Rodeo is a cultural touchstone. What does that say about our culture?

A bareback rider at the Fairfield Rodeo. Photo Credit: Steve Howen.
A bareback rider at the Fairfield Rodeo. Photo Credit: Steve Howen.

…but it keeps me from going insane, sang Waylon Jennings. I think I understand that sentiment a little better after spending an evening at the Fairfield Rodeo. Mrs. Nester and I have been to a few rodeos in our life, but they tended to be on the big production side of things. You might know the drill–indoors in a coliseum setting, intermission entertainment from a country & western superstar or a reasonable facsimile thereof and established cowboys doing the hard work. In Houston or San Antonio, you get indoor pyrotechnics at the end. We wondered whether rodeo was like other sports, offering different types of enjoyment at different levels. A perfect football weekend includes Friday Night lights, a Saturday watching the Bears at McLane Stadium and the NFL couch on Sunday. Each has their own peculiar pleasures and it is hard to say which is the best spectator experience. Still, it is tough to top the purity of a sport watching people who are somewhere other than at the very apex of their game. Does it work the same for rodeo?

The nesters were privileged to have an insider for a tour guide. Ryan Litwin married our niece and happens to be one of the top rodeo clowns working the circuit. In some ways, Ryan exemplifies the growth of rodeo as a sport. Growing up in upstate New York, Ryan’s passion was for soccer. He ended up playing college soccer on scholarship and majoring in fine arts. Returning to his hometown, Ryan found all his soccer playing buddies had left for more cosmopolitan environs. The farm boys, however, were still there. After a few misspent evenings in a country western bar, the farmers convinced Ryan to go to a rodeo. Improbably, at age 22, this soccer-playing graphic designer decided that bullriding was something he would like to do. After he found out that the only barrier to entry was the fee, Ryan’s course was set.

Rocket Ryan Litwin works the crowd, Photo Credit: Steve Howen.
Rocket Ryan Litwin works the crowd, Photo Credit: Steve Howen.

Even more improbably, he made it work. When someone says bullrider, your first thought probably is not ” I bet that guy can really paint.” It turns out that cowboys are a lot like the human race, with varied interests and backgrounds.  In the end, of course, bullriding will wear your ass out regardless of where you came from. Ryan had a back-up plan. He developed a hunting guide business and morphed into Rocket Ryan, Rodeo Clown. As the Rocket, Ryan has seen the world, entertaining and keeping cowboys safe at events large and small. Ryan played his role Saturday night well, keeping the crowd engaged with G-rated humor and doing his best to keep the animals and cowboys separated once the rides had ended.

Saturday night was on the small side. Ryan explained that the date was new for the Fairfield stop on the tour and the crowd was not yet up to par. The size of the crowd and the level of competition, however, are two different things. The big money (and the average money) in rodeo comes at the end of the year. The dream is to win an event at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, which features the top 15 money winners in each rodeo event from the year. To get to Las Vegas, cowboys have to win as much money as possible in weekly events across North America. Which means competing as often as possible, often in venues like Fairfield against local up and comers. As a result, several of Saturday night’s contestants were former NFR finalists and/or are in the hunt for a spot this year. Sort of like going to your local par 3 course and seeing Jordan Spieth grind it out against club pros. I really cannot think of a cheaper way to see world class athletes do their stuff in such an up close and personal way.

Fairfield Rodeo fans with room to spread out. Photo Credit: Steve Howen.
Fairfield Rodeo fans with room to spread out. Photo Credit: Steve Howen.

Make no mistake, some of these cowboys are world class athletes. Each event showcases strength, agility, skill and above all, unbelievable courage. I favored the riding events-bullriding, saddle bronc and bareback. We like to fancy ourselves as the dominant species on the planet. You would not figure it that way watching man against horse or cow. The task is to say on board for 8 seconds, using only one hand to steady yourself and trying to exhibit as much panache as possible. Eight seconds does not sound like a long time, but there is room enough for each ride to become its own mini-drama. And in the larger sense, the animal always wins. Whether he makes it to the horn or not, the cowboy dismounts shortly after he mounts. The animal leaves unbroken.

Not always so for the cowboy. Hanging around Ryan’s trailer before the show, watching cowboys walk out of the arena after their rides or seeing them pack their own trucks and trailers hours later, one thing is clear. Rodeo hurts. Limps and grimaces are the order of the day. While paramedics are on hand, there is no fancy conditioning trailer; you do not finish your ride and get an ice bath or a massage. Instead, you get a lengthy ride back home or to the next stop. Which is the run of the mill Saturday night for a rodeo cowboy.

For one or two competitors each week, the result will not be run of the mill. Late Saturday night, an unfortunate bull rider got tossed too close to the bull, which proceeded to drop its entire 1800 pounds on the cowboy. Which is the real reason Ryan and his partner clown are in the ring. Working quickly, they got the bull interested in other things. Eighteen hundred pounds of angry animal can do quite a bit of damage in even the seconds the cowboy was on the ground. While he was able to stumble to safety, he went down in a heap and considerable pain right outside. Something was broken, but luckily it was below the head.

Many rides end like this. Photo credit: Steve Howen.
Many rides end like this. Photo credit: Steve Howen.

Which brings us to the reality of rodeo. There were scores, if not hundreds, of small rodeos that took place last weekend, with all those cowboys (and cowgirls, the barrel racers were great) chasing 15 spots.They pay their own fees, gas and lodging and buy their own equipment. It is impossible to see a financial reward at all, and certainly not one worth the risk they face, if they do not make an end-of-year final. The finals are 10 days of all out glitz and glamour in Las Vegas; television and color announcers. Somebody is making money off a system built on enormous physical risk to a great many people. Those people must love to compete and are more than willing volunteers, still like so much of life these days, it seemed to me that someone has their thumb on the scale.

Rodeo is a lot of heart and talent for very little money. Photo credit: Steve Howen.
Rodeo is a lot of heart and talent for very little money. Photo credit: Steve Howen.

Trickle down economics was most sharply felt in the night’s last event, which did not involve cowboys or cowgirls at all. Instead, all night the announcer had called for volunteers to play “bull poker.”  Sitting across the aisle from us was an inebriated young man named Wes, his slightly less inebriated wife and their 2-year old daughter. Wes volunteered and found himself in the arena with 3 other drunk young men, seated on plastic chairs as if they were playing poker. The game is simple. The organizers let a wild bull lose in the arena; the last man sitting in his chair wins the grand sum of $200.00. The men wore flak jackets to protect their chest, but no other protective equipment.

A wild bull is a fierce animal. Nearly a ton of mass that can move at a high rate of speed; essentially the contest is a game of chicken between a sitting human and an out-of-control Volkswagen. Following a minute of uncomfortable anticipation, the bull took a full speed run at Wes. Whether it was the booze, a deep need for $200.00 or a deathwish, I do not know. Wes did not budge until the bull hit him at full speed, at which point he was launched halfway across the arena, or so it seemed.The bull followed up, alternately trying to gore or trample Wes who was motionless. Those seconds seemed like hours; I thought I was watching someone die. Once the clowns got the bull off him, Wes’ wife’s screams to get up could be heard throughout the place. Eventually Wes rose and made his way to the side of the arena. On the bull’s next charge, the three remaining contestants scattered and the game was over.

I am pretty much a libertarian; the fact that Wes thought a high risk of death or injury was worth a 1/4 chance at $200.00 (a $50.00 expected value for the quantitative types) should be his business, although taking advantage of drunks seems mean, if not a little bit criminal. The end result of it all was an unfortunate downer, probably not as much for the Nesters as for Wes.There is so much to admire in rodeo. Beautiful animals, great athletes, friendly people, and ties to the Old West should be uplifting. But we left Fairfield feeling down.

Folks will do crazy things for the dollar; I just hope it keeps them from going insane.

Rodeos are big on patriotism. Photo Credit: Steve Howen.
Rodeos are big on patriotism. Photo Credit: Steve Howen.

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