Reconstructing The Rodeo
Myth and tradition collide in the reality of the wild, wild West.
Thursday, July 20, 2000
From as early as I can remember, my heroes have always been cowboys. Somewhere my mother has a black-and-white photograph of me when I was maybe 3 years old, dressed up in chaps and Stetson, six-gun and stick horse. In adolescence I read nearly all of Zane Grey''s novels. Even today, a cardboard cutout of John Wayne stands guard in my dining room.
I know these icons represent a narrow, fantasy vision of the West, where men were Men and life was heroic. I know the factual reality was less mythical and more mundane, brutal and sometimes brutish. But facts seldom dislodge a good fantasy.
Maybe that''s why I don''t understand rodeos as spectator sport. When I think of cowboys, I think not only of the gunfights, brawls and feuds, I also have visions of the cowboy helping deliver a calf, blood up to his elbows. I see the rope secured to a saddlehorn as cowboy and horse work together to pull a cow from the mud. I see the dust and confusion as cowboys risk their lives trying to keep the herd from injury during a stampede. If the cowboys didn''t love their charges, they at least had to be tender enough to care for them. And not that much has changed.
It isn''t always pretty. On many ranches, brandings are practiced pretty much the same way they were 150 years ago. I''ve witnessed a couple, one in Carmel Valley and another near Fremont Peak, and they''re ugly affairs. Calves are separated from their mothers, lassoed and thrown to the ground where they''re dehorned with a tool that resembles a big bolt cutter, castrated (when appropriate) and branded with a third-degree burn from a red-hot iron. The sound of bawling calves and the smell of burning flesh are overwhelming. There is a palpable terror that is physically repulsive. But I like steak and I like cowboy boots, and a branding is just one step in the manufacture of those things; the cruelty inflicted on the calves is a utilitarian necessity. At least that''s how I justify it.
And that''s why I''ve never understood rodeos and it''s why I talked with professional rodeo cowboy Casey Vollin. He''s a bareback bronc rider who''s a month shy of 37, and has been competing in rodeo events for almost all of his life.
"I was raised on a little horse ranch," says Vollin. "My dad was a horse trainer and trader, and we always had horses at the house. I began to ride calves in junior rodeo when I was 5 years old... My grandpa rodeo-ed, my father did and my two older brothers did, also."
Vollin was born in Wolf Point, a town of about 3,000 on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeast Montana. Before the Sioux and the Assiniboine were confined to the reservation, Wolf Point was an outpost where trappers traded in wolf pelts. It''s the home of the 74-year-old Wild Horse Stampede, which city literature describes as "the oldest and best rodeo in Montana."
Vollin''s family moved to Salinas about the time he entered kindergarten but the rodeo stayed in his blood and he moved from junior rodeo to high school rodeo, college rodeo and into the professional ranks after he graduated in ''84. He tore his elbow all to hell in ''91 but continued to ride in 100-120 rodeos a year, until the Cortisone shots didn''t do any good and he had to have reconstructive surgery in ''95. After the surgery, he cut back to 30-40 rodeos, although he got slowed up last year because of an ankle injury, and he''s been recuperating from a wrist problem, so this weekend is going to be the first time he''s competed this year.
But even when he isn''t riding in a rodeo, he''s in the rodeo. Vollin is also a budding rodeo producer, and puts together 10-12 rodeos a year.
In short, Vollin knows cowboys and he knows rodeo.
"It''s not like we''re a group of heathen barbarians who don''t care about animals," says Vollin. "Animals are how cowboys make their living. Everything a cowboy does is about animals. We respect animals almost more than anyone else in the world. It''s never entered my mind whether we''re doing something wrong."
Vollin gets prickly when talking about claims that rodeos represent cruelty to animals. He points out that rodeos have their roots in the everyday work that a cowboy does when caring for animals, and that what happens in a rodeo is a lot more natural than what happens at a horse show.
"I''ve been around horses all my life, and there''s no way I''ve ever seen a horse jump a wall. Horses just don''t do that. But you take a horse out of his pen, the first thing he does is start bucking and running around. Everybody thinks we put barbed wire around their flanks."
Such assertions of rodeo cruelty seem just plain ridiculous to Vollin. With the price of a good bucking horse going somewhere between $15,000 and $25,000, there''s a strong financial incentive to treat the animals well; the stories about barbed wire clash with bottom-line considerations. And it doesn''t take a lot of anthropomorphizing to understand Vollin''s disgust with the story that genital cinches are used to stimulate a bucking response.
"I don''t care if you''re an animal or a human," says Vollin. "The last thing you''re going to want to do is go out there and buck. I''d lay down right there and try to get it off."
Vollin says he thinks a lot of the criticism of the rodeo comes from people who have never seen a rodeo or how rodeo animals are treated. He suspects many of the stories about cruelty have been passed on by word of mouth and newsletter, until they have achieved the status of urban legend. He also thinks that rodeos'' growing popularity as a spectator sport, with television broadcasts and increasing audience attendance, has made them an easy target.
"As our crowds get larger, and it''s on TV more, we get more protests," says Vollin. "I think it''s got to do with these groups don''t jump on anything until it''s in the national eye.
"I''m not against PETA or other groups. If anyone can look at these organizations with an open eye, they''d see these organizations do a good job on some things, but they embarrass themselves in the public eye on others. If [the protesters] would look at what they''re against, not just hear it, I think a lot of them would change their mind."
Even so, Vollin is aware that rodeo is different from a working ranch. He knows that a good ranch cowboy might be rotten when it comes to riding a bucking bronco, and that a good rodeo cowboy might be worthless around the ranch. They''re two different things. He points out that some of the cowboys on the rodeo circuit have never worked on a ranch, or even been raised "in a cowboy atmosphere." He says it''s easy to tell the difference between the two, but it''s hard to say what the differences are. "It''s just a way your dad raises you, there are different things that a cowboy does or says."
But by their nature, rodeos blur the line between working cowboys and rodeo cowboys. Read any of the literature put out by any rodeo, and you''ll read about how rodeos are part of a long tradition of competitions between working ranches and cowboys, each of whom was trying to prove they were the best man at their job. Scant attention is paid to the fact that many of today''s rodeo "cowboys" have little connection to the real thing. Even Vollin, at the same time he expresses his love for rodeos, has a tough time explaining it.
"I know that when you turn it into a sport, you take the actuality out of it," he says. "I know that. It''s a hard thing to say it''s ''this'' or it''s ''that''."
"For me, the moral question never enters into it. I guess it''s because of the way I was raised. Hopefully, I''ll be actively involved in it all my life, because it''s a way of life that I believe in more than anything else. Whatever it''s all about, it''s what I enjoy more than anything."
After talking with Vollin, I can''t say I understand the gap between real and rodeo cowboys, how some guys take up the sport just for the hell of it. But I think I got a glimpse into tradition, the way it gets in your blood and defines the way you see the world. It''s more real than the myths we grow up believing. And if I don''t understand it, at least I can respect it.