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Saddle Up

A trip to a Utah rodeo offers action, excitement and a taste of the Wild West.

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


("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.

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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


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.

After his catastrophic two-second ride on Black Bandit, Ruiz, his face drenched with sweat, told me: "No money today, so it's a bad day at the office."

But at least Black Bandit hadn't stomped or kicked him, he said. A week earlier in Arizona, a bull's horn had grazed Ruiz's arm; he walked away with a bad bruise, but in the world of rodeo, that's not a big deal. Ruiz has endured far worse.

To underscore how dangerous the competition -- or work -- is, broken bones, concussions and otherwise serious injuries are considered minor setbacks. Back injuries are common, and often end careers.

Despite the fame, fortune and celebrity of some riders like McBride, most barely earn enough to recover their high travel costs.


Not everybody sees rodeos as benign pageantries of musical entertainment or talented cowboys. Humane groups harshly condemn them as cruelty to animals.

Events such as steer "wrestling" or bull and bronc riding (where the rider must stay on a kicking, untamed animal) do not pay homage to traditional ranching skills. Rights groups say the animals experience fright and even harm, especially during the riding.

Corporate sponsors of rodeos, including Starbucks, have been targeted across the country. An Illinois animal rights group last year launched a nationwide "Buck Starbucks" boycott campaign, and the company ended its rodeo sponsorships. The boycott hasn't ended, however, because Starbucks still often sells coffee at rodeos.

But other companies, such as truck, food, alcohol and cigarette makers, happily vie to sponsor rodeos. The rodeo's audience, it's believed, is broad and deep, and similar to that of car racing.

The cowboys, on the other hand, are sensitive to the animal abuse accusations, insisting they respect rodeo animals and that few are injured.

The rodeo, they say, reflects their heritage and rural lifestyle. Many participants have grown up on ranches; the rodeo is simply a passion and a way to make a living for them.

Rodeo Scribe

At the Days of '47 Rodeo I attended, I wanted to see and feel some of the thrill these cowboys talked about.

Instead, as a spectator and reporter, I found long pauses between events, which proceeded without explanation for the audience. Nor was there a printed program with details about rules, scoring or judging. The promoters instead stimulated the crowd with laser lights and a pounding mix of music, ranging from hip hop to country music to disco.

The judging is subjective, based on the rider's style, and often colored by the rider's earnings, much as scoring in Olympic figure skating can be tainted by the star's fame or the judge's country of origin.

In multiday competitions, the daily events don't necessarily conclude with a known victor. Results are announced later, when the cowboys are long gone to the next rodeo.

The cowboys I met mostly knew one another but showed little camaraderie. They seemed very focused on their own events, which include bareback horse riding, saddled bronco riding, steer wrestling, steer roping, team roping and for the cowgirls, barrel racing. (Bull riding is usually the climactic finale of the rodeo.)

Ruiz, though, was smiling, even after his disastrous truncated ride on Black Bandit. Earlier, he had confidently predicted that his ride would last for ten seconds. That determination, in cowboy speak, is called "try." Moments later, Ruiz was back at the corral. "Black Bandit drilled me, out the door and on the floor," he said.

A two-second ride. No prize money. A hard fall on his rear. As Ruiz continued talking about the pleasures of the rodeo, he began laughing, and then he couldn't stop until he was wiping away tears.

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Martin Stolz is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter in New York and California.