August 19, 2004 News » Cover Story

The mud, the blood & the poop 

A rodeo insider takes you behind the chutes of Americas cowboy sport

click to enlarge Bull riding, rodeos blood sport, has little to do with - ranching, and a lot to do with pain and courage. - GAVIN EHRINGER
  • Gavin Ehringer
  • Bull riding, rodeos blood sport, has little to do with ranching, and a lot to do with pain and courage.

Sixteen-time world champion rodeo cowboy Jim Shoulders, the man often referred to as rodeo's Babe Ruth, was once asked why people liked to watch rodeo's most popular event: bull riding.

In his wry, dry Oklahoma humor, Shoulders looked the reporter in the eye and said, "It's the same reason people glance off the road to get a better look at a car wreck. It's why the Romans went to the Colosseum to see the lions eat the Christians.

"People don't want to see somebody die, but they darn sure want to be there when he does."

As a writer who has covered rodeo for 15 years, I've "been there," on two occasions, witnessing the deaths of two young bull riders firsthand. A third death, one that particularly scarred the rodeo world, provided my introduction to this dangerous but strangely seductive slice of Americana.

Blood on the sand

It was August 1989 when I first took a job in the media department of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), the Colorado Springs-based organization that oversees professional rodeo. My first assignment was to handle phone calls from reporters seeking information about and photographs of a charismatic young champion named Lane Frost. Though I had never met him, I knew that Frost was beloved within the tightknit rodeo community.

His riding was like a dance, friends said. His traveling partners related that it was nothing for cowboys to spend an hour or more signing autographs in a rodeo parking lot while they waited restlessly, anxious to get on the road to their next competition.

In 1988, the newly crowned world champ had matched moves with a particularly difficult bull named Red Rock in the much-ballyhooed promotion called the "Challenge of the Champions."

Prior to the matchup, Red Rock had gone undefeated in 309 attempts. Frost mastered the bull in four of seven bouts, earning them both a feature story in Sports Illustrated and a permanent place in rodeo lore.

On July 23, 1989, Frost, 26, was killed when a bull drilled him in the back with a horn at Cheyenne's Frontier Days Rodeo, shattering a rib that punctured his aorta -- Frost literally and poignantly died of a broken heart. His story of triumph and tragedy was eventually retold in the New Line Cinema film 8 Seconds, featuring former Beverly Hills 90210 star Luke Perry.

Five years after Frost's death, rodeo lost another of its bright stars. While covering the 1994 National Finals Rodeo, I had hired a Norwegian photojournalist named Ken Opprann to bring a fresh perspective to a feature I was writing for the music magazine New Country.

click to enlarge Oklahoman Jim Shoulders dominated bull riding during - rodeos Golden Age, the 1950s. Here, the sage rodeo - star admires a TV-tray sized belt buckle. - PRO-RODEO HALL OF FAME
  • Pro-Rodeo Hall of Fame
  • Oklahoman Jim Shoulders dominated bull riding during rodeos Golden Age, the 1950s. Here, the sage rodeo star admires a TV-tray sized belt buckle.

Opprann was at the rail on the final night when a 24-year-old veteran named Brent Thurman made his final ride. Thurman's bull caught the rider off balance, throwing him to the inside of his spin in the spot bull riders refer to as "the well."

The cowboy was swept underneath the bull as it gyrated. Meanwhile, Opprann was rapid-firing his Nikon at five frames per second and captured what is the most harrowing and spectacular (and ultimately unusable) rodeo image I've ever seen: a bull balanced like a ballerina on pointe, his right hind leg poised atop the lower half of Thurman's skull. A frame later, the bull crushed the rider's head with a sound that Opprann recalled as being "just like that of a watermelon splitting open."

Less than a week later, the young Texan died from his injuries. While there have been no songs or any Hollywood films to commemorate his death, there is an annual bull riding held in his honor -- one of dozens of rodeo events throughout North America honoring fallen cowboys.

Adrenaline rush

Along with Thurman, four other contestants in the ranks of the 9,000-member Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association died from arena mishaps that same year, 1994 -- an exceptionally bad year for an organization that, on average, loses one cowboy annually to arena accidents.

Only a handful of stars, like Frost and Thurman, are much remembered from one year to the next. As one sage rodeo man said, "Until you do something great, ain't many who notice you. It's like that in rodeo, and it's like that in life."

I've often wondered what motivates these young men to put their lives on the line as many as 200 times a year, for although so much is at stake for rodeo cowboys, so little is their fortune and fame beyond the world of professional rodeo.

Rodeo is a sport that compensates most of its participants poorly, is scarcely understood or recognized by the general public, and exacts a stiff price on bodies and, too often, on marriages and families.

Why men (and women) choose to subject themselves to rodeo's risks and rigors has been a question more timid men like myself can't answer. As one who has gamely thrown himself off cliff edges while snowboarding and tumbled over the falls on Pacific waves, I can only guess that the adrenaline and the thrill of thumbing one's nose at death provide a large part of the answer.

Rodeo operates on a "you play, you pay" basis, meaning that a cowboy not only puts his health and his life on the line every time he shows up at a rodeo, but he also must also pay for the privilege. Entry fees, travel and other expenses can eat anywhere from one-quarter to 100 percent of a cowboy's salary in a year, depending on his talent and luck, or lack of either.

Only about 300 contestants can make a living in the game; perhaps 50 earn in excess of $100,000.

Over the past half century, the salaries of professional athletes in general have grown exponentially while rodeo salaries have only lately begun to grow at a pace exceeding inflation. Much of this slow growth had to do with the hide-bound and conservative leadership of the rodeo fraternity and its failure, early on, to embrace television.

click to enlarge Unlike in football and other contact sports, rodeos - opponents dont stop when the whistle blows. - GAVIN EHRINGER
  • Gavin Ehringer
  • Unlike in football and other contact sports, rodeos opponents dont stop when the whistle blows.

In 1959, CBS offered to televise several major rodeos; the Rodeo Cowboys Association (the word "Professional" was added in 1977) turned them down, fearing that if people could see a rodeo on television, they wouldn't buy any tickets. ABC's Roone Arledge made a similar offer in the 1970s, but this time the rodeo organization wouldn't let go of its steer wrestling and calf roping events -- events that Arledge deemed too objectionable to the general public. The association would spend the next two decades trying to catch up with other sports.

Rodeo's biggest draw

However, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association made great strides with television beginning in the late 1990s. It now produces a year-round series of competitions for ESPN. This has done much to leaven riders' salaries and spectator interest. But its hold on the kicker-culture has been steadily challenged by a wildly popular spinoff: professional bull riding events.

Bull riding has long been rodeo's biggest draw; at any given rodeo, about one-third of the fans are there solely to watch the bull riders. That's why nearly every rodeo saves the bull riding until last -- the better to keep butts in bleachers until the orgasmic conclusion.

Since bull riding is what people come to see, promoters (and later, the bull riders who eventually took control of their sport) reasoned, why not trim the fat and give them more of the meat? By the mid-1990s, stand-alone bull riding events had become the rage in the rodeo business.

Fans today willingly pay $25, $35, $55 to see the bull ridings, two and three times more what they pay to go to their local rodeos. For the money, they get nonstop adrenaline-pumping action, with the outside chance that someone will expire before the evening is over.

From the bull rider's standpoint, these events have been a boon. The competitors don't pay entry fees; their hotel rooms are paid; they can fly in on Friday, compete and (barring hospitalization) be home Monday morning.

Instead of taking risks for a top prize of $600, as is often the case at the smaller PRCA-sanctioned rodeos, the bull jockeys now ride for top prizes of $5,000 to $15,000 -- more at the biggest bull riding contests. Top salaries in the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), the leading bull riding organization, approach half a million dollars; consequently, a disproportionate number of aspiring rodeo athletes are inclined to pursue its most dangerous event.

Like motocross races or monster truck rallies, bull ridings can take place in indoor stadiums, sheltered from the finicky weather that often harms rodeo attendance at outdoor shows.

Fans are guaranteed comfortable seats, easy access to concessions and restrooms, and kick-ass sound systems blaring the same jock rock heard at the NBA games. It's rodeo, but then, it isn't. The bull riding organizations have taken rodeo out of the country and suburbanized it.

Traditional rodeo has awoken from its complacency and raced to catch up to its breakaway upstart, the Professional Bull Riders. (Both the PBR and PRCA organizations have offices in Colorado Springs, with the Professional Bull Riders holding a floor in a downtown high-rise and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association inhabiting a sprawling complex in a suburban area on the city's north side).

In the last six years, dating from the installation of former NCAA Big 10 Commissioner Steven Hatchell as pro rodeo's head honcho, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association has combated the bull riding trend by promoting large-scale indoor rodeos -- marquee-televised competitions in stadium settings in cities that include Dallas, Omaha and Las Vegas.

click to enlarge Aussie rider Scott Johnston gets tipsy on a bronc at the - marquee Wrangler Pro Tour Finale, indoors in Dallas. - GAVIN EHRINGER
  • Gavin Ehringer
  • Aussie rider Scott Johnston gets tipsy on a bronc at the marquee Wrangler Pro Tour Finale, indoors in Dallas.

They've added regularly televised rodeo programming nearly every weekend of the year on ESPN and ESPN-2, as well as prime-time network broadcasts of special events.

And, they've created their own televised, stand-alone bull riding tour to compete with their cross-town rival, the Professional Bull Riders. The crown jewel of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's televised spectacles is the championship-deciding National Finals Rodeo, a cowboy extravaganza that will award more than $5 million upon its conclusion this December in Las Vegas.

Bless the beasts

As rodeo strives to become the Western version of NASCAR, it has increasingly come under the scrutiny of the public, particularly animal rights activists. The Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the largest and best-known animal rights group, has been an outspoken and vociferous opponent of the cowboy sport for decades.

PETA protesters annually picket the National Finals Rodeo and sporadically protest events big and small throughout the country. The organization has pushed for legislation to ban rodeo contests, particularly in California, Hawaii, Maryland and metro areas of the Eastern states. PETA has even lobbied Wyoming's governor to remove the bucking bronc symbol from its state license plates.

On its official Web site (www.bucktherodeo.com), PETA takes aim via a fact sheet and an open letter to Hatchell, commissioner of the PRCA. While some of their claims have merit, most stray far wide of their intended target.

PETA, for example, keeps a running record of anecdotal stories about animal injuries and deaths involving rodeos. Undeniably, such injuries and deaths occur. But no animal rights group that I am aware of has ever done a systematic and thorough study of the incidence rate of animal injuries, which would yield much more useful and meaningful statistics.

The Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, however, has done such studies and the results (not surprisingly) support its contention that injuries and fatalities to animals are rare in rodeo -- consistently a small fraction of 1 percent.

According to Cindy Schonholtz, animal welfare coordinator for the PRCA, the latest study performed in 2001 had an incidence rate of just less than three one-thousandths of a percentage point. In other words, of 100,000 animals that entered the rodeo arena, three incurred injuries requiring veterinary attention. But, the PRCA study counted all animals, including drill team horses, horses used to carry flags, and horses in relatively safe, non-contact events such as barrel racing (a women's event in which horses race around three barrels set in a prescribed course).

An earlier Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association study, however, counted injuries in actual runs, yielding an incidence rate of about one-tenth of 1 percent. That translates into one injury per 10,000 actual rodeo competition runs.

In the thousands of rodeo performances I've witnessed in 15 years, I can vividly recall only a handful of injuries to animals: a steer in the steer wrestling that broke its leg and had to be put down; the deaths of two calves; a bucking mare that broke her own back from overexertion after throwing her rider; and the death of a barrel racing horse that broke its leg before entering the arena and was subsequently euthanized.

Rodeo cowboys and stock contractors view such incidences practically, as would any person intimately tied to livestock. As any ranch or farm-raised person will attest, animals get hurt and they die, just like people. In fact, the loss of livestock percentage on a farm or ranch operation is many times higher than in rodeo; about one-tenth of a percent of farm animals die prematurely (that is, before they are led to slaughter).

click to enlarge Steer wrestling champion Brad Gleason, cow tipping in - Pendleton, Oregon. - GAVIN EHRINGER
  • Gavin Ehringer
  • Steer wrestling champion Brad Gleason, cow tipping in Pendleton, Oregon.

Most rodeo folks would say that the small percentage of arena incidents is to be expected, while PETA considers any injury or death of a domestic animal to be unacceptable.

Furthermore, PETA makes no differentiation between the PRCA-sanctioned competitions, which are governed by strict animal welfare rules and guidelines, and the tens of thousands of amateur rodeo events held across the country.

The latter events, which are typically less regulated and with athletes of lesser talent, are where abuses seem more common. One must remember, it takes years of practice (involving a progression of skill) to master any sport, including rodeo.

If PETA truly wanted the skinny on animal injuries, they'd have to post observers in the backyard practice lots of aspiring rodeo kids. As a calf roper once confided to me, "Yeah, I accidentally killed and injured lots of calves when I was learning. I mean, I plain roped their heads off till I really learned how to handle them and not hurt them."

Although PETA's efforts may be well-intentioned, it is woefully uninformed.

For instance, PETA asserts that "rodeo takes tame, docile animals and provoke [sic] them into behavior that makes them appear fierce and aggressive. Rodeos consider these animals to be cheap, expendable, and replaceable. They are used time and again before their bruised and battered bodies end up at the slaughterhouse."

One can fairly hear rodeo livestock owners (known as "stock contractors") guffawing over that one.

In fact, stock contractors comb the country searching for the bucking animals -- the bulls and broncs -- used in rodeo contests. It is a difficult task indeed to assemble the 100 or more animals necessary to make a proper bucking string, as the individual animals must possess an innate propensity to buck. A stock contractor typically pays thousands and, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars for each animal.

PETA's argument falls on its face because if, as they suggest, a docile animal can be made to buck, stock contractors could simply scoop up an unlimited number of dirt-cheap castaways at the hundreds of local livestock auctions held throughout rural America each weekend.

Instead, stock contractors invest considerably in breeding programs in which bucking stallions and bulls are mated to bucking mares and cows of rodeo lineage in the attempt to produce offspring with the genetic trait.

Indeed, just as a will to run is a genetic trait in racehorses and a will to retrieve a characteristic of Labradors, the desire to buck is a genetic characteristic of bucking horses and bulls.

Seizing on this fact, one enterprising rodeo announcer, Bob Tallman, began marketing the semen of a notorious PRCA "Bull of the Year" named Bodacious, an animal notable for restructuring the face of three-time PRCA world champion Richard "Tuff" Hedeman, also a founder of the Professional Bull Riders.

click to enlarge If you play, you pay ... and you pray. - KEN OPPRANN
  • Ken Opprann
  • If you play, you pay ... and you pray.

A ballpoint pen-sized straw of Bodacious' genetic legacy sold for as much as $2,000; within a year, Tallman had 50 other bulls donating to his unusual sperm bank.

Test-tube horses

Today, rodeo and bull riding events are populated with test-tube babies. A similar effort is being mounted, so to speak, with bucking horses.

In Amarillo, Texas, veterinarian Gregg Veneklasen, an expert in equine reproduction, is experimenting with advanced embryo-transfer practices to flush eggs from expectant bucking mares and place them in the docile (and commercially less valuable) mares that PETA claims can be made to buck. If their claim were accurate, this costly procedure would not be necessary.

Rodeo stock contractors, in general, have a genuine affection for their animals. When the great bull Red Rock died, owner John Growney was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying, "Red Rock was one of the best-known people in Northern California." The bull is buried underneath a shady tree he used to like to rest under, within view of Growney's kitchen window.

Seven-time world all-around champ Ty Murray is known for providing a haven for retired bucking horses on his ranch in Stephenville, Texas. Most of the animals have far outlived their saddle-toting cohorts used for pleasure riding.

PETA also wrongly asserts that rodeo stockmen use "torturous" bucking straps to motivate their animals. According to the PETA literature, "bucking straps are painful. They are cinched tightly around the animals' genitals or abdomen, which makes the horse or steer buck to try and shake off the strap."

A simple anatomy lesson seems in order. The testicles of male horses and bulls are tucked protectively between their legs, not swinging free under their bellies; mares' vaginas are located below their tails. Murray wittily replied to the animal activists' argument, "If I strapped a belt around your testicles, you wouldn't buck. You'd curl up in a little ball." End of lecture.

The ritualized pageant

Man against beast. The contest is as more ancient than civilization itself. Excavations of Minoan artifacts from the island of Crete revealed depictions of young men leaping over and riding bulls circa 2,000 years B.C. Horse cultures in China, Arabia and across Europe held competitions to test equestrian skills.

The Spaniards, who brought the modern horse to the New World, held roping and riding contests a century before the first historically acknowledged rodeo occurred in the frontier town of Deer Trail, Colorado Territory, in 1869.

The cowboy, who was nothing more than a laborer on horseback, earned a distinctive place in American myth principally due to his exposition and exploitation in the dime novels of the day and the fortuitous emergence of a 20th-century technology: the motion picture.

As the wide-open spaces of the Old West were fenced and enclosed, the wide-ranging cowboy was boiled down and distilled and poured into a representation of the West the size of a dusty, barren arena. Rodeo is a sport, but it is also a ritualized pageant that reaffirms and reconstitutes the mythical American character, incarnate and pregnant with symbolism.

Rodeo is democratic: You pay your entry fee and take your chances. There are all-black rodeos, Hispanic rodeos, all-Indian rodeos, women's rodeos, kid's rodeos, gay rodeos.

At its best, rodeo showcases virtues we'd all like to possess: courage, strength, athletic skill, character, perseverance. At its worst, it displays American crassness in copious abundance: the obscenely commercialized arenas papered with advertisements; the over-wrought patriotism with which it wraps itself in the flag; the ambivalent sexuality of virginal rodeo queens parading on horseback while male cowboys preen and strut for female rodeo groupies panting on the sidelines.

Put on a cowboy hat, jeans and boots and you, too, can partake of the American myth in its best and worst manifestations. Blood lust optional.

Gavin Ehringer is a freelance writer and photographer living in Colorado Springs His published works include the books Rodeo In America: Wranglers, Roughstock & Paydirt, Rodeo Legends and 100 Best Ranch Vacations in North America. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including the Rocky Mountain News, Denver Post, People, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and a saddlebag full of equestrian magazines.

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