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

crepes

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

awesome.

And the cowgirl barrel races — with the women turning their huge

steeds like speeding Harleys around the barrels — were

breathtaking.

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

performances,

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

chase,

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.

"There’s

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

concrete

arena floor to set the stage for the two-and-a-half hours of

fast-paced

entertainment.

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

equipment

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

athletes

against four-legged athletes, and I think we treat the four-legged

ones better."

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

bad.

"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

someone

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

little

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

accomplishments,

community connections, the rodeo looks like a purty durn good place

to spend some time with family and friends.

— Merilyn Jackson

International Championship Rodeo, Sovereign Bank

Arena ,

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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