The approx. 1,200 lb animal does all it can to shake off the rider, who is only allowed to hold onto a leather “rigging” with one hand, onto the floor of the arena. The rider has to master extreme forces and is at great risk of injury. Rodeo is regarded as the most dangerous sport in the world. It is divided into seven different disciplines, with “bareback bronc riding” and “bareback bull riding” as the kamikaze disciplines for men who know no fear. Opinions vary as to which of the two is the ultimate rodeo discipline. If you ask an oldtimer like Johnny Hammond, rodeo organiser, cowboy and former rodeo rider, he will answer without hesitation: “Definitely the bronc riding. Broncos are faster. The dynamics are unbelievable!”
The horse has to buck as fast, high and wildly as possible. “The horses are assigned to the riders by lot. Two or three hours before the start, the cowboys go to the rodeo office and find out from a list which horse they will be riding. Each cowboy hopes to get as wild a horse as possible, because that way you get the most points,” Johnny explains at the North Texas Fair & Rodeo in Denton.
You need points to win prize money so that you can actually earn something from this crazy sport. Rodeo cowboys have to pay their own entry fees for each event, just so that at the end of a long rodeo season they might be in with a chance of taking part in the big finals in Las Vegas, where the big prize and sponsorship money beckons. The rider and horse can each score up to 50 points.
The harder the horse bucks, the more points the cowboy gets, because his performance and that of his horse are added together. But equally, the harder the horse bucks, the more likely that the cowboy won’t actually make it through the eight seconds to the buzzer. This ambivalence is what gives the sport, which has 35 million fans in North America, its unique appeal. The performance of the cowboy is measured based on whether he manages to hold on with one hand, and how he does it. The other hand is not allowed to touch the horse or the rider’s body, the cowboy’s boots always have to be above the horse’s shoulders and of course the cowboy has to stay on the horse for at least eight seconds, or they get nothing: no points, no money.
“Rodeo is a sport of willpower. Do you have the strength and willpower to overcome your fear? Your fear of injury, your fear of this wild, powerful beast that is so physically superior to you. The rodeo rider has to find a rhythm with the horse. He can’t ride the animal or tame it; he can merely attempt to become one with its power and movement. Each ride is a challenge,” says Allan Watt, rodeo judge and owner of Oak Meadow Ranch in Valley View, Texas. Allan is one of the judges who awards the points that the rodeo riders compete for.
In order to get the rider back down again safely in the best-case scenario that they manage to stay on the horse, the “pickup men” are on hand. These are experienced cowboys with nerves of steel who ride well-trained, athletic horses. The pickup men help the cowboy to dismount from the bucking bronco once the buzzer has sounded to mark the end of the eight seconds. They set the rodeo rider down, catch the bronco or bull and drive it out of the arena and back into the chute. They have a naturally different way of looking at the horses, and they know no fear. “I can force a horse into submission just by looking at it,” explains James Hajek, and you wouldn’t doubt it for a second. He trained the horses that he works with himself. His favourite is one that he recognised as being truly special from the moment he laid eyes on it: “He is strong and smart. Right from the start, he refused to buck.”
Cowboy and rodeo rider Logan Patterson on “Wild West”.