Tucson Rodeo: La Fiesta de los Vaqueros

Rodeo is life—for those who are savvy enough to see it.
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Rodeo is life—for those who are savvy enough to see it.
Tucson Rodeo

The annual Tucson Rodeo will be held February 19 through 27, 2011, for the 86th time. Spaniards held the first rodeo there in 1775. Before barbed wire cut up the country and kept cattle of different brands from running together, a roundup of cattle on open range was called a rodeo. The roundup was also the biggest social event of the season, a time for cattlemen to get a look at all their livestock and have fun with their prowess as horsemen, as well as a time for families to come together with music, dancing, and good food.

In 1775 the country around Tucson teemed with cattle. Father Eusebio Kino, a Spanish missionary, had turned loose 175 head in 1692. A census of the descendants of those cattle was conducted for the Spanish Crown by a man named Diego Romero in 1732. He counted one million cattle in the region called the Pimeria Alta, which is now Southern Arizona and Northern Sonora and includes Tucson. Anyone whose mouth waters when he hears that nothing but mavericks run in a country knows that those first Spaniards who settled in Tucson organized their first rodeo real quick.

The first Tucson Rodeo I remember was held in a clearing on the south edge of town in the early 1930s. People parked their cars side by side around the clearing to serve as a fence. Broncs that lost sight of their landing places touched down on Model Ts, Studebakers, and Model As. Now and then somebody who did not think the rodeo was going wild enough launched a skyrocket across the arena past a bull or bronc. Among the bronc riders were Paul Summers, Buster Sorrells, Sy Swyers, Lonnie Hunt, and Manuel Valenzuela. Once Paul Summers’ bronc caused his pistol to go off in his back pocket and the bullet splattered his butt.

Ropers were full-time ranchers Bud and Dink Parker, Buckshot Sorrells, Roy Adams, Alfredo and Manuel Heredia, and Abel De La Ossa. In those days, before bull riding became the sport that it is today, young men volunteered to ride exhibition bulls. The arena director gave them a dollar a ride.

Big steers were roped and fairgrounded. Bud Parker caught his 700-pound steer by the horns, busted him down on his side, and tied him like a calf. Team ropers tied their ropes hard and fast to the saddle horns, roped their steers by the head and heels, and tied them by the heels.

I was there to watch my father and uncles compete and to have a look at my relatives. I was related to every Christian, pagan, Texan, and cowman in Southern Arizona. My whole world and the people in it depended on the rodeo.

Controversy has been raised by people who think rodeo is cruel to animals. Critics might understand the reasons for the contest better if it is explained from a cattleman’s and a horseman’s point of view. Rules of hospitality require that guests to cow country be explained the reasons cowmen spend their lives caring for their animals. Rodeo is part of that care.

The Tucson Rodeo is now called La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, the festival of cowboys. All kinds of people put on big hats and boots for the introductory event—the parade.

Since man’s posture among other men is better when he is horseback, a horseback parade is a good way to start the cele-bration. The non-mechanized Tucson Rodeo parade is a display of the good carriage, posture, and poise of men, women, and their horses, all in celebration of a way of life that values those qualities. Horses know all about that. As our old maestros, they taught it to us.

Critics of rodeo say that cowboys take advantage of their animals to show off, and that there is no purpose or need for it. Rodeo cowboys do not consider their performances as something done for the benefit of an audience. They enter a rodeo to contest the animals they ride, rope, race, and wrestle. When they ride rough stock they pit grace, balance, speed, instinct, and courage and as good a grip as they have in one hand against animals that weigh more than half a ton and have the grace, power, balance, courage, and instinct to make men look puny. Riders who can sit up straight and ride with style do not look so puny, but the animals are the ones who are celebrated, because no one who has ever seen a bucking bronc or bull explode into an arena would say he is puny, or being tortured. If he bawls, it’s sure not because he’s miserable. It’s from his pure exuberance for the contest.

The Mexicans say, “Caballo encarrerado, sepultura abierta,” which means, “a runaway horse opens a grave.” Bareback broncs are turned loose with men on their backs and no bridles on their heads. The cowboys have no way of controlling them, and they don’t want to. A cowboy is required to spur the horse out of the chute to start him, to insure that both he and the horse qualify in the contest. He has to keep spurring if he is to show enough verve to win. He spurs the horse to encourage the runaway. The grave the horse opens up is for the cowboy. A bronc does not enjoy one thing more in all the world than to allow his eyes to turn green while he has for himself a bucking runaway.

Animal rights people object to the use of the flank cinch on rough stock. A padded cinch is pulled snug around the flanks on broncs and bulls just before they are turned out. This girds their loins and gives them power to defend themselves and a better chance to show their stuff and win the contest. The girdle encourages rough stock to kick high with their rear quarters on every jump. When a horse or bull kicks high behind, his whole body lands straight up and down on his front feet and the rider gets a good look at the place where graves are dug.

The flanker does encircle a sensitive area, but the bucking horse or bull is not strapped in a sense that he is handicapped or hurt. One way to keep a milk cow from struggling when she is being broken to be milked is to tighten a strap or rope around her flanks. A flanker pulled tightly around the loins completely incapacitates an animal. If a flanker was ever pulled up achingly tight on a bronc or a bucking bull, he would refuse to leave the chute. The reason animals buck so hard with a snug flanker is because they want to keep it away. They know a tight flanker will make them defenseless. A flanker that is merely snug gives them power, balance, and impetus in the contest and is no more cruel than the belt that a weight lifter pulls snug on his waist before a competition.

Rodeo might be cruel to bucking horses and bulls in this sense: they like their jobs, but they only get to work a few minutes out of the year. They perform for less than ten seconds each time they are turned out and they are usually only turned out four times in a four-day rodeo.

Cattle and horses run and buck when they feel good. They also naturally do it to defend themselves. They love it when they are given the freedom and encouragement to run and buck, but they are only given the chance to do it for less than a minute a week while they are being fed all they can eat and stabled like prizefighters. Most of the time the rough stock only languishes, eating and sunning itself unperturbed.

People who look for cruelty in rodeo should look instead at mankind’s training methods of its performance animals. Broncs are only turned loose to buck and would not like to be made to prance sideways this way and that unnaturally for hours, or hung by the head all night so they would carry their heads low enough to satisfy their trainers, as performance animals are forced to do. Cowboys deserve eternal credit for choosing the rankest, meanest, strongest animals they can find to contest, with no thought of cheating or torturing them to weaken their performance. Rough stock events are contests, not performances.

Some people also think the calves that are roped are being abused. True, they are jerked hard when they are stopped, but roping is the most humane way to catch and handle light, fleet calves out in the open. Calves are compact and the cleaner they are caught, the faster they can be handled for their care. The idea is to get them in hand and do whatever job has to be done for them and then turn them loose before they’ve been hurt. Any handling of cattle is more easily borne by them if it can be done in the blink of an eye. Cowboys nowadays catch and tie a calf in the arena in less than ten seconds. Calves that are caught out on the range for doctoring are dealt with quickly so they can be turned loose and left alone, the same as they are in the arena. Healthy calves are practiced on so that everything will happen quick and smooth when a sick calf has to be caught. It’s only human when a cowboy who can catch and tie down a calf in less than ten seconds enjoys showing his stuff. Doctors need practice and so do cowboys.

Cowboys are astounded when people accuse them of being cruel to helpless little calves. Often, a calf that has been busted down will jump up and meet a cowboy coming down the rope and make him “root hog, or die” before he can be tied down. A calf that runs over the cowboy, kicks him, butts him, and tromps all over his ear is not necessarily trying to get away. The way every calf meanders away looking for his mama after he’s been untied, as if nothing happened, is proof that he has not been dealt with cruelly.

Animals in rodeo, from the little calves to the bulls, know when they have joined a contest and their competitive spirit grows with each rodeo. Cattle learn to race, duck, dive, and balk to bring their own strategy to the roping and bulldogging events. The bronc learns that a mean kick against a board, even a mean look, can loosen the resolve of the young man who has signed on to ride him. The animals generally use rougher, smarter strategy than only a kick or a look in order to remain unperturbed by man and his games. The men and women contestants are the ones who have to defend themselves against injury.

Judges score the broncs and bulls for the way they perform. The animals have nothing to lose, but if their hearts are not in the contest, their riders lose. The contest proves the worth of the stock and the people who make their living with it. Nobody wants an old bull that lies around the water hole all day and does not get out and rustle for cows and grass. Cowmen want bulls and horses that are game to the hardship of making a living in the open. One way of finding out and assuring that their livestock is worth a darn as producers is found in rodeo. That gameness, that being worth a darn, provides mankind’s best source of protein.

A cowboy does like to try his prowess and test his nerve and skill in rodeo. He is not trying to show that he dominates the

animals, but to test and build on his skill at the job. He has a good chance of being kicked and stomped by a big hind foot or losing a finger in a rope, or being dragged, fallen upon, butted, hooked by a horn, or driven head first into the ground at every rodeo he enters because the animals are good at hurting cowboys. His chances of being successful in rodeo do not improve except as his athletic ability and luck in the draw for his opponents improve. His chances to win increase not at all after he reaches his peak as an athlete, because the animals never get any gentler and are not contested after their abilities decline.

Rodeo is an exciting time for all Americans, not only for the people who make their living with cattle and horses. A rodeo time should enter lives in one way or another for us all. We should all have a time to get together and see to the worth of our stock, whatever it is. We deserve to have a time when we can climb up on the chute and speak out like the Mexican vaquero does:

Cargue el toro, caporal,

Abran paso coleadores,

Que ahora le toca el turno

A los mejores de los vaqueros.

Pues no basta ser ranchero,

Ni vaquero, ni aquellos otros nombres,

Sino hay que tener como ellos,

Bien fajados los calzones.

Which means, more or less:

Run in the livestock, then stand back and watch,

The best hands have asked for their animals.

Their worth is not that they are ranchers,

Or cowboys, or any of those names they call themselves,

But that they have hitched up their shorts

And girded their loins for the bull.

For more on J.P.S. Brown, see his website.