“As long as there’s a sunset, there will always be a West.” And with those words, the Mint Festival Championship Rodeo announcer bid us a good night. He turned his horse to leave the dusty arena which still held a small herd of bucking horses who had been released from their pen, like a flock of doves, to make a mini-stampede and a dramatic finale to an evening already chock-full of battles between man and beast.
The rodeo kicked off with "Miss Michigan High School Rodeo Queen" flying around the arena at a full gallop, holding the American flag in one hand and the reins of her chestnut quarter horse in the other. She leaned forward over the saddle, the flag streaming at full sail behind her because of the horse-power under it. She wore custom chaps with a leather cut out of the lower and upper Michigan peninsulas sewn to the hip and her title emblazoned across the bottom of each leg. As she sped around the ring, she left a wave of smiles on the faces in the stands. Thanks to a heavy dose of hairspray, her curled blond hair barely budged in the wind, but the bronze fringe of her chaps flapped wildly against the leather of her saddle as her red sequin top with blue and white stars on the sleeves sparkled in the evening sun.
This particular rodeo tradition of the flag girl always makes me tear up. It’s so grand and yet, somehow so personal; a small-town girl momentarily holding the weight of a whole country on her shoulders.
The stands were as tightly packed with people as the the pens were packed with livestock. The quiet lowing of calves and the high whinnies of horses rarin’ to go underscored the twangy patter of the rodeo announcer who MC’d the evening from horseback.
This evening's program included all the traditional rodeo events, from bareback bronc riding to barrel racing, trick riding, team roping and bull riding. Almost every rodeo event has its roots in tasks that were necessary to running a cattle ranch. Catching and roping calves is a required skill for accomplishing tasks like branding or giving medical care. And though we now have kinder ways of gentling a horse, riding a bucking bronc to submission was old standard and the quick and dirty way of turning a wild mustang into a suitable mount for riding the range. Barrel racing is a ladies-only event that shows off the fearlessness of the rider as they handle 1,200 pounds of horse speeding around tight turns and twisting patterns.
And then, of course there’s bull riding, an 8-second event of insanity that shows more about the folly of man than it does about the practical skills of a cowboy.
Throughout the night we watched man and beast show off — sometimes as partners, sometimes as foes. Roping-horses acted like self-guided missiles, speeding towards a calf as their cowboy partners used both hands to manage a lasso instead of the reins.
Driving their hooves into the soft dirt as they slid to a stop from a full gallop, the horses would wait patiently, sides heaving as their rider jumped off their back to chase down a speeding calf. The equine partners would watch with quiet interest as their cowboy friend trussed up a baby cow. If they felt the rope holding the calf go slack, they'd take it upon themselves to back up a few steps to keep the tension, acting as a fully independent teammate to their cowboy counterpart. It's a mad dash, and balletic all at the same time. A strange pas-de-deux where one partner suddenly dashes off to deal with an interloper.
Broncos, bulls and calves all did their best to evade domination, while brave clowns and pick-up riders were on hand to scoop up fallen cowboys before they could be crushed by retaliating horns and hooves.
At intermission, a trick-rider galloped around the ring, bouncing in and out of the saddle and doing a famous trick once called the “Indian Hideaway” because it recreated a Native American riding tactic where warriors would use the horse as a shield, hiding along the neck and flank of their horse while riding at a gallop and shooting arrows in battle. (This move would make the Comanches undefeatable for many years by Western settlers and the American Army alike.) For every trick our blonde-haired star performed, her co-star, an eight year-old girl, would do the same number while galloping around on a horse so big that it made her look like a little flea dancing on its back.
The sun began to set and pink clouds puffed across the sky, filtering warm, golden light down onto the dusty arena below.
It was time for the final act, the bull riders. As the stadium lights came up, they busted out of metal chutes, great balls of coiled muscle; man and bull wound tight and ready for a fight. The cowboys leaned against the rigging that anchored them to the bull, holding their fates tightly in a fistful of rope. They whipped back and forth, touching their sweaty backs to the long rumps of their bovine adversaries before being rocked upright again by a bucking hind-end. When the last cowboy stood in the ring, slapping the dust of a crash landing from his jeans, the rodeo was over. Man and beast were herded back to their homes under a bright shining moon and twinkling diamond stars.
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