The weather for Pendleton’s annual rodeo, the Round Up, was much cooler than usual with temperatures reaching only the low eighties this year. Nights were cool enough to require hoodies, jackets and booze (actually, alcohol is not really weather dependent during Round Up). Pendleton Whisky (yes, that is the way it is spelled) was generally the preferred spirit with our group, but there were other whiskeys, tequila, gin, vodka as well as beer to keep our group from becoming dehydrated. The phrase, “Let ‘Er Buck,” was not to be used exclusively by the rodeo participants.
Folks come from all over the Northwest to enjoy the Wild West celebration that occurs the second full week of September every year, (we even met a few people from the Netherlands), and the rodeo probably increases the population of Pendleton by 50% during that period. This year there were even more people to crowd into the small city as there were approximately 2,000 cyclists who came to town as part of Cycle Oregon. It was not the first time that Cycle Oregon happened to camp in Pendleton during the Round Up, but this year it was much smoother.
A few years ago the bicyclists had to fend for themselves and set up their tents in a field next to the high school. The regular rodeo fans showed some resentment as they had to compete for the use of toilets and showers, and the cyclists did not appreciate the rough manners and hard drinking of the Let ‘Er Buck crowd. One of the female fans of the rodeo, a short, pretty blond from Burns went so far as to spurn the riding attire of the Cycle Oregon folks by stating loudly, “They saunter around here looking like a bunch of goddam aliens.”
Why would Cycle Oregon want to come Pendleton again?
This year the Pendleton Round Up Association joined with Cycle Oregon to create a more pleasant experience for the rodeo people as well as the bicycle folks. There was a carefully planned area for the cyclists to camp that included booths for vendors as well as food and drink, all quite separated from the rodeo campers. The Cycle Oregon experience also provided opportunities for their people to participate in Round Up activities including tickets to the rodeo itself. Everyone was all smiles.
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Most people are aware what goes on at a rodeo, and, for good reason, a lot of folks are offended by the events. One can look at the activities as down right cruel. Sure, the contestants are pitting themselves against large animals, and the possibility of a cowboy getting hurt or even killed definitely exists. Indeed, there is a certain excitement during bull riding, a little dark hope that the animal will chase down a cowboy or clown or, even better that the bull will escape the small, weakly fenced-in area and run out into the crowd. Great stuff!
However, there is the argument that while the cowboy is brave (or foolish), he voluntarily gets on the back of the huge beast. The bull, or for that matter, any of the other animals in the other events, has no choice in the matter. They are conscripted into service. No wonder the bulls are so pissed off.
The most dangerous events for the human contestants are the bull and bronc riding events, but the scariest for the animals are the calf and steer roping contests. It is not unusual to witness animals get knocked unconscious as they are jerked to a halt by a lasso attached to the saddle horn of a horse that is trained to stop on a time as soon as the rope is tossed. It is small wonder why PETA objects to the concept of rodeo.
Still, the rodeo is part of western culture. It has been around for centuries and the events reflect the necessary skills that are still used on cattle ranches all over the two American continents. Rodeo has also grown to be big-time urban entertainment with contests in every large city west of the Mississippi. Especially professional bull riding (PBR) which is staged with the same aggressive flare as huge rock concerts or other big time professional sports. PBR events are complete with loud music and exploding flash bombs.
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My own experience with rodeo is colored with a bit of memory and falling in love. In western Iowa, where I grew up, there were farms, not ranches. There were real cowboys just across the Missouri River in Nebraska and in South Dakota, states not one hundred miles away. There were big rodeos in those areas and a little of the fever leaked back to the towns around where I grew up near Sioux City.
Being a farm boy, back then in the middle of the last century, I was comfortable being around animals, but I admit there was a certain callousness about the treatment of livestock. It wasn’t that we were deliberately cruel to animals (although there were some farmers, like my grandfather, who seemed to have the impression that his mules, horses and even dogs were deliberately plotting against him). It was more that as a matter of course of running a farm, we did not give a lot of thought about how a pig or a cow might feel.
So when a rodeo came to town, the excitement of seeing real cowboys in competition overrode whatever pain might be inflicted on the stock. And of course, any crappy little rodeo that we had, was in the most part a collection of inexperienced amateurs and burnt out cowboys at the end of whatever career they might have had in the arena. Even the rodeo grounds were a ramshackle mess of old wooden gates held together with bailing wire and twine. The stands were built from splintery boards that were pulled from collapsed barns in the area. Most of the structures had to be rebuilt every time a rodeo event managed to be put together. To many of the farmers the rodeo was mostly a comedy of watching the animal win. It also gave a few of them bragging rights for a few months about spending a few seconds on a bucking horse or bull.
After I left home, I gave little thought to rodeos or western culture. When anyone brought up the subject of rodeo, it was usually a negative comment regarding the cruelty involved, and I, without much reflection, generally agreed. The conversation would soon move on in a different direction. After all, we were urban people and really did not have a lot to say about cowboys other than to make fun of country western lyrics.
Then, almost fifty years since I had been to a little rodeo in Iowa, I became smitten with a woman who grew up with rodeo. Sheila started going to the Pendleton Round Up when she was a little girl with her dad, and she brought her kids every year. Her children brought theirs.
I fell for this freckle-faced redhead with her western drawl. My heart melted when I heard her say “cayish” for cash. Or “kaowboy” for cowboy. How could I resist when she invited me to the Round Up? I bought my first cowboy boots since I was a teenager. I bought a cowboy hat. I went to the rodeo.
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The Pendleton Round Up is a big rodeo and compares to the Calgary Stampede, Cheyenne Frontier Days and others that offer big prizes and prestige to winners. The cash winnings are impressive and can amount to millions of dollars over a season of rodeo. But for many of the contestants, the money is secondary to the honor of winning over so many other talented competitors. There are material symbols to championship: saddles, blankets, ribbons, booze and photos with rodeo queens and her courts. But perhaps the biggest and mostly sought after trophy is the belt buckle. All the other awards are nice to have to display in a trophy case, but the buckle is something the cowboy can wear every time he puts on his jeans.
The most popular rodeo events to watch are probably the bucking competitions, but the other events demonstrate different kinds of skills. The roping events show an amazing coordination and cooperation between humans and horses that require lightning quick responses of both. In steer roping, for example, once the rope has been tossed over the horns of the steer, the cowboy completely depends on the horse to do its job without human direction as the rider jumps off to do his.
Barrel Racing is another, perhaps more poetic demonstration of coordination between a woman and her horse. The rare event that allows only women competitors is a race against time where the rider with her horse must successfully circle three barrels (one on each side of the arena, and one at the opposite end from the start), and then race back to the starting line.
There is one other event that is widely unknown, uncelebrated and frequently is not even part of many rodeos: wild cow milking. This event and the highlight of one of its winners will be subject of the next installment.