Around the Horns
How a steer wrestler flies from his high-speed horse to collar cattle.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
Charles Harris is practicing the art of visualization.
In the next 10 seconds, he must wrestle a steer three times his weight to the ground while moving at a speed of roughly 30 mph.
Sitting atop a dashing red mare, he has only a few moments to gain his composure before nodding to the man who waits for his signal to release the steer. In these brief moments, Harris envisions one of his best runs: a 3.5-second time in 2001 that helped land him a place in the National Semifinals.
That’s the run Harris will attempt to duplicate at the California Rodeo Salinas this weekend, but it won’t be easy. Looking out over his practice area through dark aviator glasses, he points to where he will jump from his horse onto the steer. “There’s a lot that can go wrong between here and there,” he says.
Winning is the goal in any sport. In steer wrestling the formula for success is pretty straight forward: get the steer to the ground as quickly as possible. A good run in California is four seconds flat. In rodeo strongholds like Oklahoma and Texas, that measure drops to 3.3 or 3.4 seconds. A slight miscalculation or hesitation while jumping off the horse can add milliseconds to the clock and destroy a steer wrestler’s chance of victory.
Yet, the steer wrestler contends not only with himself and his own mind but also with two living creatures over which he has limited control: the horse and the steer. Even a docile and mild-mannered horse can become excitable and spontaneous. As Harris waits for the steer to come out of the chute, his horse is often more perturbed and aggravated than the steer– whinnying, shaking its head, and occasionally bucking.
Charles’ father, Don Harris, has come to understand the horse’s contribution to a steer wrestler’s success or failure. With his white beard and cowboy hat, he handles the chestnut mare beneath him like a master equestrian.
“Some horses are just keyed up more, especially if they have the running blood,” he says. “They all got their own personalities.” A keyed-up horse can buck off its rider or run erratically, making the steer wrestler’s task nearly impossible.
The steers also are fierce individualists, adding even more chance to a run. As they wait their turn in the chute like elementary school kids on their way to recess, they seem amicable enough. But this behavior can be an illusion. Although many steers are content to run and get the tackling over with, others seem to contemplate revenge.
As Charles Harris continues his practice session, one stubborn steer waits its turn, breathing heavily and occasionally kicking out its legs. The men practicing with Harris alternately call this steer “Eat-em-alive” and “Tiger” because “he tries to charge and hook you every time,” according to Don Harris. Charles Harris is undeterred. He simply glances at the filthy, fly-covered steer and chuckles. “Sometimes, those are the best steers,” he says.
With so many variables to the sport, steer wrestlers obsess over the factors they can control.
When Harris decided to start “bulldogging” in high school, his mentor told him he’d have to perfect his “ground work” before jumping off a horse onto a running steer. This practice involved learning how to take down a steer while standing on the ground, a difficult feat without the speed and momentum gained by jumping off a running horse. Mastering the ground work took a little time, according to Harris. “I had to work on my ground work for a year and a half before I could jump off a horse because [my teacher] didn’t want me to get hurt.”
That practice was necessary, but in steer wrestling, injuries are inevitable. Harris matter-of-factly relays the story of his worst accident: When a steer stepped on his foot, he tried to pull away, separating his ankle and severing ligaments and tendons. Seeming to review incidents in his mind, Harris pauses for a moment before telling his next tale. “Once, I bit through my lip,” he says without so much as a flinch. He points out scars on his face with stoicism. “Fifteen stitches here. Fourteen there… ”
Harris got the scar above his eye during an accident in McAllister, Okla. After he was stitched up, he traveled to Fort Smith, Ark., and competed without hesitation. “My eye was swollen shut, he says “I could only see through one eye.” Despite the injury, Harris had an admirable first-round run of 3.9 seconds.
The pursuit of glory may explain at least some of Harris’ persistence. He has both eyes on the prize at the Salinas rodeo, after all. “That’s one prestigious buckle,” he says. “It’s probably one of the premiere buckles in the world.” The buckle, worth about $5,000, comes with a hefty cash prize. A pot of around $27,000 will be distributed among the winners of the steer-wrestling events.
Of course, there may be a much simpler explanation for his dedication. For Harris, who competes in 40 to 60 rodeos a year, another thing makes it all worthwhile: “This sport is an adrenaline rush across the board.”