One of my projects while I’m here in New Mexico has been to print up a series of my rodeo photos from last summer to show at the Jezebel Gallery in Madrid, NM. I had the prints made at High Desert Arts in Santa Fe (gotta support the locals!). Here is my artist statement for “The Wild Ones: Cowboys, Bulls & Broncs”:
I’ve always loved the wild ones. The difficult ones, the tempestuous ones, the ornery ones, the rebels. I learned to ride on a wild one: an athletic, explosive buckskin named Dakota. I always said he should have been a bucking horse. He rarely threw me, but he sure as hell tried.
When I was a teenager, out riding cross-country far from home, Dakota took off bucking and twisting. In less than 8 seconds I hit the ground hard. Some hours later, I awoke alone in a field, with six fractured vertebrae, two herniated discs and two cracked ribs. Dakota was gone. I spent the rest of the day dragging myself home through the longest cornfield of my life.
Recovery took years. I was told to baby my back, to avoid any kind of strain on the damaged discs, shaky vertebrae and seared muscles. As everything weakened, the pain worsened and by my early-20’s I felt intractably broken. Not until my senior year of college when I adopted a young, hyper border collie and started taking long walks every day did I begin to heal. Walking made me stronger. My balance, posture and flexibility improved. Soon I was hiking, then backpacking, then climbing mountains, traveling great distances in search of new terrain. But I stayed away from horses.
They say you aren’t a real rider until you fall off and get back on. Months after my accident, I did get back on Dakota, but our relationship was broken. I didn’t trust him and he didn’t trust me. Heartbroken, I sold him. A year later, another twist of the knife: my first love, my childhood pony Saturday, died in my arms.
For years after Dakota and Saturday, I avoided horses. Horses had broken my back and my heart and I could not so much as watch one or touch one without a twinge of pain and the prick of tears. Then, driving cross-country from the Atlantic, to the Gulf, to the desert Southwest, I rolled through Roswell, New Mexico, where a banner stretched across Main Street, declared it Roswell Rodeo Weekend. I have a policy about saying yes to all opportunities, so I went to the rodeo, sat in the stands, clutching my camera, and fell hard all over again.
I loved everything about the rodeo: the Sunday hats, the trophy buckles, the garish chaps, the rubber-banded spurs, the elfin-toed boots, the true grit, the strong handshakes, the dust the mud and the blood. Most of all I loved the wild ones: the cowboys, bulls and broncs. In their soft eyes and wild rides, I saw myself, young, reckless and at one with the bucking beasts. My bitterness at having been broken so young and so dumb was gone. Through my lens, I was elated, elevated, levitated, watching the wild ones.
Of all the things I love to photograph, rodeos quickly became one of my all time favorites. I never tire of trying to capture the crackling, swirling kinetic energy of the rodeo, the power and partnership, the poetry of motion.
After Roswell, I quickly figured out you can’t properly shoot a rodeo from the stands. You need to get close enough to the action to get dirt on your lens, to look the wild ones in the eye. Putting on my Australian cowboy hat and my bravest (former) bronc-riding face, I learned to charm my way behind the scenes, into the heart of the action, behind the bull chutes. At most rodeos, I’m the only woman back there. Not once has anybody ever kicked me out of this ultimate boys club. It’s true what they say: cowboys are polite, even as they step onto the back of a bucking bull.
In fact, as a general rule, rodeo people are great people. For the past five years, I’ve spent my summers touring the back roads of North America, and the number of times I’ve chanced upon small towns on rodeo weekends – Pagosa Springs, Galisteo, Eureka, Quesnel – is enough to make me believe in the magic of road trip serendipity.
When rodeo people hear about my life on the road, they’re intrigued and often downright hospitable. I’ve been invited to barbecues, family dinners, barn dances and trail rides (I always say yes). I hand out business cards, email free photos and donate shots to the organizers. On the sidelines, in the stands, I’m an outsider, an imposter, a spectator at best, but behind the scenes, in the midst of an adrenaline-charged crush of cowboys, bulls and broncs, somehow I belong.
That little girl who loved wild horses still lives in me; I realize now she never left. Not long after I arrived in New Mexico, I got back in the saddle. These days, I ride good-tempered horses, enjoying the kind of partnerships I didn’t appreciate in my hot-horse childhood. I still love the wild ones, but now 31 years old and a dedicated hiker, backpacker, mountaineer and traveler (I hit my 50th state last summer!) I keep my feet on the ground, my eye to the viewfinder and leave the bulls and the broncs to the cowboys, the real wild ones.