"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 26 March 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Horse Sense

The sport of rodeo was born out of the primordial ooze of frontier horse-play. Over time, "I bet I can rope that calf faster 'n you" and "I bet I can sit on that crazy male cow longer than you" evolved into the sport that today has become a big-money business. Anyone who still dismisses rodeo as the sport of hicks should take note; the Professional Rodeo Cowboy's Association (PRCA) is rocketing the sport out of the ranks of local promoters and county fairs into the land of national broadcasts and corporate endorsements. But before we get to that, we must address the question of the flank strap.

Foes (and perhaps highly specialized fans) of rodeo contend that the "flank strap" — which is placed on the animals in the bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding events — is wrapped around the genitalia, Marv Albert-style, causing the animal intense pain and enhancing an already feisty performance. PRCA, on the other hand, defines it as "a fleece-lined strip of leather placed behind the horse's rib cage in the flank area," and says the device has been certified as safe by veterinarians. Other supporters of the sport claim the strap "is meant more as a reminder to a horse that likes to buck that it is time to do so." It's possible that nobody except a horse will ever be able to say for certain, but it's safe to say that an enraged animal is part of the fun.

During its evolution, rodeo came to symbolize the ideals of the dying frontier lifestyle, romanticized or otherwise. The "Western Lifestyle," as it's called, seems to entail Christianity, hard work, and general Little House on the Prairie goodness. The culture of the rodeo can be even more interesting than the steerage in the ring, but that action can be pretty exciting too. The seven events that make up the modern rodeo fall into two general categories: pissing off a large animal and then sitting on it, or chasing a scared cow and then tying it up. Steer wrestling, calf and team roping are only slightly less kinky than events involving flank straps; they feature cowboys manhandling and/or tying up frisky cattle. The final event, barrel racing, is for the ladies and not nearly as suggestive as the others. The long pauses during which the animals are prepared for action are filled by an announcer, sometimes on horseback in the arena, and a rodeo clown.

The PRCA is the only significant sanctioning body anymore, and struggles for quality control at events. Officials at the PRCA would like every PRCA event to represent only the highest level of competition and entertainment, but with every county fair in the country vying to get its event sanctioned, quality control is difficult. At their best, PRCA rodeos are the high caliber competitions on ESPN and TNN, at their worst they are Promise Keepers meetings with cattle. On the high end is the National Championship in Las Vegas, on the low end is the Meskwaki NationÕs World Class Rodeo.

The latter event, which Suck had the privilege to attend was held in a small arena adjacent to Meskwaki Bingo and Casino, on the Meskwaki Indian reservation, near Toledo, Iowa. The bulk of the time during the rodeo was filled by announcer Benje Bendele and clown Frankie "Punkintown" Smith doing decrepit vaudeville routines that should have been put down during the golden age of television. The only funny thing about the pair was that Smith was recently named International Country Gospel Music Awards "Comedian of the Decade." Even kids weaned at the teat of Suddenly Susan should have found the rodeo schtick sour. A brief sampling of the humor du jour:

Clown: "Do you know why rodeo announcers have one more brain cell than horses?"

Announcer: "Why?"

Clown: "So they don't poop in the arena."

Or the classic:

Announcer: "You remind me of the sugar plum fairy. Well, I don't know about the sugar, but you look plum fairy."

There was a steady stream of "you're probably gay" rhetoric between the two men, perhaps the kind of thing that led the gay community to beging holding its own rodeos. Toes were certainly stepped on when Smith mentioned that his mother was an Indian, but couldn't be at the rodeo because she was on the war path. Bendele quickly interrupted the routine by shouting "You do know we are on a reservation, don't you?" Smith acknowledged the point grudgingly, obviously unhappy he would have to swallow his "fire water" bit as well.

From minor political incorrectness to searingly insensitive rhetoric, all can be chalked up to the western lifestyle. Much like Phil HartmanÕs Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, the universal defense for the rodeo set seems to be "we're just simple ranchers" The PRCA promotes diversity, and the Meskwaki event featured Tomas Garcilazo, billed as a trick roper in the "Mexican Family Tradition." Garcilazo rode in on his horse, Pinto Bean, looking like Martin Short's stunt double from Three Amigos.

Sherry "Straight Outta" Compton, media assistant for the PRCA, captures the essence of the Western lifestyle with the vague references usually reserved for a "family values" Republican.

"It has to do with an agriculturally based America, with people going to churches, and family," Compton says. "There's a real sense of comraderie."

This romantic view of the western lifestyle as an oasis in the desert of a world gone bad is common among cow persons. It also seems to be a rejection to and a rebellion against more urban, mainstream American culture. Compton praises children involved in rodeo for "not hangin' out at the mall doing nothing."

Devotees of the western lifestyle also seem to share a distaste for the posers wearing off-the-rack cowboy hats and listening to Garth Brooks. PRCA public relations executive Julie Menken goes so far as to suggest that a person almost has to be born into a ranching environment to understand the western lifestyle and to fully appreciate the rodeo. At the same time, however, Menken is part of an aggressive campaign to bring rodeo the same mainstream popularity as NASCAR. This seems an appropriate goal, as finding a NASCAR shirt at a rodeo event is like finding a single mother at Wal-Mart. But to do this the organization will have to divorce the lifestyle from the sport, a problem which is unique to rodeo.

"The roots of something like basketball are in a game," Mankin says. "The roots of rodeo are in a way of life. The sport derived directly out of a lifestyle."

If you want to make a western omelette, you've got to piss off a few devoted rodeo fans, and that's what the PRCA is going to have to do if it wants the sport to reach beyond white Christian ranchers who wear Wrangler jeans. Intellectuals whose imaginations have been lassoed by last November's now legendary electoral map, and the split it seems to represent in the American nation, could do worse than to catch some of the excitement of contemporary rodeo. Among other things, the experience might reveal the fallacy that Bush country is inhabited strictly by white Protestant males. The area around the Meskwaki reservation has experienced a 700% increase in Hispanic population during the last decade, and this population was well represented at the rodeo. Tomas Garcilazo was announced at the rodeo as "From Mexico City by way of southern California," and it's easy to wonder if Garcilazo's connection to the Mexican tradition is as strong as that of Taco Bell. But considering that the Navajo Nation's annual rodeo in Window Rock, AZ attracts 250,000 visitors, the myth of rodeo as the sole province of modern day Glenn Campbells looks shaky indeed.

If urban smart-alecks find this hard to grasp, it may be Ernest Hemingway's fault. With his snooty depictions of bullfighting aficionados in The Sun Also Rises and the 100,000 words of palaver about the "tragedy" and cojones of toreadors in Death in the Afternoon, Papa gave Americans a lasting inferiority complex about our own national cattle sport. Where Sun strongly implied only women and whining Jews could fail to appreciate the bullfight as the crown jewel of man-vs-beast events, Death featured plenty of pompous passages like the following:

The aficionado, or lover of the bullfight, may be said, broadly, then, to be one who has this sense of tragedy and ritual of the fight so that the minor aspects are not important except as they relate to the whole. Either you have this or you don't ...

Whether it is more courageous to kill a bull (a bull that has already been worn out by picadors and bandilleros) or to ride it while it wants to kill you is a matter for greater scholars than ourselves to take up. But this business of tragedy and ritual has no place in our own comic and freewheeling nation (the greatest on earth, and as of this writing still free of both Mad Cow and Foot And Mouth diseases). The rodeo tradition, where eight seconds is a lifetime's attention span, all events end in an outpouring of clowns, and everybody gets up to do it again, fits better with the sunny, forward-looking spirit of the New World.

Meanwhile the PRCA is drawing more people to the sport itself. But wayward souls in search of the good old days — self-proclaimed aficionados of another sort — will continue to be drawn to the lifestyle associated with the sport. From James Fenimore Cooper to John Ford, American artists have mused on the death of America's frontier spirit. If the western lifestyle is somehow the last embodiment of that expansionist spirit, it seems to be dying a slow death. Strangely, that may be the best thing ever to happen to the sport of rodeo.

Courtesy of Alice the Camel

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