This 4th of July I didn’t see a single firework, but I did go to the Red Ryder Roundup Rodeo in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. There’s nothing more American than a good old fashioned rodeo!
I love the rodeo for the skill of the riders, the raw animal athleticism and the obvious bond between cowboys and their horses. Rodeos are also among my favorite events to photograph. I race the shutter and often catch some amazing stills:
Out West, many of the participants are real cowboys who earn their living on ranches and come in from the range with their working mounts just for the rodeo. In Pagosa, everybody really looked the part of the classic American cowboy:
Rodeos evolved out of ranch work and most of the events, with the adrenaline-soaked exception of bull riding, can be traced to animal husbandry practices still in use today. Traditional rodeos consist of seven events that are always presented in the same order: bareback riding, steer wrestling, team roping, saddle bronc, tie-down roping, barrel racing and bull riding.
The Pagosa Rodeo was an exceptionally awesome experience because my cousin got us right behind the bull chutes for the bull riding. The energy back there was unbelievable! Most of the bull riders were just kids –teenagers – and they amped themselves and each other up for their rides by yelling, jumping around and slapping their own faces and thighs. One kid looked at me and grinned and all his front teeth were missing. The testosterone and comraderie between the cowboys was palpable, with everybody cheering on everybody else.
As for the bulls, I was struck by how calm they were in the chutes in the midst of all that commotion. They didn’t get riled up until the cowboys climbed over the gate and onto their backs. I got the feeling these aren’t crazed animals and they know exactly what their job is: to buck those boys off in spectacular fashion.
Soft eye or not, there’s no way I’d climb onto one of those beasts. Standing behind the chutes when the bulls exploded out of the gate into the arena was thrilling enough. The power of those animals is incredible. Being close to a bucking bull is like standing next to a derailing freight train. Who needs fireworks with this kind of action!
I love the rodeo, but there are those who find it impossible to watch without seeing animal cruelty, probably due to misconceptions about how rodeo stock are trained to buck. Bucking horses and bulls are both bred for brio and trained to respond explosively under a rider. These are valuable animals – a good bucking horse can be worth 10 grand and a champion bucking bull ten times that – and they are treated well.
In any crowd there will be a few nasty apples, but overall, I think ranchers and rodeo-ers respect their animals in the kind of abiding ways that come from working with intelligent creatures day in and out. Having looked a bucking bull in the eye, I know there’s more to that animal than meat, hooves and horns. I’m sure the cowboys do too.