(Note: At an age when many of their peers are thinking about rocking chairs, the guys and gals of the Senior Rodeo circuit are rockin' on broncos and bulls. Bill Kirk reports on the bone-shaking action at last weekend's Amador County Fair.)
Why would anyone over 40 years old and still breathing want to jump off a perfectly good horse going 25 miles and hour, grab a thousand pounds of racing steer by the horns and wrestle him to the ground? In fact, why would anyone want to jump off a perfectly good horse? Well, there was a whole lot of jumpin' goin' on at the National Senior Pro-Rodeo in Amador County last Saturday night. You may have thought that rodeos are for younger riders. Not any more.
Rodeo has long been a crowd pleaser, particularly for those who have lived and worked with livestock on farms and ranches all across the United States and Canada. And last Saturday night's rodeo in Plymouth was no different before a sellout crowd of over 3,500.
In the rodeo office before the show, we watched as Senior Rodeo secretary Cydney Lyles efficiently managed a line of cowboys filing their last-minute entries before the opening ceremonies inside the arena. She told us that the senior rodeo has all the events you expect to see at any rodeo, "but unlike the others, our riders are men and women who are all over 40 years old," she said.
Outside the office, Anne Walker was warming up her horse before her Barrel Racing and Ribbon Roping events. A public relations spokesperson for the Senior Pro-Rodeo Association, Walker explained how the senior circuit got started. "About 12 years ago, several of us 'more experience' rodeo riders decided we wanted to continue to stay active in rodeo. We wanted to compete, not just watch from the sidelines."
Over the years, according to Walker, the senior rodeo circuit has attracted thousands of riders who compete for bragging rights, points and some cash prizes in rodeos all over North America. The riders pay entry fees for each of the individual events they enter, such as Calf Roping, Bareback Bronco Riding and Steer Wrestling. In addition, there are $100 per year membership dues.
Imagine paying hundreds of dollars each year for the privilege of letting the equivalent of a small tractor run over you several times in the Bull Riding event.
"This season we expect to hold 65 rodeos similar to the one here in Plymouth," said Walker. "After all these events are finished, over 400 of the top riders will be competing for cash and prizes at the Senior Finals in Reno in November." One 56-year old California cowboy was the 1992 champion for Steer Wrestling and is well on his way again this year, according to Walker.
Bob Cooper, 56, a bull wrestler for over 35 years, remarked that many of the riders over 60 are still among some of the best. "About the only thing different for us older riders is that it takes a lot longer to heal when you get busted up," he said. Cooper, an electrical contractor from Carson City, Nevada told us he keeps in shape when he is not riding the rodeo circuit by working out at a gym at least two days a week.
Defying the odds, Virgil Green, also 56 and a former bull rider from Valley Springs, California, agreed that staying in shape in the off-season is important. He told us, however, he got out of the rodeo business a few years back because he had not been seriously hurt for over 30 years. "I have several friends who broke arms, legs and backs while riding bulls, so I figured my luck might be running out," he said. Asked how he happened to be riding tonight, he said some of his friends had signed him up for team roping.
In addition to the swelling rodeo crowd inside the arena, there were even more people in attendance at the surrounding Amador County Fair which was in full swing when we arrived. This slice of Americana almost appeared frozen in time. The midway was crowded and the air was filled with the smells of real beef on massive open barbeque pits, cotton candy, popcorn, caramel apples. The more recent additions to fair fare, including pizza, nachos and steamed veggies, seemed strangely out of place but clearly gaining in popularity.
As we made our way back into the warm-up area outside the arena, the disorderly dance of at least two dozen horses and their riders looked like traffic at a four-way stop during rush hour. Becoming part of the choreography ourselves, we met four white-hatted members of the Sheriff's Posse, astride matching palomino horses and standing at attention with flags at the ready.
According to Peggy Staley, the current Captain of the Posse, they are looking for new members. "The prerequisites are to have your own palomino, be willing to practice weekly and appear several times a year at special events such as parades and rodeos. The Sheriff's Posse are all reserve deputy sheriffs when they are not in the saddle. But off duty, each has a full-time job which varies from Staley and Joe Daeling, who are real estate agents, to a self-employed Gordon Bruce and Bob Davison, who is a cosmetics salesman with Revlon.
Within moments, the 20-foot wide bates at the south end of the arena are opened and the Sheriff's Posse line up for their grand entrance along with several other standard bearers on horse back, in sequined blue western cut blouses and matching hats. Inside, the recorded sounds of Lee Greenwood, "I'm proud to be an American," brought the crowd to its feet, setting the tone for the wild evening to come. Whitney Houston rendered the National Anthem. The moment was soon gone, but what a moment it was as loud cheers brought the first bronco rider into the chute.
In a booth directly above the chute stood a mustached announcer, microphone in hand. With the melodious sound of his western-cum-southern rodeo accent, he purposefully raised expectations among 3,500 spectators seated 200 feet across the dirt-and sawdust-covered arena. As he counted down the seconds, a lone rider sat perched on his bronco.
He tested and retested the grip that would either hold for eight seconds or give way, sending him airborne toward a landing. That scene was in fact repeated several times before the eight-second horn was sounded, signaling that a rider had beaten the clock, had mastered the bronco, had timed his ups and downs to minimize impact and injury.
After the Bareback Bronco event came Calf Roping and Steer Wrestling, events which are frequently criticized because the steers could as easily be injured as the cowboys. In fact, with the exception of some bumps and scratches during Saturday's rodeo, there were no injuries to riders or their animals.
According to Pro-Rodeo's Walker, that is a testimonial to the emphasis on safety by the rodeo staff and to the excellent care and treatment by the stock contractor, Rafter P. Rodeo, who provided all livestock for Saturday's rodeo. All pens were clean and ample water was available and most notably all of the animals could be easily observed and monitored. None were in back lots or tightly enclosed spaces.
"We are also required by the rules of the rodeo association to have a veterinarian on the grounds during the rodeo," said Walker, who spoke about an organization called Friends of Rodeo whose purpose is to promote humane care of rodeo animals. "Fortunately, tonight we didn't need him, nor did we need the ambulance service provided by the American Legion of Amador," she said.
Al Lennox, a paramedic on duty during the rodeo, explained that there were three ambulances on the fairgrounds in communications with Amador Hospital. "In extreme cases, we can airlift emergency patients to UCD Medical Center using Life Flight, which can get here in about 15-20 minutes." A second option is Medi-Flight out of Memorial Hospital in Modesto. Arlene Whitaker, a nurse and member of the Amador County Emergency Medical Technician Association, said they must be ready for anything. "We have had broken bones, head injuries and even a cardiac arrest," she said. "Most of what we get are scratches and scrapes but we never know when something more serious may happen."
Like any other dangerous sport, rodeo can be hazardous to your health. Ultimately, the rodeo tests the skill, conditioning and courage of the participants. The debate will go on as to whether the rodeo is too dangerous to its participants or harmful to the animals. For Walker the answer is far more basic. "On the fourth Saturday in July in Amador County, we had a good rodeo."
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