The bell rings, the gate slams open and we’re off. Dust, sweat and incredible courage fire out into the stands as horses buck, lassos hurl, bulls charge and grown men fly through the air like projectile rag dolls.
I am, of course, at a rodeo. And I have, quite literally, quite staggeringly, never seen anything like it before.
Denim jeans and plaid shirts swarm around. From the top of the bleachers, the view is of hats.
The snuffle and scuffling sound of horses fill the air, floating with the fizz and sizzle of a Canadian pancake breakfast and the expectant taste of syrup. Sweet-flowing maple syrup.
Until this point, all I knew of rodeo came from a hazy memory of Brokeback Mountain, a point I mentioned just once and that was enough to know never to do so again. The film doesn’t have a great reputation in this part of town. It’s considered as part of a culture that mocks Western life, of being part of a pattern that throws stones instead of trying to understand.
Rodeos are strictly timed, strictly regulated procedures. This should, I suppose, come as no surprise, but it does. Rugby matches have rules and fixed times. So does soccer. I think it’s because I’d fallen into the trap of seeing the rodeo as something of a circus stunt or battle for survival rather than the athletic endeavour that it is. For example, on the bucking bronco, the idea isn’t simply to stay on the horse. The idea is to move in time with the horse on the buckiest horse you can manage. And you have to stay on until the buzzer sounds in order to win. It isn’t an optional extra.
This event takes some time to appreciate. The cowboys are typically big, think xx in rugby terms or xx in xx (OK, Im’ not much of a sports reporter. Fill in the appropriate gaps for a big, muscular man who, ahem, looks slow.) So, there’s speed and muscle but another crucial component: decent behaviour towards the animal. Just the slightest hint of mistreatment, accidental or not, results in disqualification. The rodeo draws criticism, and I hadn’t heard many of these before I arrived, but heard them thick and fast as I tweeted about the event. Rumours of animals being beaten and dying at the rodeo are two examples that are completely untrue. The industry is rigged to make sure it’s the owner’s interests that the animals live well and are not harmed and rodeo rules insist that vets check the animals throughout the event to ensure they are not distressed. Many rodeos even offer behind the scenes tours where you can see the animals and their handlers up close.
If only human care were so good around the world.
As I left, I realised that these are some of the most polite, kind and welcoming people I’ve met on earth. And that watching them risk what they do seems utterly crazy.
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