It comes from the Spanish rodear, to surround: A rodeo was simply a cattle roundup, and, at the end of it, one cowboy might bet another that he could ride a rank stallion longer. Or tie a calf quicker. The first organized rodeos were held in cattle towns—Cheyenne, Wyo.; Prescott, Ariz.; Pecos, Texas—and the cowboys came from places With lyrical names like Bellflower, Mesquite and Sweetwater that still fire the imagination. Today the boys also come from the Bronx, where second-ranked bull rider Bobby DelVecchio was born and raised, but the lute remains the same—a one-on-one contest between man and animal, like that of this steer wrestler, depicted in midflight. To artist Walt Spitzmiller, the steer wrestler best exemplifies the cowboy as athlete.
In the saddle bronc event, the cowboy must stay on for eight seconds, holding on to the single braided rein with one hand. The harder the horse bucks, the higher it kicks, the more points the cowboy can score—that's the luck of the draw. But rodeos have always been more than a cowboy's chance to prove himself—more, even, than entertainment. In the old days they were also social events, a chance to get off the ranch and visit with neighbors you saw only a few times a year. That hasn't changed, but rodeo now enjoys a nationwide following, too. In 1981, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association sanctioned 643 rodeos in 47 states, as well as the hundreds of college, high school and various "little britches" rodeos held around the country. Some 117,000 people paid to see 10 "performances" of the PRCA National Finals this month in Oklahoma City, and rodeo officials estimate the sport draws 12 to 14 million fans yearly, roughly the same number that attend the NFL football games.
The average age of a rough-stock rider is 23 or 24; the ropers tend to be older, perhaps 30. Except for an elite few who are sponsored, cowboys make their own way to town, find their own beds, pay their own entrance fees—$50 to $250 per event—and then face the luck of the draw, knowing that the next few seconds will determine whether they earn a paycheck. This year alone some 4,000 PRCA cowboys competed for $10 million in purses. That averages out to $2,500 a man. There are no pension plans here, and careers can come to a crippling end with any fall. The cowboy above, Jerry Beagley, from Medicine Lodge, Kans., has a mouthful of stitches from an encounter with a bull at the 1979 National Finals Rodeo.
The last event on a rodeo program is usually bull riding. This painting is called Bell-Clanging Terror, because of the cowbell that's always attached to the bull rope. As the bull leaves the gate and begins his menacing spins and bucks, the clamor of the bell is heard throughout the arena. The bull, usually part Brahma—a loose-skinned breed with a distinctive hump on its back—can weigh as much as a ton. As it lands from a leap, the sides of its body expand with such force that the rider's feet fly into the air. The cowboy holds on by a rope wrapped so tightly around his hand that it is not uncommon for him to get hung up on the bull at the end of a ride. That is the most dangerous moment in rodeo, for, unlike the bronc, a bull will attack a man with the worst intentions.
A rodeo is also a pageant. In the Grand Entry at the National Finals, a cavalcade of flag bearers and officials, rodeo queen and attendants is led into the arena by a horsewoman carrying a spotlighted American flag. The playing of the national anthem is no perfunctory gesture, but a genuine patriotic interlude, after which the procession rides out at a gallop, sometimes they read the Cowboy's Prayer, it asks, in part:
Just let me live my life as I've begun,
And give me work that's open to the sky,
Make me a partner of the wind and sun,
And I won't ask a life that's soft or high;
Make me as big and open as the plains,
As honest as the horse between my knees,
Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,
Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze.
The clowns, shown here applying their makeup in the convention center, are the rodeo's lifeguards. It's their job to distract the bull at the end of the ride when the bull rider is on the ground or free his hand when it gets hung up in the bull rope. The cowboy faces one bull a night; the clown must confront as many as 16, and most have injuries too numerous to recount.
There are 130 PRCA-licensed clowns, and they are paid between $200 and $500 per performance. The requirements? Courage, agility and a sense of humor. Leon Coffee, the clown to the far left, has a mule act and a brown belt in karate, but his specialty is discoing in front of the bull to distract him.
In making last-minute adjustments to their equipment, contestants are as ritualistic and superstitious as any athletes. Each cowboy wears his hat differently, but when he takes it off, no hat is ever set upside down, lest the luck run out of it. Some prefer chaps that are fancy and tooled, some prefer them plain and worn ragged. One of the reassuring things about rodeo today is that so little has changed. The equipment—boots, spurs, jeans, hat, saddle, bareback rigging—is virtually the same as it was at the turn of the century. As for the livestock—horses, calves, bulls and steers—there's not much new there. And the cowboy's life-style remains as fiercely independent, day-to-day, rootless, ironically, this rootlessness is America's roots, which may explain the current surge of interest in rodeo.
But even mass appeal won't change it. As one rodeo hand says, "I was a cowboy before it was popular. I reckon I'll still be a cowboy after it ain't."