This is the best season to experience a Utah rodeo. If you’ve never been to one – go. It’s the western equivalent of any other sport that involves an arena, spectators, rules of the game and penalties. Probably the biggest difference, though, is that no linebacker weighs half a ton and is out for the blood of the comparatively tiny human clinging to his back. No other sport includes the craziness of jumping off a galloping horse onto the horns of a darting steer to wrestle it to the ground, the strict coordination of two cowboys roping the horns and both back feet of a skittering steer, or the precision of navigating a madly galloping horse around three barrels and back to the starting line for a win that is likely tenths of a second faster.
I’ve been to my share of rodeos, often in the company of a couple of sisters with mutual admiration for the sport. We’ve seen broncs and bulls, riders and fallers, winners and losers. But our favorite rodeo experience happened many years ago when we watched the entire event from behind the chutes.
A sister was using a fancy camera that year and one of the rodeo officials, mistaking her for a professional photographer, invited us to take all the time we wanted behind the chutes. So we sauntered in that direction while my sister pulled her camera up and started shooting. Cowboys in chaps and gloves glanced our way, then went back to pounding and working the leather straps they’d be hanging onto for dear life in a few minutes. We kept sidling past the hustle and bustle going on in the background until we were literally behind the chutes, jammed between them and the corral that held the broncs.
My sister swept her camera around and started shooting photos of the stock: horses stomping and wheeling, shaking their heads, a few of them swishing their tails in that ornery way that said as much about their disposition as their laid back ears. Careful to stay out of reach from a stretched out neck, we studied them as they studied us.
The bulls were in the next corral. They didn’t show near as much outward irritation. They didn’t need to. When you’re a half ton of muscle and attitude, the world revolves around you. The occasional shake of a shaggy head was enough to remind us that they were all about the business of dumping cowboy hopefuls in less than 8 seconds, and some of them had perfect records.
My sister snapped photos of the cowboys, the boots, the horses, the bulls, the dust, the pens, everything. The rest of us carried the camera bag, helped trade out lenses, pointed out photo ops, and looked like we were a smoothly running machine — all contrived to see how long we could last behind the chutes. Turns out we didn’t need to try so hard. Because we weren’t seeking autographs, knew how to stay out of everyone’s way and broke the ice with some of the cowboys and stockmen, we ended up staying behind the chutes for the entire rodeo. It was sort of an amusing distraction from the serious business of competing in a sport that seemed intent on killing off or at least maiming its participants.
We watched the expert precision of the stockmen who set up the steers for the wrestling and roping events, making sure each cowboy had a fair shake at a nearly impossible sport. We saw how the cowgirls kept their nervous barrel racing horses in line by prancing them up and down outside of the arena, careful to keep their mount’s head turned away from that open gate until it was their turn. Once that pony’s head was turned in the direction of those barrels, he was an unstoppable tornado tearing into that arena.
From our front/back row view we watched the broncs and the bulls loaded into the chutes, watched the stockmen expertly fish the strap under the animal’s belly and cinch it up, saw them help the cowboy gingerly climb on, let him pound the strap into his glove until he was satisfied he was one with that animal, saw him give a quick nod, saw the gate swing open, and watched rider and animal explode out of the chute.
We couldn’t have asked for a better view.
I kind of doubt we could pull that off again. We haven’t tried since. But we still dust off the hat, pull on the boots, and head for the arena to enjoy one of America’s most historic, beloved, celebrated professional sports.
The sheer energy and spectacle is worth seeing, at least once in a lifetime.
I have pictures to prove it.
D. Louise Brown lives in Layton. She writes a biweekly column for the Standard-Examiner.