August 31, 2011

Rodeo pros really show animals who's the boss

As published in The Erin Advocate

After watching the bull riding competition at the Erin Extreme Rodeo, I went home and turned on the TV news. There was a warning about a video clip that could be disturbing to some viewers, so of course I had to watch. It was a stunt pilot at an air show, losing control and hitting the ground in an unsurvivable fireball.

It got me to thinking about why people participate in high risk sports entertainment, and why spectators are drawn to it. For the athletes, it cannot be just for the money, even at the professional level.

The desire to defy death, with a combination of skill and luck, is not the mark of a crazy person. It seems to be a mix of testosterone and rational choice, driven by the need to take real risk, push the limit, overcome fear, feel an adrenaline rush, raise your arms before a cheering crowd, earn the admiration of your peers and maybe win some money.

For the crowd, it is as though the risk takers are mocking death on our behalf, doing things we would never dare to try ourselves.

There is a tense moment at the end of many bull rides when the bull either flails its hind hooves close to the cowboy lying in the dirt, or whirls around and stares down at him. And unless he is unconscious or paralyzed, he will be up and literally running for his life.

That's when the bullfighters (formerly known as rodeo clowns) move in to skillfully distract the angry beast, when all goes well. Their job is even more dangerous when they have to free a rider who is hung up, dangling from the bucking bull by the arm or leg.

One bull took a straight charge at a bullfighter at the Erin event. With no chance to get to the fence, he made a quick little fake and the bull rumbled harmlessly past him – just another day at the office. Bull riding is a relatively civilized North American invention, compared to the Spanish bull fighting tradition – we just annoy the bull for a few seconds instead of killing it.

It is important to laugh at danger, preferably from a distance. The rodeo announcer at one point suggested that one of the bulls was planning to give the bullfighter a "2,000-pound ivory suppository". Those horns have rounded tips, but they can throw a person 15 feet up in the air, or worse.

If you have strong stomach, go to YouTube and search "bull riding wrecks" to see 742 samplings of what can go horribly wrong. There was nothing quite that "entertaining" at the Erin rodeo, although one fellow hobbled off after his lower leg was stomped by a bull, and another rolled around in the mud clutching his stomach for several minutes after flinging himself over the fence. Most riders wore hockey helmets with face cages, but others were content with cowboy hats.

Bull riding was the grand finale that Sunday afternoon, promoted as the world's "most dangerous sport" (though there is a lot of competition for that claim). There are many sports or performances that are not primarily about violence, but draw part of their appeal through the possibility that something violent might happen at any time. There is hockey, car racing, circus acrobatics, downhill skiing, motorcycle racing, big wave surfing and competitive cheerleading.

Rodeos, of course, are mainly about horses, not bulls. Any sport involving horses has risks, due to the speed and power of the animals and the height from which a rider can fall, but professional riders make the moves look smooth and natural. The horse and rider seem to become a single entity and it is amazing to watch. The riders have a special connection with their horses, a combination of discipline and affection.

The same respect does not apply to calves, however, since they occupy a lower rung in the hierarchy of mammals. Their job is to come charging into the ring, only to be have their necks roped, their bodies flipped in the air and their legs tied.

If you tied one end of a rope to a pole and the other end around a calf's neck, then made the calf run just for the fun of seeing it jerked to a stop, some people might call it cruel. But when the calf is brought down through the skill and strength of a cowboy and horse, as part of a traditional competition, it becomes a whole different thing – quite acceptable to most people.

Calves sometimes get hurt, but like cowboys they are tough and wiry. They usually bounce back up, trot off happily, punch their time cards and relax until the next show.