The American cowboy has been the protagonist in numerous novels, movies, songs, and a staunch icon of rugged individualism. They rode north from Texas towards Montana, blazing a trail that defined the Wild West. Although “vaqueros” (ranch cattle herders) had been around in Mexico for quite some time, Americans started occupying ranches once owned by Mexicans following Texas’ War of Independence in 1836. This spread the cattle industry to the northern states, and the resilient, chiseled American cowboy was born.
The Wild West became an emblem of optimism and jauntiness, a platform to reinvent oneself for many failed easterners. Cowboys had to be men of nature with an intimate interaction with the land, and a close relationship with both horses and cattle in order to tame the West, and stake claim on it. Fifty years on, this notion was captured by the rodeo – a showmanship of the thrills and skills necessary to succeed as a cowboy and conquer the wilderness. The rodeo was romanticized as a sturdily masculine ideal, where men tested themselves against the land. But by the time organized rodeos were a thing, the Frontier had practically disappeared, rendering them as a spectacle of western cowboy masculinity, rather than the real deal.
1. Major professional rodeos have pizazz and money, but small-town and ranch rodeos offer a more authentic and communal experience.
Today, the rodeo is a fantasy sport and big business – glamorous, exhibitionist and, professionally run, much like WWF wrestling – displaying archaic skills in return for shiny trophies and trinkets on grand tours to the South and the West. In contrast, local and ranch rodeos still preserve and celebrate the skills of the land, relatively speaking. No costumes, gizmos or blow-dried buckaroos here, just working men (and women) doing what they do every day. Of course, they are marginally embellished and aren’t exactly the flamboyant stories of triumph over nature from the Frontier days. Instead, more often they are exhibits of failure, falling off, getting hurt, picking oneself up, and doing it again, till it’s done – much like the other face of the American dream.
Ranch and local folk often convey a dichotomy between working cowboys and professional rodeo men. The subject of whether rodeo men are real cowboys is a touchy one. Dependability and loyalty to the ranch are defining traits of cowboys. They are innovative, resourceful, practical, and courageous; highly individualistic with a distaste for intellectuals and money-minded souls. Rodeo men, for the most part, do adhere to the cowboy doctrine – aversion from urban life, pride, and exuberance, while showing admiration for horses and affability towards their own kind, even if from other outfits. Rodeo riders don’t lack in skills either – if anything, they are tremendous ropers and riders with more fine-tuned dexterity fit for championships. Bare bronc and steer riding for instance, are rarely something working cowboys do as these are “show” events and not something that happens at a ranch. The disparity then, could be a “way of living” versus “way of working” outlook, and weighing the refined and specialized skills of rodeo men against the multi-faceted but generalist proficiency of cowboys.
Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin flaunt bright and brazen rodeo exhibitions year after year, but the heart of Texas lies in its small towns. Akin to America’s famed Route 66 known for its ticky-tacky rural nostalgia, is a relatively small and lesser known loop along Route 16 and Route 290 in Texas’s Hill Country. This stretch was part of the Great Western Trail and a staging area for cattle drives in the late 19th century. And in this belt, on either side of present day Route 10, lies a concentration of dude ranches, cowboys, and small-town rodeos: Johnson City, Boerne, Bandera (I visited these three towns), Blanco, Fredericksburg, and Medina, to name a few. This is where “July 4th used to be known as Cowboy’s Christmas,” “the quickest way to double one’s money was to fold it over and put it back in the pocket,” and “the only good reason to ride a bull was to meet a nurse.”
This is also where “guns have only two enemies – rust and politicians.”
2. Rodeo is not a cowboy only sport, women are fundamental to its culture, development and popularity.
Speaking of guns gets us to the topic of women in rodeos. Even in Planet Cowboy, there are no heroes without women. While Buffalo Bill (William Cody) is largely credited to have pioneered the rodeo with his Wild West Show in 1882, women played a pivotal role in popularizing the event. Annie Oakley, a sharpshooter champion – even amongst men – by age fifteen, and Calamity Jane, a frontierswoman and alcoholic but brilliant with the trigger and undefeated on horse by even the wildest men, are two of the most well-known stars of Billie’s Wild West, drawing sellout crowds and ringing the cash registers. These two and many others helped amplify and commercially scale what Billie started. As a more recent parallel, think Sheryl Sandberg to Zuckerberg’s Facebook or a certain first lady Michelle to President Obama.
Female wranglers and horsewomen (“cowgirl” is not the preferred term as I discerned over some casual chats with women riders in Bandera) were amongst America’s first professional women athletes, with international acclaim and financial rewards surpassing cowboy earnings routinely. Women stars enjoyed massive fan followings and were disproportionately represented by the press. Indeed, the late 1800s to early 1900s were “golden” years for women’s rodeo. This gold rush lost its luster by the 1930s for a variety of factors – ill-fated mortal accidents in the arena, an impending war in Europe that shrunk the cattle ranch economy, and alternative entertainment options for Americans, aka Hollywood, amongst others. At its core however, women’s place in rodeo, despite their star power, was never as secure as men’s because cowboys, not horsewomen, were structural to the romantic mythology of the Wild West in America. Supporting exhibits for this premise include The Lone Ranger, Butch Cassidy, Marlboro Man, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
After the second world war, one fine day in Texas, a few ranch women decided they’d had enough. Being fine ranch women themselves, they were forced to head up the operations as their husbands had been drafted into war. Even when they came back (or some did), these women continued to operate these ranches. They wrote up the rules, formed a committee and went to work. It’s taken only 60 odd years, but women barrel racers today get paid equal to other events and continue to draw the crowds like Annie and Jane did for Billie.
3. Rodeos in small towns across southern and western states are vital to America’s economy (and heritage).
Small-town rodeos across the Frontier are a family affair that bring the community together and form the backbone of the local economy. Many of these towns have survived mining busts and industrial decays, evading the “ghost town” marque while transitioning into contemporary culture. Cowboy roots and heritage, therefore, run strong and are celebrated with pride as a matter of both individual and communal identity. Local and ranch rodeos are public events open to anybody with the intimacy of a private event. No wonder then, that on my very first rodeo jaunt across three small towns in Texas’s Hill Country, I was able to rub elbows with bronc riders, interact with horsewomen, get insights from organizers, small talk with local families, and share beers with cowboys late into the night. Did I mention I even pet a bull?
I stood out blatantly donning my NY baseball hat instead of a cowboy one, shorts instead of Wrangler jeans, and trainers over knee-high boots. I didn’t have any of the vocabulary and my Texan drawl would cause a bucking bull to moan. I showed up in a non-American car where Chevy Silverados and F350s rule the land. Forget a gun, the only thing I was shooting with was a camera strapped around my neck. But I was welcomed everywhere – with a smile, a nod, a handshake, and even a cold beer.
For all their chiseled ruggedness, cowboys and rodeo men alike are full of kindness and warmth. And horsewomen exceedingly courteous, capable, and tough as nails, let alone knowledgeable and aware – a lot of the insights in this post came from fence-side conversations with them. These folks are competitive, fueled by adrenaline, type As, and completely addicted to what they do. Things have definitely changed since the Frontier days, mainly due to the mechanization of cattle farms, so the original cowboy experience might be a myth today. In addition, living in an economy that is interlinked with things not found in the Wild West – Wall Street, Made in China, technology etc. – makes money somewhat more relevant in the equation.
Nationwide, the rodeo is a multi-billion dollar sports industry – it’s a grassroots sport, seen and participated in by families well beyond the core belt of the ranch states. The days of the Wild West are long gone, but that emblem of optimism and romantic heirloom in America’s small-town rodeos are well and alive. If you’re ever in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska or Montana, pick up the rodeo schedule and go visit one. You won’t regret it.