What do you think an American rodeo would be like? To me, I envisioned cowboys riding bulls and lassoing animals from horseback.
I wasn’t far wrong.
Cody – where real cowboys come from
We were driving to Yellowstone from the east of the USA, through the flattish part of the state. We hit a town called Cody and decided to camp in the aptly named Buffalo Bill State Park.
Yep, Buffalo Bill isn’t just an Australian ice cream and a sport’s team, it was also a man who was a an American soldier, bison hunter and showman and was instrumental in founding the town of Cody.
If you want a true Wild Wild West experience, you will get it in Cody.
People walk around in cowboy hats and boots and they’re not even going to a fancy dress party.
This is their everyday attire.
When we drove into the town, there were wooden saloons lining the streets and six days a week in the summer there’s a live gunfight performed in Cody – just for show.
We almost expected a tumble weed to roll down ahead of our car.
Going to the rodeo
We saw a sign advertising an American rodeo and I jumped out of my seat. “We HAVE to go to that Dave!” I exclaimed.
So that was how, three hours later, we found ourselves shuffling up metal bleachers, beer in (Dave’s) hand, to find out the best vantage point to watch the American rodeo.
The opening of the rodeo
Music blared and women on horseback galloped around the dirt-floored stadium, waving giant American flags to a song that had lyrics that included:
“Justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight
When you rattle his cage
And you’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.
`Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass
It’s the American way”
It was certainly a wide-eyed opening to a different type of American culture that we had yet to experience.
Next we all stood up to sing the National Anthem.
Dave surprised me by knowing all the words (he has an uncanny memory for the strangest things!) and then we bowed our heads and prayed for the safety of all those appearing in the rodeo that night.
I can’t think of any Australian event I have ever attended where we prayed. In fact, I only know two people in Australia who go to church. Indeed, about 30% of Australians state they aren’t religious, compared with just 15% of Americans.
So America is a much more religious – and publicly religious – country.
This is evident through the phrase ‘God Bless America’ which I don’t think there is an equivalent of in Australia.
Anyway, after we prayed, the rodeo began.
Bulls buck because a flank strap is tied around them, just in front of their hind legs. There is heated debate as to whether it ties their genitals down, but either way, bulls fight ferociously to get rid of this rope.
And while this happens, a bull rider has jumped on their backs and is trying to stay put for at least eight seconds while the bull bucks energetically, swinging the rider around viciously until they fall off, often hard onto the ground.
To get the bull back under control, two guys wearing bright clothing would tease them away from the cowboy who just fell to the ground.
I didn’t know who I felt more sorry for – the tortured bull, the bull rider or the bull teasers.
I started to feel sick from nerves watching it.
But that was nothing compared to the anxiety I felt when I saw boys aged about eight get on a bull.
As I expressed my shock to Dave, the guy next to me said that in schools in Wyoming they ride bulls for sport class.
In Australia, we surf, in the Wild Wild West they become cowboys through bull riding…
Even so, it was hard to watch as the young boys were thrown to the ground one after the other.
Check out the video below to get a true sense of what the rodeo was like:
Other rodeo events
Following each bull riding session there was an intermission where other cowboys and cowgirls would take it in turn to lasso cows.
They would let a cow run into the stadium and then two cowboys on horseback would follow.
One would lasso the cow’s neck and the other would lasso its four hoofs together.
The distressed cow would then fall to the ground, wriggling around and trying to get out of its restraints.
The faster and more efficient the cowboys lassoed, the more points they would earn.
There’s no doubt lasooing takes a large amount of skill. You have to have a pretty accurate arm to be able to tie up an animal running away from you at full pace, whilst you are also moving.
But I couldn’t help feel sorry for the poor animals. They were clearly distressed and not enjoying being tied up for the audience’s amusement.
But before I had time to fully contemplate this practise, it was back to the bull riding.
This time, a woman rode the bull as it kicked and bucked.
She flew into the air and landed hard on her back in the dirt with a thud.
The excitement in the crowd paused for a moment as everyone realised she was badly injured.
All of a sudden, four men fell to their knees and for a moment I thought she was dead and that they had collapsed in shock.
But then I realised that they were praying together in a circle.
Over the loud speakers, the commentator asked us all to say our own little prayer as the ambulance arrived and the cowgirl was taken away.
Before long, the jovial play resumed and it seemed the woman was quickly forgotten.
Children at rodeos
Children were called onto the pitch and ribbons were tied onto the ends of two calves. The children then chased the calves around the stadium, trying to grab the ribbons.
A little boy was kicked by one of the calves as he tried in vain to grab the bow.
Finally, two older boys caught the ribbons and were rewarded with gift vouchers for a steak meal at a local restaurant.
Rodeo is certainly a family fun event.
Parents get their children into the sport from a young age.
And while I can admire the skill of these kids – like the one nine year old girl who galloped around during the barrel racing beating all the other adult women with her speed – I also worry about the safety of the participants and can’t help but feel that the sport is bordering on animal cruelty.
But who am I to judge?
Rodeo has been around since the 1700s and some traditions are here to stay.
And for one night I got an insight into what it’s truly like to be a cowgirl.
Now that’s an American experience.
As always, we welcome your comments.