There’s an expression for being experienced (aka “old”): “It’s not my first rodeo”.
Except in our case it is.
There’s another common expression: “When in Rome, do as the Romans”, so, “when in Texas” …. take in a rodeo and a country music concert!
Texas has more rodeos than any other state, befitting its reputation as the center of cowboy culture. The Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo claims to be the oldest continuously running in the United States (since 1896). The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo claims to be the largest in the world. Rodeo Austin bills itself as “Where Weird Meets Western”. February is officially the start of rodeo season, but in checking around we found out that, honestly, there is a rodeo happening in Texas somewhere pretty much year-round.
Yesterday we headed to the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo for the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) semi-finals, followed by a performance by country singer Dierks Bentley. The SA rodeo has been taking place since 1949; but its roots date back to 1854 when San Antonio hosted the first Texas Agricultural Fair. Today it takes 6000 volunteers to run the 18 day long event.
Each day’s rodeo offers various levels of competition followed by entertainment, but before going into the huge arena for those events, we “had to” walk around the outdoor fairgrounds and check out all the exhibits, animal barns, activities…. and food.
First, I have to say that a stock show and rodeo has nothing in common with an agricultural fair except for the midway. There are no crop farming displays or equipment, no tractor pulls, no demolition derby, no pies or preserves, no biggest squash or best ear of corn. It’s all about animals raised on ranches, and the skills needed to do that. There is livestock being groomed, weighed, displayed, and auctioned, and there are ranchers and cowboys everywhere.
We started our visit in the swine barn: rows and rows of huge clean hogs of more different breeds and coloration than I could have imagined. There were 250+ pound hogs being guided around the barn by the children of ranchers, some of the children quite young, using only a long flexible stick with a feathery end on it with which they alternately touched both sides of the hog to direct it. There were hogs being spritzed and curried (with a brush, not the spice!). Mostly, though, there were great big hogs asleep in their pens with their noses sticking into the aisles. It made no sense, since the pens were very roomy and there was plenty of space for them to sleep anywhere – yet almost every one had their nose protruding.
Besides the variety and size, the other unexpected thing was the lack of that characteristic stink I associate with driving past a pig farm. I assumed its lack was due to the masses of pristine wood shavings used as bedding and over most of the barn floor, and the fact that the pens were constantly being mucked out, but one of the ranchers told me it had more to do with the day’s cool weather than anything else. Apparently heat and pigs is not a pleasant olfactory combination.
Our next stop was the massive cattle barn. A sign leading into the barn listed 20 breeds on display, and there certainly were a lot of different colours – including Charolais steer that looked as pink as the hogs due to their skin colour peeking through freshly washed white cowhide. Here there was a definite cow smell, with sawdust being used between the pens instead of wood shavings, and ample evidence as to why boots are the preferred footwear on Texas ranches.
Being midweek, there were no horse shows going on, but we did visit the horse stall barn, where it appeared that everyone had just had their baths.
After that, it was time to explore the food court. Having experienced both Ontario fall fairs and the Canadian National Exhibition food choices, I have to confess to being disappointed in the selection. There were all the usual things: funnel cakes, ice cream, turkey legs, burgers, sausages, tacos, various fried foods, and beer of course, but nothing I’d consider truly special. Maybe it’s uncouth to serve tender beef or smoked pork alongside all those live animals? That said, it’s Texas, so the food items are BIG. Our sausages with fried onions and peppers on them were about a foot long, and the order of curly fries…. well, the picture really says it all. That’s a dinner sized paper plate.
Having eaten, it was time to head into the arena for the rodeo itself, with a detour into the kids’ pavilion for a short preliminary Mutton Bustin’ competition. (I’ll come back to that later.) The rodeo is held in the AT&T Center, which is the home of the San Antonio Spurs NBA basketball team, so it’s a really big venue. I knew that the seats we’d bought were in the “balcony”, but really hadn’t thought about how high up that was going to be. It reminded me of being in the top few rows of the 500 level seats at the Rogers Center for Toronto Blue Jays baseball games – only without any railings between steeply banked rows! Although we had a great view both of the floor of the arena and the huge video screens, my heart pounded for about half an hour before settling down. I really don’t like heights.
The rodeo began with the ceremony that we’ve come to expect from big events in the United States, which included the entire audience standing up as the honour guard of horses and Texas state flags galloped in, followed by a lone rider with a gigantic Stars and Stripes streaming behind her, a prayer, and the national anthem.
When we were all seated again, the competitions began.
There was bareback bronc riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, women’s barrel racing, and bull riding, with competitors (I kept track) from Oregon, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, Alberta, Missouri, Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming, AUSTRALIA, Utah, South Dakota, Virginia, BC, Tennessee, and Idaho, in addition to Texans.
For me, the most exciting event was the bareback bronco riding. Watching the riders jump, stretch and bend to limber up, climb on their horse and secure one hand to the rope around the horse’s neck so tightly that you cannot imagine they could free it if they’re thrown, and then lean back almost prone on the horse before it is released from its corral, you find yourself holding your breath in anticipation. When the horse tears out of the gate, bucking wildly, the rider is flung back and forth like a rag doll, his spine bending and flipping so violently it’s hard to imagine it not breaking. Eight seconds seems like forever. (The saddle event is exciting too, but not like the bareback.) Both events are crazy high-speed action that a phone camera way up high just can’t capture.
The roping events, which are all about speed, are interesting but not breath-taking. Watching cowboys lasso a steer in tandem, one looping their lasso around the head and the other around the hind legs, or seeing how fast a cowboy can lasso a running steer and immobilize them on the ground, is a window into skills that only ranchers need. A large Texas ranch can be as big as 100,000 acres; capturing runaway cattle is not just a rodeo event.
For equine speed and agility, the women’s barrel racing event takes centre stage. The semi-finalist winner at yesterday’s rodeo was a rider from British Columbia. Go, Canada!!
To break up the serious events, there was a youth calf scramble (just what it sounds like – a bunch of kids aged 10-14 trying to lasso one of the many calves let loose in the arena and drag it back to a designated spot), and Mutton Bustin’ “, where children ages four to seven put on a hockey style helmet to accessorize their western gear and attempt to ride a sheep for eight seconds. It was incredibly hilarious to watch, and the kids who were able to hang on for a full ride got great cheers and loud applause. The 6 year old boy who won the first prize giant silver belt buckle gave the absolute funniest interview after his win describing his full ride from climbing onto the sheep, to positioning himself for the ride, to when he thought he was slipping off the sheep sideways but just “grabbed onto the wool and hung on”. I can absolutely picture my 2 youngest grandsons doing that event!
The other non-competitive display was some really great trick-riding by Canadian rider Madison McDonald Thomas, who works as a stunt woman for the Heartland TV series. We’ve noticed as we travelled in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas this year that, as soon as we identified ourselves as Canadians, folks asked if we’re from Alberta and all wanted to talk about the TV series “Heartland”. Too bad we don’t watch it… but here at the rodeo was yet another connection.
The most dangerous event of the rodeo is left for last: bull riding. Unlike needing to stay mounted on a wildly kicking horse, or roping a steer, I’m not sure why a rancher would ever need – or want – to ride a bull. But it’s a thing, and clearly not an easy one. Most of the competitors ride in helmets instead of cowboy hats. I assume that’s because they’ve all had too many concussions to be without them. Of the 10 semi-finalists competing, only two managed to stay on a bull for a full 8 seconds. The winner was Dustin Boquet, a cowboy from Louisiana, riding Space Unicorn. Yup. A big brahman bull named Space Unicorn.
After 2 hours of rodeo events, it only took 15 minutes for the arena crew to bring in the rotating concert stage and all the sound equipment so that Dierks Bentley could take the stage. He sang all his hits, and absolutely rocked the house for 90 minutes – especially the screaming, dancing, hooting and hollering, totally drunk Texas belles sitting next to us.
YEE HAW !