The dust has settled at the Lakeside Rodeo, and the cowboys have scattered. Some rushed to the airport, headed for the next event. Some limped off to be X-rayed. And some headed to the cowboy bars to eyeball the buckle bunnies, and if they fared well, bought breakfast for two this morning.
Also departing but in less style were the 80 horses and 40 bulls brought in to make it all possible. The horses seemed to enjoy the excitement, and the bulls got their licks in on those who someday might put ketchup on them. To the stock, it was just another town, another truck ride and another bale of hay.
We often try to give human qualities to animals, and that can be rather idiotic. But the guy who owns them, feeds them, trucks them all over and can easily lose money on them says it’s a mistake to think they’re dumb animals.
John Growney is owner of the Growney Brothers Rodeo Company. He operates from Red Bluff, north of Sacramento, and provides dozens of animals to small and large rodeos all over the West. He has shoveled manure in places that never see beef outside of a Big Mac.
He’s a high-spirited, 65-year-old Irishman who in his youth rode the bulls, or sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t. He just celebrated his entry into Medicare, but given the orthopedic history of old bull riders, that might not be such a good deal for Medicare.
Growney got into rodeo early and rode bulls until he was 31, always seeking the high that comes from spending time atop a 1,500-pound animal that does not want you to be there. He says he wasn’t the best, but he was good enough that the bulls put him through college.
The objective in bull riding is to stay aloft for eight seconds, which he says “feels like eternity. You ride so much you know when it’s over. When you’re halfway into your ride, you know if you’re in control or the bull is. If you make it through the first four seconds, you usually can make it through the last four.”
Does the bull go after you when you’re thrown?
“Very few will. Bulls go to about 25 rodeos a year, and they learn their job. A young bull, he might want to hit you, and when he does, it hurts. A late hit killed one of my best friends. A bull gored him in the back and broke a rib that cut the aortic artery. He bled to death right there in the arena. There is a lot of danger in rodeo, but you’re in it for the fun of it and the rush of it.”
Since most domesticated animals become tame with handling, it seems reasonable that bulls and bucking horses would also. But Growney says they don’t get tame, they get smart. When they first start, they don’t have it figured out. The horse or bull might think, “This is new to me; I’m mad this is happening, and I want to get even with that guy sitting up there.” But after a dozen rodeos, the animals get into a pattern. He says they don’t get gentler, they get smarter. The rider then is viewed not as a threat, but as a nuisance.
Contrary to what opponents of rodeos might say, Growney says animals are not prodded by pain to make them buck. “You can’t make an animal buck. The flank strap makes him kick because it irritates him, but he has to want to buck. The more they get used to it, the better they get at it, thinking about what they need to do to throw the cowboy off.”
Possibly because we’ve been close companions for millennia, Growney believes horses are easier to figure out than bulls, and that goes both ways. “A bucking horse, he’s cocky. He wants to kick your ass. A horse is quick to learn the game. He knows what he’s got to do to buck you off. I’ve watched a lot of horses buck cowboys off right alongside of them, and they’ll stand in that one spot jumping and kicking, like, ‘Take this. I just gave it to you.’ Then, after they’re done, they go into a high trot and their head comes up and their tail comes up. It’s like the guy in the end zone. Before football players did their end-zone dance, bucking horses would do theirs.”
Growney says only mares and geldings are taken on the road. Including a stud horse would be giving a chocoholic the key to Ghirardelli’s.
I ask if a good rider feels fear. He says it’s not fear of getting hurt, but fear of being embarrassed in front of peers.
Growney is a decades-long observer of the rodeo cowboy outside of the workplace. “We’re the only sport where you wear your uniform outside the arena. A lot of cowboys are just good people. They probably got backhanded enough as kids that they figured out how to act. In the bars, you’ll see a local guy who likes to fight and drink representing himself to be one of us, but he’s not, really. He’s a wannabe who couldn’t quite cross that line to be a bull rider.”
But he doesn’t give the rodeo guys a free ride. “Twenty-one-year-old guys will be 21-year-old guys. They’re dumber’n a box of rocks. A lot of ranch kids grow up isolated. They’ve never been exposed to women and alcohol, and some of them …
“There’s something about the cowboy image that causes some women to drop their drawers. And these cowboys, they’re young, and they’re ready for that. Some women will get a few beers in them and flash the cowboys when they’re in the arena.”
That could be a problem. I can see the difficulty of focusing your whole body on staying atop a bull when one part is distracted.
Growney says drugs are a part of rodeo life, as everywhere, but are pretty much restricted to marijuana. He says sometimes he wishes riders would smoke more dope and drink less alcohol. He’d rather see them munching cookies than fighting in some bar.
He says the average rodeo rider doesn’t support himself on the circuit except part time. The best might make $300,000 per year, but also with heavy travel costs. “As in any sport, the top 10 percent make all the money, and the rest are just surviving.”
Or trying to.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]