The Late, Late Frontier

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The crowd roars. The bell clangs. The chute gate swings wide and a beleaguered animal dashes into the arena to put on an exciting exhibition of pain and panic.

The rodeo is presented as a colorful epic of the cattle industry in the days of the Chisholm Trail, evoking the sturdy moral values of frontier life or, as the Pendleton (Oregon) Round-Up recently rephrased the idea, “Four Big Days of Fun in the Ol’ West.” But what is rodeo, really?

The answer varies, depending upon one’s vantage point. The spectators see a show and read into it what they will. The riders and ropers see money and the fame that accompanies mass entertainment. The humane societies, far from being monolithic in their approach to rodeo’s undoubted cruelties, present divergent points of view, although no national animal-protection society approves of rodeo. But whatever rodeo is—stirring historical pageant, nostalgic symbol, popular entertainment, or commercialized brutality—it is undeniably Big Business.

 
 

Some forty million spectators attend more than three thousand rodeo shows in a typical year between the season’s opener on New Year’s Day (Odessa, Texas, this year) and the National Finals, an event held in recent years at Oklahoma City in December and promoted as “rodeo’s World Series.” More than three thousand professional athletes, some with earnings that top fifty thousand dollars a year, swing around the rodeo circuit by automobile, by truck or camper pulling a horse trailer, or by private plane. There are also substantial awards donated to consistent winners by pant-and-shirt manufacturers and boot-and-saddle makers. Local firms add more modest gifts—hats, wrist watches, jackets, gloves, scarves and scarf pins, ties, cigarette cases and lighters, ropes, spurs, and, as one chronicler of rodeo inadvertently wrote, “silver-mounted brides.” There are also profitable sidelines, such as modelling and endorsing tobacco products, for rodeo country is usually tobacco country.

Also present at the arenas, and a part of the multi-million-dollar economics of the rodeo, are stock contractors who provide the animal raw material, stock foremen, Indian chiefs, beauty queens, sales agents for accessories, hillbilly singers, concessionaires, arena directors, bandsmen, juvenile gunslingers, owners of dog acts, photographers, public-relations men, judges, timers, women barrel racers, baton twirlers, trick ropers, Roman riders, comedy mules and monkeys, and—of course—the bawling, restless livestock, indispensable yet expendable.

Romantic types, such as press agents, have seen a resemblance between the rodeo and the knightly tournaments of the Middle Ages in which high personages jousted in the European tradition of courtly love. Less friendly observers of the rodeo scene are reminded of the Roman populace in the Circus Maximus, lusting after the blood of man and beast.

Neither of these rather loose analogies can be pressed very far. There is nothing aristocratic, certainly, about the rodeo, although some of the “rastlers” are college material, having attended Northeastern State College at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, on a football or basketball scholarship, or having wrangled their sheepskins from Sam Houston State. At the same time, very few of them are authentic cowboys; instead, they began their careers in junior rodeos or in high-school competition or may have attended a school operated by a professional.

As for the bloodlust, it may be there, buried in the crowd’s id, but the thoughts of the ticket holders are usually under the firm control of the man at the microphone, who guides them into happy, constructive channels. If there is a mishap in the calf-roping contest, for example, and the animal has to be sledded out of the arena and shot, the soothing voice on the loud-speaker quickly relieves the anxiety of the squeamish: “Don’t worry about him, folks. He’s just had the breath knocked out of him.”

The announcers also deliver inspirational talks to schools and service clubs between their tours of duty up in the crow’s-nest, and they make radio and television appearances to promote the sport. They are the scops and minnesingers who shape the legends of the rodeo’s supermen and often become authentic celebrities in their own right, as did Cy Taillon, who has been saluted by a rodeo Plutarch as “one of the few educated men I know who talk educated without sounding unnatural.”