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Saddle Up

Tough Break, Buckaroo
On the day after American voters handed the Democrats control of Congress, President Bush described the Republicans' election drubbing as a "thumping," and added, "this isn't my first rodeo."

Bush's comments made me wonder whether he'd ever ridden a bull, or experienced anything close to the pain that follows.

Cody Ruiz, 25, a cowboy from Ontario, Ore., has definitely had his butt kicked by a bull in a rodeo ring.

But the rodeo, he explained, isn't about the beatings. It's all about adrenaline and competition. And money.

In the Spotlight

I met Ruiz at the Days of '47 Rodeo , one of the oldest rodeos in America, held at the Delta Center arena in Salt Lake City.

When we met, Ruiz was poised to attempt a ride on a bull named Black Bandit. He needed to hold on for eight seconds.

Instead, Black Bandit, weighing in at more than 1,500 pounds, gave Ruiz a truly painful thumping -- not just an election defeat -- and robbed him of thousands of dollars in prize money.

I'm no stranger to rural life or farm animals, but my notion of bull riding and rodeos came exclusively from Hollywood and television. I went to the Days of '47 Rodeo to get a firsthand experience: breathing the dusty air, smelling the animals, hearing the pounding of hooves and talking to modern cowboys.

Rodeo. The word appropriately evokes images of the Wild West -- rodeo competitions date to the 1880s. The word hails from the Spanish rodear ("to round up"), referring to the skills real cowboys needed hundreds of years ago to herd cattle.

For decades, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody toured the United States and Europe popularizing American cowboy skills and promoting cowboy mythology, as depicted in the romanticized dime novels -- and later, in Hollywood films -- about frontier life.

Jim Ryan enumerates these connections in his recently published compendium, The Rodeo and Hollywood. Ryan describes the rodeo careers of film stars and lists nearly 80 films about rodeos.

Today's rodeo is a direct descendent of Buffalo Bill shows and traveling circuses: Rodeos feature clowns skilled at entertaining crowds and distracting angry bulls (to give downed riders a chance to run away from the enraged animal).

There are platinum-blonde rodeo beauty queens able to model sequined star-spangled outfits while riding horses, motorcycle stunt riders, light shows and music performances, all combining into western-style family-friendly entertainment.

It's become quite a spectacle -- rodeo events and competitive rankings are now widely broadcast through ESPN and the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association .

Harnessing a Profit

Top riders live comfortably.

Justin McBride, 27, the 2005 Professional Bull Riders world champion, has earned more than $3 million in his brief career. The PBR World Championship took place earlier this month in Las Vegas, and Brazilian Adriano Moraes, 36, took the 2006 title and $1,346,000 prize.

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