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Rodeo 101

Bull Riding

In a time when action-packed, adrenalin-filled "extreme sports" are the latest craze, it only seems natural that bull riding would become rodeo's most popular event. The risks are obvious. Serious injury is always a possibility for those fearless or foolish enough to sit astride an animal that weighs a ton and is usually equipped with dangerous horns. But cowboys do it and fans love it. Bull riding is dangerous and predictably exciting, demanding intense physical prowess and supreme mental toughness. Like bareback and saddle bronc riders, the bull rider may use only one hand to stay aboard during the eight-second ride. If he touches the bull or himself with his free hand, he receives no score. But unlike the other roughstock events, bull riders are not required to mark out their animals. While spurring a bull can add to the cowboy's score, riders are commonly judged on their ability to stay aboard the twisting, bucking ton of muscle and rage. Balance, flexibility, coordination, quick reflexes and a good mental attitude are the stuff good bull riders are made of. To stay aboard the bull, a rider uses a flat braided rope, which is wrapped around the barrel of the bull's chest just behind the front legs and over its withers. One end of the bull rope, called the tail, is threaded through a loop on the other end and tightened around the bull. The rider then wraps the tail around his hand, sometimes weaving it through his fingers to further secure his grip. Then he nods his head, the chute gate swings open and he and the bull explode into the arena. Every bull is unique in its bucking style. A bull may dart to the left, then to the right, then rear back. Some spin, or continuously circle in one spot in the arena. Others add jumps or kicks to their spins, while others might jump and kick in a straight line, or move side to side while bucking.

Bareback Riding

Bareback riding offers a sensation about as enjoyable as riding a jackhammer, pogo stick-style, using only one hand. And that's the easy part. The bareback rider's real challenge is to look good while he's being punished. Bareback riding is the most physically demanding event in rodeo, its toll on the body is immense. Muscles are stretched to the limit, joints are pulled and pounded mercilessly, ligaments are strained and frequently rearranged. The strength of the broncs is exceptional and challenging them is often costly. Bareback riders endure more punishment, suffer more injuries and carry away more long-term damage than all other rodeo cowboys. To stay aboard the horse, a bareback rider uses a rigging made of leather and constructed to meet PRCA safety specifications. The rigging, which resembles a suitcase handle on a strap, is placed atop the horse's withers and secured with a cinch. As the bronc and rider burst from the chute, the rider has to "mark out" his horse. In other words, he must have both spurs above the horse's shoulders until the horse's feet hit the ground after its initial move from the chute. If the cowboy fails to do this, he is disqualified. As the bronc bucks, the rider pulls his knees up, dragging his spurs up the horse's shoulders. As the horse descends, the cowboy straightens his legs, returning his spurs over the point of the horse's shoulders in anticipation of the next jump. But it takes more than sheer strength to make a qualifying ride and earn a money-winning score. A bareback rider is judged on his spurring technique, the degree to which his toes remain turned out while he is spurring and his "exposure," or willingness to lean far back and take whatever might come during his ride.

Saddle Bronc

Saddle bronc riding is rodeo's classic event, both a complement and contrast to the wilder spectacles of bareback and bull riding. The event requires strength, but it is as much about style as anything: grace and precise timing are mandatory. Saddle bronc riding evolved from the task of breaking and training horses to work the cattle ranches of the old West. Many cowboys claim riding saddle broncs is the toughest rodeo event to learn because of the technical skills necessary to master it. Every move the bronc rider makes must be synchronized with the movement of the horse.
The cowboy's objective is a fluid ride, as opposed to the wilder and less-controlled ride of bareback riders. Among the similarities shared by saddle bronc riding and bareback riding is the rule that riders must mark out their horses on the first jump from the chute. To properly mark out his horse, the saddle bronc rider must have both heels on the animal's shoulders when it makes the first jump from the chute. If the rider misses his mark, he receives no score. While a bareback rider has a rigging to hold onto, the saddle bronc rider has only a thick rein attached to his horse's halter. Using one hand, the cowboy tries to stay securely seated in his saddle. If he touches any part of the horse or his own body with his free hand, he is disqualified. Judges score the horse's bucking action, the cowboy's control of the horse and the cowboy's spurring action. While striving to keep his toes turned outward, the rider spurs from the points of the horse's shoulders to the back of the saddle. To score well, the rider must maintain that action throughout the eight-second ride. While the bucking ability of the horse is quite naturally built into the scoring system, a smooth, rhythmic ride is sure to score better than a wild, uncontrolled one.

Team Roping

In rodeo's only true team event, two ropers, a "header" and a "heeler", work together to catch a steer. The header is the first cowboy out of the box. He may rope the steer around the head and one horn, around the neck or around both horns, which are specially wrapped for the event. As with all timed events, if the header fails to give the animal its allotted head start, a 10-second penalty is added to the total time. After making his catch, the header rides to the left, taking the steer in tow. The heeler moves in and ropes both hind legs. Catching only one hind leg results in a five-second penalty. If the heeler tosses his loop before the header has changed the direction of the steer and has the animal moving forward, it's called a "cross-fire," and it results in disqualification. The clock is stopped when the slack has been taken out of both ropes and the contestants are facing each other.

Steer Wrestling

Speed is the name of the game in steer wrestling. With its modern world record sitting at 2.4 seconds, steer wrestling is the quickest event in rodeo. The cowboy's objective is to use strength and technique to wrestle a steer to the ground as quickly as possible. That sounds simple enough. But anything that sounds that easy has to have a catch to it, and that catch here is the steer generally weighs more than twice as much as the cowboy trying to throw it. The need for speed and precision make steer wrestling, or "bulldogging" as it is commonly known, one of rodeo's most challenging events. As with calf ropers and team ropers, the bulldogger starts on horseback in a box. A breakaway rope barrier is attached to the steer, then stretched across the open end of the box. The steer gets a head start that is determined by the size of the arena. When the steer reaches the advantage point, the barrier is released and the bulldogger takes off in pursuit. If the bulldogger breaks the barrier before the steer reaches its head start, a 10-second penalty is assessed. In addition to strength, timing and balance are skills cultivated by the successful steer wrestler. When the cowboy reaches the steer, he slides down the right side of his galloping horse, hooks his right arm around the steer's right horn, grasps the left horn with his left hand and, using strength and leverage, wrestles the animal to the ground. His work isn't complete until all four of the animal's feet face upward. In order to catch up to the running steer, the cowboy uses a "hazer," another mounted cowboy who gallops his horse along the right side of the steer, keeping it from veering away from the bulldogger. The hazer can make or break a steer wrestler's run, so his role is as important as the skills the bulldogger hones. For that reason, and the fact a hazer sometimes supplies the bulldogger a horse, the hazer usually receives a fourth of the payoff if the steer wrestler places.

Tie Down Roping

More than any other event in professional rodeo, tie-down roping has roots dating back to the Old West. When a calf was sick or injured, it had to be caught and immobilized quickly for treatment. Ranch hands prided themselves on how fast they could rope and tie calves, and soon they began informal contests. Being quick and accurate with a lasso aren't the only requirements in calf roping. A successful roper also must be an experienced horseman and a fast sprinter. After giving the calf a predestinated head start, the horse and rider give chase. As the cowboy throws his loop, the horse comes to a stop. After catching the calf, the cowboy dismounts, runs to the calf, throws it to the ground by hand (called "flanking") and ties any three legs together using a "pigging sting" he has carried in his teeth throughout the run. While the contestant is accomplishing all this, the horse must keep the slack out of the rope, but not pull it tight enough to drag the calf. If the calf is not standing when the roper reaches it, the cowboy must allow the calf to stand before making the tie. When the roper has completed this tie, he throws his hands in the air as a signal to the flag judge. He then remounts his horse and rides toward the calf, making the rope slack.


Barrel Racing

Although barrel racing may look less harrowing than some other rodeo events, it certainly is not for the faint-hearted. The horsemanship skills and competitive drive in this fast and furious event make it a crowd favorite. In barrel racing, the contestant enters the arena at full speed on a sprinting American Quarter Horse. As they start the pattern the horse and rider trigger an electronic eye that starts the clock. Then the racer rides a cloverleaf pattern around three barrels positioned in the arena, and sprints back out of the arena, tripping the eye and stopping the clock as she leaves. The contestant can touch or even move the barrels, but receives a five-second penalty for each barrel that is overturned. With the margin of victory measured in hundredths of seconds, knocking over one barrel spells disaster for a barrel-racing competitor.
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