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There's a good deal of misunderstanding on the public's part about rodeo. I say this as a former rodeo cowboy who has enjoyed both the triumphs and the vicissitudes of that sport. Surely, some of you have read in these pages about the days when me and four other worthless cowboys were getting it on down the road, from one rodeo to another, in a double-barreled pickup. Well, that partnership split up because of general ineptitude by all concerned and sent us each out on his own. That worked out pretty good for me on one hand, but kind of bad on another. The bad was that I wasn't sharing in the winnings of any partners. The good was that it gave me plenty of time to be alone and reflective.
And, Lord, did I have time to reflect. I recall once in Corpus Christi when I didn't have money enough for a motel. So I went to an all-night movie. On the bill was a rodeo movie. I guess the theater was showing it in honor of the rodeo being in town. But if anything could have been more inappropriate I couldn't have imagined it. There was the hero, looking like Mr. New York Broadway, who'd probably never been closer to a head of bucking stock than leaning over the fence. And he was wearing a bandanna around his neck! I wouldn't want to be the cowboy who showed up in a rodeo arena with a bandanna around his neck. Not if I wanted out with my life. But I guess I have a special resentment toward that movie because it kept waking me up, and the images on the screen kept reminding me of the sorry plight I was in.
I still don't think there has ever been a good, remotely accurate movie or TV show about rodeo. For one thing, the plot usually turns on the hero winning the big rodeo. Well, a rodeo isn't a Ping-Pong match or a horse race; you do not win a rodeo. There's no grand prize or jackpot. On the men's side, there are three bucking events—saddle bronc, bareback horse and bull riding. The other two men's events are steer wrestling and calf roping, which require a trained horse as part of the competition. All events pay pretty much the same, except the calf roping, which has better prizes only because there are usually more entrants. For the most part, the cowboys' winnings come from their entry fees, with very little "added" money, except at the bigger shows. As I say, there's no Grand Prize.
But there's invariably a scene in the rodeo movie or TV show that goes something like this: Breathless heroine, a knockout in a gingham dress that took nine seamstresses hours to get tight in just the right places, says, "Oh Mother, Jim and I are going to get married!"
Mother: "But Carrie Lee, Jim hasn't got a penny. He's just a broke cowboy. What would your father say?"
Carrie Lee: "Oh, Mother, Mother, Jim's going to win the big rodeo tonight. And the Grand Prize is $5,000! Five thousand dollars, Mother! We'll be rich! And then we're going to buy a big ranch and raise whiteface Herefords an', an', an'...young'uns!"
Even William Inge was guilty of such foolishness in Bus Stop. The hero had won the grand prize at some rodeo or other and felt that gave him the right to court Cherie. I'm not knocking artistic license. Lord knows that has been my only excuse over the years for some of the liberties I've taken in my writing. But too often the license taken with rodeo is, as the cowboy said about a bull that hooked him twice, "a damn sight more than was necessary."
Inge made another mistake: He allowed the hero to tell of competing in both the roping event and the bucking events. That almost never happens, because bucking-event cowboys and roping cowboys—"horse draggers"—are about as alike as quarterbacks and linebackers. Bucking-event cowboys, except for a few famous names, are like border bullfighters, working two and even three rodeos a week, racing pell-mell from one to the other either by flying or by driving at breakneck speeds. They are usually broke, hurt or about to get hurt. And most of them have to quit the circuit from time to time to work at an honest job long enough to make the money they need so they can go back and lose it on the circuit.
The horse draggers, on the other hand, are among the landed gentry, being either ranchers or the sons of ranchers. They have to be a good deal better than broke, too, because a good roping or dogging horse can cost anywhere up to $50,000. Besides, a horse dragger has the expense of caring for his animal as well as the cost of a trailer and a first-class vehicle to haul it around. The bucking-event cowboy carries practically everything he owns in his rigging bag.
Bucking-event cowboys aren't really cowboys in the sense of knowing much about the care of cattle. They are athletes doing a balancing act on the back of a beast that outweighs them by 12 or 15 to one. The horse draggers, with their ranch-life backgrounds, know something about cattle, but there was never any steer dogging done on ranches or anywhere else, and now there's very little roping done. It runs too much weight off a head of beef.