Rodeo," says Jim Shoulders, holder of 14 world championship titles and the biggest money-winning cowboy of all time, "is a unique contest. First a man must compete against an animal that outweighs him, is faster and stronger than be is. He must best this animal according to rules that are all in the animal's favor. And in order to win he must do this better or faster than all the other cowboys who are contesting on different animals."
This year 3,000 professional cowboys competed for $3 million in prize money at 482 rodeos held in 38 states and Canada before a record 15 million spectators. And this week in Dallas, the first National Finals Rodeo (Dec. 26-30) gets under way, drawing 71,000 fans. A cowboys' world series to determine the 1959 championships, the NFR pits the top 15 money-winners in each event against each other on the nation's toughest stock. In 10 Go-Rounds—each contestant competes once in a Go-Round—they will be fighting to make the top money which will determine the champions. Contestants earn no salaries; prize money is made up of their entry fees plus the rodeo purse. Currently defending his triple title of All Around Cowboy, Bareback and Bull Riding Champion for the third year in a row, Jim Shoulders, who has won $357,000 in the arena, joins here with Joan Dickinson, writer, flyer and, with her husband, operator of Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk, N.Y., and Artist Sam Savitt ("How To Ride A Horse," SI, May 18, 25), to explain rules and fine points of America's roughest sport.
Saddle bronc riding
In the old days, at places like Deer Trail, Colo. and Pecos, Texas, where rodeo was born in the mid-1800s, a man just climbed aboard a bucking horse and tried his luck until, as they said, "the horse was rode or the cowboy throwed." Today saddle bronc riding is a highly regulated and exacting contest requiring expert precision, split-second timing, and coordination. The contestant must ride for 10 seconds, using a plain halter and a single braided rope rein. He cannot wrap the rein around his hand, will be disqualified if he changes hands on the rein, touches any part of the horse or equipment with his free hand, or loses a stirrup. All riding events are scored half on the horse—how hard it bucks—and half on the way the rider spurs. Spurring weights the contest in favor of the horse—it aggravates the animal but does not wound it, and it forces the rider to keep his legs moving so he cannot weather the jumps by clamping onto the horse. If the bronc rider is "in time with the horse" he will complete a cycle with each jump, swinging his legs in a continuous rhythmic motion, body rocking, rein arm pumping, free arm held high for balance (top right). He spurs from the point of the shoulders to the back of the cantle. How well he does this, and how often, determines his spurring mark, from 1-20 points.
The bareback event is scored from one to 20 for spurring and up to 20 points for bucking. This bucking mark is listed on the judges' books as from 65 to 85, so that it is easily told apart from the spurring mark. Two judges mark each ride, totaling their spurring and bucking markings for a possible 210 perfect score. The bareback horse is always ridden with a flank strap, which annoys but does not hurt it, cinched around its belly at the hind quarters. The ride lasts eight seconds, spurs must be over the break of the shoulders the first jump out to qualify. The bareback "rigging"—no reins are used—is a single wide leather strap cinched to the horse much like a saddle, with a leather handhold attached to the top. The contestant grips this handle with one hand, is disqualified if he changes hands or touches anything with his free hand. As in all riding events, he is disqualified if his spurs are too sharp or the rowels are locked or if he mistreats the horse in any way.
How horses are assigned
Drawing stock is the most important element of rodeo for the contestant. All animals in each event are numbered, and before the start of a Go-Round the judges draw the stock and determine which animal each contestant will compete on by placing the stock numbers in one hat, the contestants' names in another and blindly matching them up. Since no two horses buck alike and half the contestant's score is determined by how well the animal bucks, the cowboy's chances of winning go up considerably if he draws a hard-bucking animal. A "real fine bucking animal" is the rodeo competitor's delight. He can never win a cent on what he calls a "sorry horse"—one that "just goats along down the arena without really blowing up." If the horse does not buck at all or deliberately throws itself on the ground or stalls in the chute, the rider is entitled to a reride. Prize money is paid for each Go-Round, from first to sixth place, depending on size of rodeo purse; "average money" for best totals in all Go-Rounds of rodeo.
Riding the wild hump-backed Brahma bulls, which frequently weigh a ton or more, is rodeo's most difficult and dangerous event. For its size, the Brahma is the most active animal alive. It has the strength to toss a horse in the air. Here the luck of the draw is not as decisive as it is in the horse riding events. Most Brahmas buck, fight, kick, hook, spin, do anything and everything to "put the rider in the dirt." Some do it better than others—many do it all too well, with a flank strap to urge them on. It is not uncommon for a bull to be bucked out for an entire rodeo season, maybe 50 times or more, and never have a qualified ride made on it.
Calf roping is a race against time so fantastically competitive that contestants speak in terms of a 10th of a second. The calf may outweigh them by 100 pounds, but top ropers, giving the calf a good head start, can complete the entire operation—catching the calf, roping it, dismounting, running to it, throwing it, stepping over it, catching and holding its legs and making the tie—in 9.5 seconds. They practice every phase of the operation endlessly, and the coordinated effort of man and horse is timed to perfection. A quick start, for which the quarter horses used are famous, is essential, but if the horse leaves the chute before the calf crosses the score line (left) a 10-second penalty results for "breaking the barrier." A good roping horse will "rate" the calf, maintaining an even distance behind it until the loop is thrown and then sliding to a stop instantly. As the roper dismounts, the horse must keep just the right tension on the rope, without dragging or choking the calf. If calf is jerked off its feet the roper must let it up and throw it by hand. Time is taken when tie is completed. The judge passes on the tie, but it must hold for five seconds after the roper remounts his horse and steps forward, loosening the neck rope. Average winning times: 12 to 14 seconds.
Steer wrestling, or bulldogging
Steer wrestling, also called bulldogging, is a timed event and under ideal conditions can be the fastest and most incredible of all the exploits in the rodeo area. Top riders can do it in less than three seconds if they are lucky and can get the steer down with one quick jerk of both hands on the right horn. The average winning time last year was 6.8 seconds, and any time under 10 seconds may place in the money. Vitally important is a fast, well-trained and mature horse. When the chute opens, the contestant, or "dogger," riding on the left, and the hazer, who rides on the right side of the steer to keep it running straight, burst into the arena seconds after the steer; there is a 10-second penalty if the dogger starts too soon. If the steer gets away from the dogger on the ground after he has made his jump, he is allowed to take only one step to catch it. If he is hopelessly outdistanced, the cowboy may remount, with the clock running, for a second jump. If the steer is knocked down during the jump, or is thrown by the contestant putting its horns into the ground, it must be let up on all four feet and rethrown. Rules require the contestant to bring the steer to a full stop before throwing it. For a legal fall, the steer must be twisted down until it is lying flat on its side, with all four feet pointed out straight.