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Pain on the Range

Christopher Gardner

Full of Bull: To please crowds, the name of the game is buckoff rate, which stock contractors try to keep at more than 50 percent.

Despite the claims of animal-rights activists, at the modern rodeo
it's the humans who seem to suffer the most abuse

By Richard Sine

Early Friday morning the big trucks roll into the enormous aluminum takeout box that is the San Jose Arena, carrying 1,770,000 pounds of dirt which will transform the place from fantasy frozen pond to fantasy dusty corral. More workers tape down plastic tarp to cover every inch of the carpeted hallways where cowboys will mill about and warm up. In the afternoon the enormous steel trailers pull up to the back, with the bulls' huge round eyes glinting through the narrow slots.

As the first group of rodeo fans arrive, the animal-rights protesters are there to meet them. They are handing out fliers and carrying signs that read "Rodeo is no fun for animals" and "Violence to animals isn't a sport." They are a familiar sight to many of the fans, who reject the fliers, scan their clothing for signs of leather, and make the occasional sneering remark.

One of the protesters, a young woman from Santa Cruz dressed in a peasant-style poncho, confides her knee-jerk impressions to a reporter. "Most of them don't look literate," she says, "so I'm trying to save the pamphlets." Her friend, the one who's actually seen a rodeo while the girl was traveling in Guatemala, looks around derisively, as if this blue-collar crowd is nothing but a bunch of junkyard dogs. "These are scary-looking guys," he says. "With their tight jeans and boots, they look like they're ready to kick you."

It would not be too inaccurate to say these fans, this wave of denim and Stetson and pointy boots, are out for blood. But it's not necessarily animal blood. The Dodge Truck World's Toughest Rodeo, like an increasing number of rodeos, has dropped the roping and steer-wrestling events from its lineup. Those events, while closest to simulating the duties of real working cowboys, are the most highly criticized by animal activists--especially the calf roping, for its tendency to snap calves' necks and backs. Instead, this rodeo is mostly roughstock: cowboys riding bucking bulls and broncs, with a few women racing horses around barrels.

It's these hazardous events, especially the harrowing bull riding, which have increased rodeo's popularity in recent years. And when you're watching a cowboy get tossed around by these enormous animals, and you see the broken bones and the piddly payoffs and the shit-tough nomadic life these cowboys lead--that is, when you compare the lives of the animals with that of their cowboys--it becomes a pretty tough call who really gets the sharp end of the spur.

Just inside the stadium, a promotional video spells out the story: "Sports Pages KILLER RODEO," reads the blurb. "Rodeo action has never been like this. The raging bulls! The elusive calves! The stubborn steers! Killer Rodeo is cowboys crashing to earth from a hostile horse. It's bulls tossing their cowboys like rag dolls--and then stomping them. It's just plain pain on the range!"

John Growney, the stock contractor, wears a beige suede cowboy hat, a blue denim shirt and blue Wranglers a couple of shades darker than his ice-blue eyes. He is sauntering past his trailer toward his shiny white pickup. "The animals have had the whole winter off, they haven't competed since October. So they should be good and ready to buck," he says. "And my job is to buck cowboys." He climbs onto the cab and starts dropping fur-lined flank straps and saddles to the ground. "People go to a stock car race, they want to see a wreck. They go to a boxing match, they want to see someone get knocked out. We aim for over a 50 percent buckoff rate."

Growney is one of the top stockmen in the nation. He raised Red Rock, the red brindle bull who went unridden 309 times until the famous Lane Frost finally hung on for longer than the mandatory eight seconds. (Shortly thereafter, another bull punctured Frost's heart with its horn, killing the cowboy.) Growney still owns Wolfman, Red Rock's grandson, but Wolfman is back home in Red Bluff tonight. Instead, Growney has lined up a different, but equally scary-looking, bull as the star attraction. Actually, every bull looks pretty scary, once you see what it can do to a rider.

The stock enter the corral and the chutes through the back entrance. The cowboys use a side portal. In the tunnel behind the portal, cowboys are getting their hamstrings stretched and backs adjusted by two local chiropractors, who offer their services for free. Pauline Anderson, a slim, sweet-smelling woman with pale blue eyes and an all-black outfit, says more and more cowboys use her services every year. "Many cowboys are uninsured," she says. "They're afraid to use the ambulance, because they can't afford the ride. So, many come to us at every rodeo. We see a dislocated shoulder just about every night. And lots of broken thumbs and hands."

The cowboys are as "flexible as ballet dancers," Anderson says, but they also are prone to stiffness. "They get bumped around real bad by the broncs and bulls. Then they just sit in the car and drive for hours to get to the next rodeo."

Down the tunnel, maybe 20 cowboys are warming up in the dressing room, which smells powerfully of Flexal, a heat ointment. Casey Vollin of Salinas, a bareback rider with a passing resemblance to Mel Gibson, rubs the ointment all over his left arm, the one that hangs on. (Roughstock riders are not allowed to touch the animal with their other arm.) Then he tapes up every inch of his arm. He rubs rosin, a sandy yellowish pine distillate, on his hand and rigging handle to aid his all-important grip.

Vollin has not been able to stretch his arm out straight since his elbow surgery, which became necessary when the pain came all day, every day, and he couldn't brush his teeth and could hardly write his name. His left hand and thumb are lumpy with calcium and cartilage deposits from being broken innumerable times. Since his elbow surgery he's slowed his rodeo career down--checking in at only 80 rodeos a year instead of 110--and supplemented his income with auto detailing.

Vollin comes from a rodeo family. In 1990, his brother Rhett was kicked in the head by a bull on the day before his 30th birthday. The blow knocked the carpenter unconscious, and within 20 minutes he was dead.

Tonight, Casey Vollin jokes with his buddies, his fellow cowboys, to ease the tension. They all compete against each other for money, but they talk like they're all on the same team. They travel together, party together, help each other out in the chutes, and trade inside information on which are the toughest bulls and broncs.

Meanwhile, in the arena, announcer Zoop Dove is telling everyone in the half-full stands to shake hands with the nearest stranger.

The arena darkens, and the face of John Wayne appears on the telescreen. With "America" playing in the background, Wayne recites a poem describing why he rides: the mighty Tetons, the snow-flanked Rockies, the great Mississippi. Then, as women in sequined-denim blouses and gold-tasseled chaps ride around the arena carrying American flags, the national anthem is played. The telescreen shows idealized footage of small-town America, mixed in with idealized footage of U.S. soldiers jumping out of helicopters and trudging through swamps.

Within a couple of minutes, the bareback riders are bursting out of their chutes. The telescreen captures the ugly grimace the cowboys assume, the look of utter concentration, just before the chute opens. Then the horses start to buck, and the grimaces are replaced by a sort of blank, puffy-cheeked mask, as if the cowboys' conscious minds have left them to sit out the ride. To get a high score, the cowboy's legs must kick out and spur the horse's shoulders every time it bucks.

Vollin is tossed off in less than eight seconds, and so gets no score. Another local cowboy, Wes Hoskins of Hollister, doesn't make it out of the chute as the horse falls on its side, kicking. Hoskins has to struggle to pull his hand out of his rigging. On his second try, he appears to narrowly escape being stepped on by his horse.

After the riders dismount, the horses dash around the arena, their hooves kicking dirt into the first couple of rows. On the dismount, the bronc riders at least have it better than the bull riders, because the bulls actually chase their riders. The bullfighter, dressed in clown garb, runs interference.

The animal rights activists outside the arena believe that these terrifying duels between man and beast are more staged than real. "Animals used in rodeos are not aggressive by nature," reads their flier. "They are physically provoked into displaying wild behavior. Electric prods, sharp sticks, and other devices are used on them. The tight flank strap, illegal in Ohio, is cruel, driving them into a frenzy by tricking them into trying to escape from an imagined encumbrance, and tissue is damaged by repeated blunt injury caused by spurs that are blunt or have rowels that roll."

There are no electric prods visible tonight, only the flank straps, always cinched around the broncs and bulls. Growney tells me the straps simply give horses and bulls that are naturally unbreakable a bigger incentive to kick and twist, rather than simply pogo up and down. San Jose horse veterinarian Robert Novick, who was hired by the rodeo producer to stand by along with the paramedics, dismissed the effect of the straps.

"In the great scheme of things, this is pretty innocuous," Novick said. "The animals are valuable to the rodeo operators. They buck about once a week, and for eight seconds of work they experience mild discomfort." (Most humane societies have a different view of the straps: "If the animals buck naturally, then let them," says Maia Carroll of the Monterey County SPCA.)

The value of having healthy animals, or at least animals that will buck vigorously, is evident to anyone with a grasp of the rodeo food chain. Half a roughstock cowboy's score depends on how tough a ride his animal provides. If a cowboy draws an animal with a tame reputation, he may not travel to the show at all. If the stock contractor's animals don't put on a good show, he or she won't be hired by the rodeo producer. As a result, a particularly tough bull or bronc will fetch $10,000 or more on the open market.

The animals' high-profile role in the rodeo becomes clear at the beginning of the rodeo's most glamorous event, the bull riding. The arena goes dark and yellow spotlights swirl around the center gate. As the stirring theme from Rocky is played, the gates open to reveal Boomtown Gambler, a rust-colored bull with huge horns and jowls. The announcer works the boxing theme by announcing Boomtown's weight (1,700 pounds) and record (unridden in almost 100 tries). Boomtown trots gamely around the arena, as if he expects fans to shower him with rose bouquets.

When the bull is finished, a spotlight shines on the other side of the arena, where Buddy Gulden of Browns Valley, Calif., has raised his arms. The announcer heralds Gulden's state championships and National Finals performance. He also plays up his comparatively pathetic 165-pound weigh-in--okay for a man, but less than a tenth the weight of the bull.

Gulden is one of the few performers who manages to hang onto his bull for more than the requisite eight seconds. (The original cowboys on the range, by the way, did have to ride wild horses to break them. But none of them ever needed to break a bull.) When it is all over, I find Gulden sitting in the tunnel with his right foot bandaged and elevated, his left shin bandaged and padded. A paramedic with a clipboard crouches at his side. What happened to his foot? "Bull poked a hole in it," Gulden says laconically. It also kicked his shin.

According to Growney, the stock contractor, tonight was the first time Boomtown Gambler had been ridden in 95 tries. When I compliment Gulden for his accomplishment, however, the cowboy tells me the bull had been ridden fairly recently and fairly often. Perhaps Gulden was being modest or mistaken, but I never went back to Growney to straighten out the discrepancy. I preferred to let it drift into the realm of minor mythology, of tall tales and traveling shows.

Within a half hour, Gulden, his bandaged foot squeezed into his boot, has returned to the arena for the "short go," or head-to-head finals. For one horrifying moment, it looks as if the new bull, Ultimate Warrior, has stepped on the very same foot Boomtown Gambler had punctured earlier. But Gulden had merely gotten his spur stuck in a strap. The ride completed, the cowboy limped off the arena and into the arms of victory.

When the night's competition is over, Gulden and the other cowboys relax and joke back in the dressing room. This time, however, they've been joined by two young rodeo groupies, dressed almost identically in black hats and blazers, bolo ties and boots. The cowboys undress in front of them--known in the business as buckle bunnies--with no sign of embarrassment. As the blonde chats with Gulden and his companions in one corner, her brunette friend opens her blouse to a cowboy standing near the entrance to the bathroom. Soon a crowd gathers, and several cowboys sign the girl's breast. Tit signing, the cowboys later inform me, is a longstanding rodeo tradition.

Gulden removes his Wranglers to reveal a taped-up leg and knee braces. His sock is still blood-soaked. He'll skip the emergency room tonight, however, unwilling to put up with the endless wait. He'll go tomorrow morning instead.

Within a few minutes, a cowboy friend walks in and hands Gulden his check. For winning both rounds of the event that night, Gulden has won $1,200. Subtract from that his $100 entry fee. The second-place winner got $700; everyone else came out less than broke.

The rodeo veteran looks at the check and looks at me, a flicker of anger in his eyes. "Not a very good payoff, is it," he asks rhetorically, "for all they made it out to be."

Gulden puts his lifetime earnings at about $500,000, which sounds rich until you realize he's been risking his life in this sport for more than 15 years, longer than most bull riders compete before retirement. It was the 1980s before a rodeo cowboy ever made a million dollars in a lifetime, an accomplishment few have rated since. "Barry Bonds gets $7 million this year even if he plays or not," Vollin tells me. "We only get paid if we win. So you have to ride with injuries."

Gulden, however, is at least smart enough to take a pass on Saturday night. Saturday night's bull riding is cursed, even by rodeo standards. Frank Jackson is thrown off the bull and kicked in the head. He lies face down in the arena, still as a stone, as I experience a sickening flashback to an incident I had never seen--the death of Rhett Vollin. The crowd goes quiet. Paramedics descend upon Jackson, tape every part of his body to a stretcher, stick on an oxygen mask on him, and carry him toward the portal. By that time, Jackson has regained consciousness. The downed cowboy gives a thumbs-up to the cheers of the crowd. Queen's "We Will Rock You" blares from the speakers. The fans begin to clap in time. And, within two minutes, another cowboy is out the chute.

That cowboy, an Australian named Chris Lethbridge, gets his hand hung up in the rigging as he attempts to dismount. He is dragged in circles by the bucking and twisting bull, but escapes the arena with only the nip of a horn to the chin. The next rider, Mark Cibalski, is thrown off almost immediately. The bull runs him over, but miraculously does not touch him. KCee Bonick of Lake City, Calif., appears to get grazed in both shoulders by his bull's legs. He runs out of the arena and drops to one knee, a gesture of recovery or genuflection or perhaps both. Spike Sprague narrowly escapes a horn to the groin.

Twelve professional cowboys died in pro North American rodeo in 1994. After watching this show, it is not surprising that so many have died. It is surprising how many have escaped with their lives.

Lethbridge has made it to the finals round. He tilts his head to show his chin scrape and suggests amicably that when the show is over we head out to the Saddle Rack, chase some girls, maybe sign a tit or two. I climb up the stands to dicuss this option with my friend, who has accompanied me to see his first rodeo. But my friend, shaken by the violence, looks a little pale. It's time to go.

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From the March 28-April 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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