This is going to seem like a weird connection, but I swear I’ll get there, so just bear with me…
When I was a little kid, I LOVED Pee-Wee Herman. Actually, in retrospect, it’s kind of funny because I was obsessed with everything Tim Burton did but I just didn’t know it because I was a kid and I had absolutely no sense of what it meant to be a “FILM DIRECTOR”. Beetlejuice was truly my main squeeze…I mean, there was no media I loved more than that film. My dad likes to tell this story to unsuspecting listeners about how one time, when I was about 2 and a half years old, he heard some noise in the house around 4 a.m. and thought it was an intruder. Upon getting himself up out of bed and walking down the stairs, all he found was me. I snuck out of my crib and I was sucking my thumb, watching Beetlejuice in my bean bag chair. He says the commotion must have been me trying to reach the VCR to get the tape in. Just loved that shit. BUT I did love Pee-Wee a lot, also. (If you think about it, both Beetlejuice and Pee-Wee are silly ass goofy guys who like to do goofs, so it tracks in a big way.)
I’m going to assume you haven’t seen Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, though you probably have, brother. We need to pretend for our listeners because some of them definitely haven’t seen it. So, you know in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, the story is that the guy who lives down the street from Pee-Wee–Francis–loves Pee-Wee’s special bike, and Pee-Wee won’t sell it to him. This pisses Francis off SO much. He REALLY tries to get Pee-Wee to sell that bike. But Pee-Wee’s like “No, this is my pride and joy…back off.” So, what does the guy do? Well, he has it stolen. And then Pee-Wee, desperate to find out where the bike is, visits a psychic who tells him that his bike is being hidden in the basement of the Alamo. Pee-Wee listens to her and goes on a cross-country trip to get the bike back. Along the way, a lot of shit happens to him. Like…a lot shit. He almost gets his ass beat by some waitress’s deadbeat boyfriend, he almost gets his ass beat by a biker gang, he does some dancing, he jumps a train…lots of shit. In part of the movie where he’s trying to escape the grasps of that waitress’s shitty boyfriend I mentioned, he enters a rodeo, disguises himself as a cowboy, and then is actually forced to ride a bull as a result. You know…they had a little mix-up…they thought he was legit.
As a kid, this was my first real exposure to the rodeo. It’s weird because I remember it so clearly…just being on edge about Pee-Wee ridin’ that fucking bull. I was instantly worried about his safety for whatever reason. It just LOOKS so dangerous. It LOOKS like you’re taking a chance on something. Even as a kid, I clocked that…the precarity of safety and all. Something about that stuck with me. Personally, I’ve never really been around horses or livestock for any length of time. My family didn’t have anything close to that kind of money. But there is something that draws me to media that portrays these kinds of relationships between humans and these big animals who could fuck us up in two seconds. And I’m drawn–unfortunately because I feel like it’s so typical–to the romance of being a cowboy or–more specifically–to the romance of being out in the desert (my fantasy is always in the desert) with nothing around you while still having the ability to quickly get back to the things you needed some time away from. As I’m getting older, too, I’m more and more curious about the brightly lit promises of the rodeo, about the ways people put themselves in harm’s way for the love of the game and the hope for a better future. There is something about the sportsmanship of the Rodeo that feels different than anything else, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Even still.
So we didn’t come here to hear me wax poetic about my stupid little feelings. We came here to learn about the fuckin’ rodeo, so let’s do it.
But first, let me ask you this: how did the rodeo come into your consciousness, Brendan? Do you remember?
Part 1: What goes on at the rodeo?
The North American rodeo–yes, they got this shit in Canada, too–is split into 6 main events, which is where we’ll start because I think a lot of people don’t even know what happens at a rodeo in the first place. There are minor events and events that some rodeos do that others don’t do, but it’s the main ones that pay the big money, so I guess that’s what matters here. These events are:
Calf roping https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFfLJr6q6uA
Team roping https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ynOu3bzHMo
Steer wrestling https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8lyJUY5Ndw
Barrel racing (generally regarded as a women’s sport) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awat0nQezsI
And come on..the one everyone comes for…bull riding https://youtu.be/pRslPt0KZGQ
I read that rodeo events were developed from the tasks that people did as cattle ranchers…so all the events you see at the rodeo and in these videos are based on the ways people DID WORK.
If you think about it, it makes sense:
Calf and team roping + steer wrestling are exactly what someone or a group of people would have to do in order to make sure they catch a rogue steer on the open plains or fields
Barrel racing is representative of the maneuvers cowboys might need to make when they’re steering a herd or trying to catch a runaway animal at the ranch
Bronc and bull riding might be a necessity when horses and bulls get scared or try to get away from their keepers
It’s such a strange thing because what they’ve done is take this labor, the often terrifying and literally bone breaking, head crushing work of it, and turned it into entertainment and competitions. But it wasn’t always like that…
Part 2: Rodeo history
Before we go further, I think an important piece of information to review is that the original, the first cowboys were indigenous Mexicans. They were called vaqueros. When people in the U.S. think of cowboys, they think of John Wayne and the Marlboro man, and sometimes as Bart from Blazing Saddles. We think of them as sheriffs or outlaws or sometimes both simultaneously. We don’t think of them as LABORERS. But in reality, that’s what they were. They were HARD WORKING (and I’m guessing underpaid) non-white people doing some of the most dangerous, most SKILLED labor in history.
We don’t have time to go into every little detail about how the rodeo began, but when it did, it wasn’t bright lights at the fairground like we see now. The rodeo was simply a large cattle herding and trade event. The word “rodeo” roughly translates as “round up,” so really these guys were just getting together to trade livestock, talk about their work, and move cattle from one place to another.
Early rodeo events like the ones we know today really started as a way for vaqueros and cowboys to showcase their skills to one another. There were no prizes or many stakes…they were basically just a bunch of guys (and sometimes girls!) hangin’ around showing each other neat tricks. Professional rodeo competitions really didn’t amp up until the late 19th and early 20th century, where people began handing out prize trophies and money to the people who performed the best. These were often combined with Wild West shows, so people who attended could also see performances by Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. Really sounds like a fun day out for the family! Little something for everyone…
Rodeo continued to expand throughout the early 20th century, even expanding to venues like Madison Square Garden. The first rodeo organizations and associations began forming in 1929, and now there are over 20 over them with thousands of members all over North America.
In the 1970s, the rodeo had a bit of a renaissance…you know, with the institutionalization of the rodeo it kind of led to it distancing itself from its roots, so the rodeo became this “cooler thing.” College educated people from big cities were suddenly drawn to the rodeo–perhaps because of how much Western-related media was produced in the 1950s and 1960s (Clint Eastwood movies, Wild Wild West tv show, Hee Haw, etc–I asked my parents if they could remember some kind of cowboy-related pop cultural phenomenon but they said not really. They both mentioned Urban Cowboy, which came out in 1980, so that kind of seems like a result of, not a driver in this situation.)--so the competition changed. It became a capital S sport, which means the stakes got a lot higher…
You might be wondering at this point why someone would even put their body on the line for this and the answer is money. Big money. As I said, the stakes got higher…a lot higher. Now, some professional rodeo association events will pay out up to $200k or more for the BIG events like bronc and bull riding. It’s big fucking money for some danger and 10 seconds on the back of a bull losing its mind. I mean, you couldn’t get me to even consider it but I see why people do it, especially people who are barred from making that kind of money in our society in other ways.
Part 3: The Rodeo Today
That kind of brings us to where I wanted to go. As we know, the rodeo is not really a popular thing anymore in a broader sense. In general, actually, it seems like the popularity of “the cowboy” is kind of waning, though The Power of the Dog certainly got people talking about “the Western” again for a minute there. So, you might be wondering…what’s going on with it?
The rodeo today is still widely popular in the Western states of the U.S. Many of the participants are poor white people or Indigenous people or Mexican American people, and there’s even an all-black rodeo association that exists. But generally, these people are participating in the smaller rodeos, not the ones that you see in many of those videos I showed you. Basically, you can kind of look at the rodeo now like a microcosm of our world in general. We have these giant rodeo associations, some that are considered very prestigious, and it costs money to be a member. The bigger the association, the bigger the rodeo events, the bigger the payout. So from the jump, it costs MONEY to train for the rodeo and then be IN the rodeo. And it costs even more money if you want to be in the BIG rodeos, like the ones held in Las Vegas or Houston. You can kind of see where I’m going with this…the average cattle rancher, the average LABORER, the average Mexican-American or Black American or Indigenous American person can rarely afford to participate in these events because by the nature of the racial-capitalist society we’ve built, these are the people who have the least resources. This means that most of the people participating in these HUGE rodeo events are rich white people or rich South American people. The rich, again, have the most access to even more capital.
So, what we see is a lot of people who are not rich, they participate in these smaller rodeos hoping to make enough money to not only take care of themselves and their families but also to get the capital necessary to become stars in the BIG rodeos…to make enough money to pay the dues to compete against the people who already have it all. FUCKED UP! And more to the point, the people who used to benefit from this the most–poor vaqueros and cowboys in the Western U.S. and northern Mexico–are now almost entirely locked out of the side of the competition that could benefit them the most.
In this case, it’s selling your body in the most LITERAL sense of the word, not just in the way we say it about being workers in the general sense and a lot of times, it just feels like it’s not worth it. And I don’t mean that from my privileged position of having a blue collar background, a college education, a “profession.” I just quite literally mean that no one should have to fucking do anything like this.
Part 4: Some other musings about the rodeo in general
I was having a conversation about the rodeo with my girlfriend Stacey and my friend Angel recently, and we were just talking about our conceptions of it and what people think of it in general. People often associate the rodeo with rednecks and poor, rural white people, which is interesting considering they are by far not the most involved with the rodeo in the first place. But also, something interesting they mentioned in the conversation was about how we in the U.S. view the rodeo and how rodeo participants are treated (and also rewarded for the hard work they do) versus how toreador and matadors are treated in Spain.
To be a toreador or matador is a very privileged position, you’re kind of a celebrity in a sense. You get paid a lot of money and you live a lavish lifestyle. (Matadors specifically also get to eat a lot of high cost meats.) You get treated with respect and admiration. I read that the matadors and toreadors of Spain are comparable to American football players in terms of prestige and financial benefits.
And even in the U.S., we’re like enamored by the romance of the toreadors and matadors. But rodeo stars…who gives a shit? No one’s thinking about them outside of the context of the rodeo community. They aren’t celebrity athletes like basketball and football players, and even though SOME do make a lot of money, they don’t make as much as people in the NBA and NFL do. AND, of course, they only allowed rodeo events at ONE Olympic Fesival…just ONE, which means there is no big official international showcase for these kinds of skilled athletic events. And these are SKILLED events.
Being a cattle rancher, a cowboy, a vaquero, whatever…this is SKILLED labor. You can think what you want about farm life but it takes a lot of knowledge about the land and about animals, it takes a lot of patience for yourself and for the natural world. It’s not easy by any means, and I wouldn’t call it modest like many people say it is. It’s fuckin’ HARD! I don’t know why we pretend otherwise. And being a rodeo competitor…that’s hard as hell, too. The danger factors are so much different in sports that involve other animals besides humans. It’s much more unpredictable and much easier to get fucked up.
I think, generally, the rodeo just isn’t on a lot of people’s minds, which is why I wanted to talk about it with you and do more research for myself.
Why isn’t the rodeo more popular? Why don’t people really seem to think about it or care about it?
How much money would it take to get your ass on the back of a bucking bronc or bull???