the 100 metres at the Olympics. I cannot conceive why anyone would mount a bull, yet I’m glad that they do. It takes more than courage. It probably takes a little bit of insanity, like befriending Grizzlies or walking on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers.
Recently I’ve been reading about Bodacious, the Master of Disaster, the baddest, highest-kicking bull on the planet, a force of nature so freakish that hardened cowboys said they would prefer to saddle a tornado. I’ve watched countless YouTube videos on Bodacious that never lose their capacity to shock and awe. Take a look for yourself – and don’t pretend to be underwhelmed. Would you have ridden him?
There has been no comparable 2,000-pound mass of solid muscle on show in Maple Creek this summer, either at the CCA Rodeo or last Thursday. Nevertheless I’ve still been gripped, especially as I’ve learned to appreciate bulls as athletes. As for the cowboys, how long do those eight seconds feel like? A lifetime? Eternity?
There is only one way to find out, but am I curious enough?