This year is the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede. For those of you who are unaware, the Calgary Stampede is the biggest rodeo in the world. Take that, Texas! I grew up with rodeos, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. First of all, they’re fun. Nobody has a miserable time at a rodeo. (If you do, it’s your own damn fault.) And they’re sexy. Over and above the uber-obvious thousand pounds of Freudian bull riding thrust between your legs, rodeos are spilling over with that tidy, hometown, walking-around libido that most of us prefer anyway. Look around you! Everybody’s wearing tight jeans and those loud and proud, bustin’ out all over pearl button shirts. And I don’t know anybody who doesn’t get a little extra swagger when they put on a cowboy hat. Most of all, rodeos are an essential part of North American culture. They feature the fantasy we all want to be: the “aw shucks” self-reliant cowboy who rides his own trail, not beholden to any man. Without the cowboy, North Americans would just be leftover Europeans who didn’t get it right.
The cowboy, as we know him, is actually the result of a strange historical coincidence. After the American Civil War, thousands of newly unemployed soldiers migrated to Texas – which, at the time, was big and full of cows. They were (to misquote Trevanian) ignorant, Victorian, migrant, agricultural workers — hired hands, if you will. They walked (yes, walked) into two particular species practically indigenous to the state: the longhorn, a muscular bovine with a mean disposition and the vaquero, a Mexican dandy who’d been working on the Spanish rancheros since the days of Coronado. The immigrant Americans might have showed up west of the Red River with the knees out of their britches, but they weren’t stupid. They realized that if they could move these longhorns in great numbers to places where city folk could eat them, they were money on the hoof. They also saw how utilitarian the style of the fanciful vaquero was and adopted it — lock, stock and big Jesus hat. The cowboy was born, and he immediately rode into our cultural mythology.
So here’s the problem. In the 21st century, the main domain of the cowboy, the rodeo, is on the skids. Our increasingly urban world simply doesn’t see calf roping or bulldogging as a sport. We’ve come to believe that if you’re going to go out there and break your neck like a man, you should at least wear a helmet — not a Stetson. A million people might go to the Calgary Stampede this year, but most of them aren’t going to be anywhere near the action – they’re there for the Midway and the food. Plus, we’ve developed a very vocal animal rights lobby, who take the position that jumping on a steer at 20mph and wrestling it to the ground is not very much fun for the steer. I’m no friend of the animal rights people. As far as I’m concerned, they’re a bunch of has-been celebrities with time on their hands. Besides, I’m almost certain that people like Bob Barker (whose only contribution to our society is the phrase, “Come on down!”) thinks animal cruelty happens when the butler forgets to feed Muffy her Kibbles. However, much as I disapprove of them, they do have a point — that strap across the hindquarters of the bronco isn’t there for decoration.
Of course, the knee-jerk reaction is to ban rodeos, tear down the grandstands (condos, maybe?) enroll the cowboys in community colleges and set all the animals free. (Our society is big on pie in the sky.) Unfortunately, that doesn’t take into account the reason we have rodeos in the first place. We need cowboys. We need to remember that, once upon a time, North Americans were an independent and resourceful people. We were willing to stand or fall on our own merit. We could work together (witness the cattle drive) without ever losing our individuality. But mostly we need to remember that there was a time (not so very long ago) when we rode for the brand, took pride in what we did and saw projects through — no matter what the circumstances.
There are no shortcuts on an eight-second bronco ride — no excuses, no justifications and no buckles for just showing up. You stay in the saddle, or the pony plants your jeans in the dirt: it’s that simple. We need cowboys to remind us that this is the attitude that got us here, and regardless of how complicated our society becomes, it’s still something to strive for.
I hope rodeos survive and evolve the way circuses and carnivals did. It would be a shame to lose just a large part of our heritage. More importantly, though, it would be a shame to lose the ideal, the myth, the lore that says, “Saddle up, pardner. It’s 40 miles to good water, and we’re burning daylight.”
Translation: Quit whining! There’s work to be done.