The Late, Late Frontier

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The ’dogging and bull riding are strictly show biz: they were never a part of the working hand’s routine except in emergencies. Steer and calf roping both trace their origins back to the working ranch, but contest steer roping has largely given place to the throwing of light, low-grade stock because, as Mary S. Robertson notes in Rodeo: Standard Guide to the Cowboy Sport , “it got so a stockman would cringe every time he saw a man rope and slam down a full grown steer.” On the ranch a calf is roped gently in a corral to avoid injury or restrained for doctoring in a “squeeze chute.” The economics of rodeo call for something quite different. Rodeo is a show. Speed and drama are the essence of it. So the dogie bolts out of the gate at a furious gallop. The rider who drops the loop over “the vealer” is racing the clock to down the animal and make a fast tie. A ranch calf gets roped once in his lifetime. The rodeo animal can be chased and roped as many as seven times a day in a large rodeo. If the beast flies head over heels, it is said to have been “busted,” which is prohibited but often unavoidable. In practice sessions, the animal can be used over and over again; used until used up, that is, until it breaks a leg or has an eye burned out by the taut rope. When this happens in competition, the band strikes up a tune and a clown draws the attention of the spectators away from the crippled animal. The dogie will soon be dog food. In fact, one packing house markets its canine victuals under the trademark Rodeo.

Complicated and minute rules govern all contests approved by the Rodeo Cowboys Association. The performers accumulate points that determine their scores and the prize money received. In bronc riding, for instance, the rules specify not only the length of time the rider must be able to stay on the horse (ten seconds) but the kind of equipment to be used, how the rein is to be held, and how he must come out of the chutes—raking the animal from the shoulder back to the rump with steel spurs to produce the desired bucking action on the part of the pony. As further assurance of a frenzied reaction, just before the chute gate is opened, a fleece-lined bucking or flanking strap is passed around the animal just aft of the rib cage, in the area of the intestines, and cinched up tight. This device can be clearly seen in most photographs of rodeo action. Every kick draws it tighter, and it leaves no mark. At the same time an electric prod, known familiarly as the hot shot, is applied. It is most effective in the rectal area.

Since the same animals are used over and over, knowledgeable horses often begin to fight the strap even before it is tightened, especially if a nail, tack, piece of barbed wire, or device made of sharp metal and known as a spider has been placed under the bucking strap. Such “rigging” of the strap is a breach of the rules, but it is hard to detect.

The rodeo bull is also fitted with the flanking strap, and he, too, bucks to get rid of it. Bull riding has “some of the atmosphere of the Mexican bullfight,” according to a rodeo historian. The appeal is spiced by the fact that a man may be gored. It is a made-up thriller.

Bulldogging, on the other hand, is so old that it is the subject of an ancient Greek epigram, and in Greek sculpture Thessalonian bullfighters are shown leaping from the backs of their horses to throw the bull to the ground by twisting his head. In American practice, the ’dogger jumps from his horse onto the animal, grips the horns, and forces the head down and sideways until the glaring eyeballs stare straight up and a fall is achieved. In times past the man set his teeth in the bull’s sensitive lip and held on like a bulldog— hence the name of the game—or dug his fingers into the beast’s eyes or nostrils. According to today’s rule book, contestants may be disqualified for “mistreatment of stock.” The regulation is applied with discretion. There is no penalty, for example, for breaking off a horn.

These unwilling performers, the livestock, actually consist of specially bred animals that have to be activated in the ways described. The Texas longhorn is now a zoological novelty, a lonely, grotesque, and pathetic beast, rarer than the buffalo, existing primarily for stock shows and rodeos. But in rodeo publicity the steers are fierce and malevolent. The crossbreed Brahma used in bull riding is a “loose-hided, hump-backed, droop-eared bundle of fury,” while the horses are “outlaws” and often bear such names as Dynamite, Tombstone, Bad Whiskey, or Cyanide. The clowns, in their fright wigs and long, bright-red underwear, fill in the dull spots, glossing over delays at the chutes if an animal proves to be a “chute fighter.” It is especially their job to distract the bull so that the rider can leave the arena without being trampled. The spectators strongly hope, with some titillation, that there will be no mischance. But if the worst occurs, the ticket holders want to see it.