Corrections or additions?
This article by Merilyn Jackson was prepared for the January 9,
2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Riding Rodeo for Thrills & Spills
Hardly anyone who knows me would ever guess I’d become
a rodeo fan. If you could get me to camp out, I’d probably bring
and cognac to flambe over the fire. I don’t do anything much rugged
or outdoorsy. Nope. My friends would look for me at the theater, a
dance concert, in the library, or even at the opera.
But living in Arizona for a few years changed that. Not much opera
to attend there except horse operas like the faux shoot-em ups at
Scottsdale’s touristy theme park, Rawhide. I took my grandson when
he came out to visit. He like Rawhide, but little did he or I suspect
how much we’d love the rodeo when we drove up to one of the oldest
rodeos in the United States in Payson, Arizona. It has been running
for more than 100 years.
Danny and I found the bareback bronc riding and the calf roping
And the cowgirl barrel races — with the women turning their huge
steeds like speeding Harleys around the barrels — were
The steer wrestling and bull riding about stopped our hearts as the
cowboys tried to best animals that weighed at least 750 pounds. And
watching Danny and dozens of other kids chase after a calf to catch
the prize ribbon off its tail, is still just about the funniest thing
I’ve ever seen.
George Runquist produces and directs the International Championship
Rodeo that comes to the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton for four
Friday to Sunday, January 11 to 13. Runquist also heads the singing
and riding group called the Sons of Tennessee, working side by side
with his sons, Jorgen and Zach. He talked to me about the rodeo by
phone from his Tennessee home. When I mention my grandson’s calf
Runquist says, "Sure, years ago we used to have so much fun with
kids — mutton bustin’ where kids would try to ride sheep and such
— but we can’t do it anymore on the traveling route. Insurance
won’t cover it."
Not that there aren’t plenty of kicks still to be had,
and not just the kind the cowboys take when the broncos bust them.
Yet there’s much more to today’s rodeo than the traditional "rough
and tumble" contest events, says Runquist. Cowboys pay entry fees
to win prize money if they can stick on a bucking horse or bull for
eight seconds. You can even enter as a local if you sign a waiver
of liability release and fork over the $50 to $100 entry fee.
some pretty good cowboys in the East," he says, "but you don’t
require a background as one." And, as an indoor rodeo show, this
one has trick riders, fancy ropers, dancing horses, clowns, as well
as the Sons Of Tennessee in a Broadway-like opening musical number
that includes a 28-foot-high replica of the Statue of Liberty.
"Outdoor and indoor rodeo are two different things," says
Runquist. "Indoors you can do controlled lighting and sound, plus
the competitors all have an equal opportunity to compete. Most scores
and times are compared to previous days, but in an outdoor rodeo rain
can change the conditions." Indoors they also have to dump tons
of specially mixed dirt to a depth of around 12 inches over the
arena floor to set the stage for the two-and-a-half hours of
While some look askance at entertainment that involves animals, the
International Professional Rodeo Association maintains strict rules
for animal handling, rest, and use. This includes what cowboy
is used, and having separate sets of livestock for the separate shows.
ICR uses six to eight specially bred bucking horses in a particular
event; livestock for an entire engagement can total 150. "We bring
in sawdust and shavings for them to lounge around in, and there’s
always a vet handy," says Runquist. "We have two-legged
against four-legged athletes, and I think we treat the four-legged
After sharing my own impressions of the strong feeling rodeo folk
have for their animals, I ask about animal rights reports that they
hurt the horses to make them buck. I admit to having the most respect
for animals that have a purpose in life, even if it means working
to earn their keep. From where I sit, sometimes life as a bucking
bronco and working for around eight seconds a shift doesn’t look so
"We place a fleece-lined flank strap on an animal about where
a man wears his belt. It annoys them, but doesn’t hurt them. If an
animal hurts, he refuses to work. They’ve gotta want to work because
they want to please you," he says.
When I ask Runquist if I can talk to one of the clowns, his response
surprises me. "Well let’s see. I just don’t want to give you
who’s gonna answer you Yep or Nope." Then he puts me in touch
with Ernie Marshall in Alberta, Canada, who has been in the rodeo
one way or another since 1969.
"I started as a bareback rider, went on to bull ridin’," and
when that was over, he became a clown, says Marshall. "Comedy
to me just kinda come natural. I got a barrel and thought I’d starve
to death, but I’m doing quite well." The first year he didn’t
even wear any makeup, but just protected the cowboys. "My little
bitty clown act grew into a trailer-full of acts, with me and my
collie dogs and miniature horse. Used to have one a those roosters
that’d chase a human being, but you can’t find one anymore. Last one
I had lived with me eight years. If anybody in the area has one, I’d
pay good money for it."
Does Ernie Marshall have a favorite rodeo story he’d like to tell?
"Well, yes. I worked certain rodeos over 30 years and one time
at the Wainwright Stampede in Alberta they had outside security patrol
on horseback to catch kids sneakin’ in. When I pulled up with my rig,
I saw them runnin’ down two boys tryin’ to get through the fence.
I said `Oh those boys are working for me’ and sent them off to get
me some soda pop. Years later a guy came up to me at the same stampede
and said, `Do you remember the two boys who were tryin’ to sneak into
the rodeo and you got ’em in?’ I said yep, and he said `Well, I was
just named the president of the Wainwright Stampede and now you’re
working for me.’"
Rodeo is a traditional and popular entertainment that teaches us how
we struggled against some daunting odds to make America as wholesome
and healthy a nation as we could. Nowadays, there are women’s rodeo
groups and gay rodeo associations in many states, a reflection of
its widespread appeal. At a time when we are looking back, thinking
about our nation’s roots, its real sweat and bootstrap
community connections, the rodeo looks like a purty durn good place
to spend some time with family and friends.
— Merilyn Jackson
550 South Broad Street, Trenton, 609-520-8383. Three-day competition
of bareback bronc riding, steer wrestling, bull riding, and barrel
racing. Patriotic music and rodeo clowns. $10.50 to $25.50. Friday,
January 11, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, January 12, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; and
Sunday, January 13, 2 p.m.
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