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'Better than a bullet' 

Taxi Driver

The ProRodeo Hall of Fame inducted 10 honorees earlier this month. The ceremony attracted rodeo enthusiasts from all over the country. One attendee rode with me from his hotel to the airport, heading home.

"I had me a dawg ..." he said.

We talked about dogs, pigs, llamas and other animals before rodeos directly. I had some risky questions about that, and wanted to hear his answers.

"I had a little ol' dawg I carried around with me everywhere ... I carried him every day. Then all of a sudden, one day he disappeared."

Competitive bull riding in rodeos is controversial for its use of a thick strap around the animal's abdomen to help induce the bull to leap and buck the rider. Rodeo horses, too, must endure the strap.

"I hauled him around for five years. He was cool. But I don't miss him."

"I hope to get a dog again," I said.

Rodeo participants and officials make no effort to hide the practice, but typically don't point it out, either, unless trying to disprove claims that the strap actually seizes the animal's genitals.

"He was never out of my sight. He was like a ... I don't know ... he was like carryin' a cast around, or a pair of crutches."

Any televised rodeo will show the rider, from above, mounting the animal in a small corral before the competition begins. To the side, a rodeo worker, usually a very young person, holds the strap as the rider adjusts himself or herself on the animal's back or saddle. There is no delicate way to describe this, or what is about to happen next.

"She, my wife here, had a dawg for 16 or 18 years."

The lady rode with us and said nothing the entire 25-minute trip.

"And she got so old, blind and deaf, she'd just walk into stuff ..." I assumed he was referring to the dog, not the wife.

At the sound of a bell, the corral gate swings open, and as it does the rodeo worker pulls up hard on the strap and the bucking begins. The rider holds on to a specially mounted handle on the animal's back with one hand, and takes his or her hat in the other, waving it, as the animal leaps and twists to free itself from the strap. This brings tremendous excitement to audiences, who shout and applaud. Cameras flash. Timers and judges take notes.

"My sister has a pet-care business," I bring up. "She visits homebound dogs and cats during the day while their owners are at work."

"Huh. Never heard of that one."

The rider stays on as long as possible, usually only a few seconds. After landing on the ground, he or she must scramble away from the animal's hooves, as the bull or horse keeps bucking. It's not until a rodeo clown races out and pulls on a strap release that the animal stops, and walks away.

"You get hurt about every time," the passenger told me. "You get bumps and bruises, occasionally you get a broken arm, or a twisted ankle, or stitches."

"Do you think the animals are harmed at all? By bull riding?" I hazarded.

"No. They enjoy it."

"Oh, yeah? There's a lot of fuss about that."

"Yeah, I know there is," he said. "But they don't even know, those people. They don't know. They enjoy it. It's better than a bullet."

"I guess, yeah."

"Mexican fightin' bulls, they fight 'em till they kill 'em. Those bulls are bred ... it's in their blood. Fightin' chickens are the same. Fightin' roosters. They fight till they die. Racehorses love to race, they love to run. They aren't there runnin' at full speed because someone's makin' 'em do it? No, that ain't why."

We pulled up to the curbside. Others from the ProRodeo crowd seemed to be heading home, too, in hats and boots and turquoise-studded vests. I stopped the vehicle, unloaded the luggage. He held out cash.

They thanked me and I went back to the cab and did something strange I still can't understand. I got in, shut the door, fastened the seatbelt, and pulling away, said out loud, once, my mother's name. "Alright, Betty."

tgibson@csindy.com

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