The 92nd Annual Livermore RodeoUSA MAINLAND — By Judy Clement Wall on June 25, 2011 at 01:12
Story by guest blogger Judy Clement Wall. Photos Copyright © Judy Clement Wall.
My town just held its annual rodeo for the 93rd time. It’s a big deal around here, as you might expect a 93-year-old event to be. I’m not really the rodeo type, so although I’ve lived here for the last eighteen years, I’d never attended the rodeo . . . that is, until last year, when my UK-based editor at the time got so excited by the fact that Livermore holds an annual rodeo, he asked me to cover it.
I expressed concerns—it’s not really my thing, I worry about the animals, I’m unfamiliar with cowboy culture—to which he answered, “Go. Come back and tell me why they love it.”
I did. And it was kind of cool, getting outside my comfort zone, moving beyond my judgment to look at the rodeo through the eyes of the people for whom it is a way of life. Here’s the story I wrote (which was never published until now . . . thank you, Milli).
APPROACHING THE GATE of the 92nd Annual Livermore Rodeo, you can feel it. An unexpected yearning, an intense hearkening back to a bygone era.
For Californians, this is our past, up close and personal, and I can feel the wide open ranges inside me, the prairie songs, the rough and tumble romance of the wild, wild west.
Unique among professional sports, rodeo sprang from a way of life. The events are based on the tasks of working class ranch hands (vaqueros)—roping, herding, branding, caring for livestock. The earliest rodeo competitions were for bragging rights: cowboys testing their skills against each other, attempting to be the best at what they did every day for low wages and long hours, under grueling conditions.
Today, rodeo is big business. Rodeo season begins in the spring and ends with the National Finals Rodeo in December. The largest competitions are held in temperature-controlled arenas. Competitors are considered athletes—human and equine—and they compete for big money in televised events.
Though it is the second-highest paying two-day rodeo in the nation, the Livermore rodeo is no temperature-controlled affair. Dust, and the smell of livestock, hay and manure hang in the air. It is 85 degrees on day two, and the metal bleachers are considerably hotter than that. Cowboy hats provide mobile shade. Women wear shorts and sundresses over their cowboy boots, men wear T-shirts, and everyone takes their belt buckles very seriously. (I’m in my Converse.)
Like the town itself, which is surrounded by wineries and is as well known for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as it is for its cowboy culture, the rodeo presents an eclectic mix of sights. Walking by a barn-like building that earlier in the week was filled with cowboys and cowgirls at the annual rodeo mixer, I pass a sign that says, “Hippies use back door.” Vendors sell cowboy hats, toy sheriff badges, beef jerky and Budweiser, but there are also stands selling wine from local wineries. At the Pendleton Whiskey Bar, a pink-hatted cowgirl declares all tips will be donated to the Give Breast Cancer The Boot campaign.
The cowboy is stock contractor Dave Summers. This is his busy season, and he spends a lot of time away from home, driving cattle from one rodeo to the next. “I’m gone a lot, but I love the rodeo,” he says. Then he laughs. “My wife loves it too. I’m always gone again before I can get on her nerves. Probably why we’re still married.”
Behind the arena, animals are penned according to their event. A cowboy keeps watch next to a sign that says, “Cowboy hats, long sleeve shirts, long pants must be worn beyond this point.”
In his “crazy youth,” Summers rode bulls. “You know how a bull rider becomes a bull rider?” he asks me. “He puts a handful of marbles in his mouth and each time he rides, he spits one out. When he’s lost all his marbles, he’s a bull rider.”
He’s smiling when he walks away, and limping too. Rodeo cowboys pay more for their sport than just their entrance fees.
There are two types of competition in rodeo: timed events and rough stock. In timed events—barrel racing, steer wrestling, team and tie-down roping—cowboy and horse work together. Each has a very specific, precision job to do.
The winning time in Livermore’s team roping event was 4.6 seconds. In that sliver of time, a steer was set loose, followed by two riders. The first roped the steer around the neck, the second around both hind legs. Time was called when there was no slack in the ropes and both horses stood facing each other.
In rough stock events—bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding—the cowboy attempts an 8-second, one handed ride on a wildly bucking animal. If he manages it, two judges each award 0 to 25 points to the rider, and 0 to 25 points to the animal. The judges’ scores are then combined to determine the contestant’s score. A perfect score is 100 points.
In saddle bronc riding, cowboy and horse move together. The object is to be fluid, synchronized. In contrast, bareback riding has been compared to riding a jackhammer. Cowboys hold onto rigging that resembles a suitcase handle on a strap. Watching them flop around like rag dolls, the brutality of the ride is unmistakable and it is not surprising that bareback riders suffer more injuries than all other rodeo cowboys.
The rough stock events are the most exciting. The danger is obvious, the rides chaotic; eight seconds feels impossibly, unbearably long. But even to a beginner’s eye, each event’s rides are very different.
Bull riding is the main event and, arguably, the hardest to understand. Watching bareback and saddle bronc riding, it is easy to imagine cowboys in the old west breaking wild stallions. Bull riding is something else entirely. It’s a little like jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.
One imagines bull riding came not from any legitimate ranching task, but maybe on a dare, the kind that gets issued and accepted at the intersection of boredom, testosterone and absolute fearlessness.
It may not be for everyone, but rodeo is a unique, heart-pounding, mind-boggling sport. In the words of Clint Selvester, PRCA clown and barrelman, “It’s one thing to talk about it in a bar, it’s another thing to actually do it.”
Judy Clement Wall is a freelance writer who lives, works and plays in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read and link to more of her work through her blog, Zebra Sounds.