To understand the rodeo cowboy's enterprise better, I decided to get on a couple of horses myself. Lyle Sankey's Memorial Day weekend course in Okeene, Oklahoma, sounded like the chance. "Stock for all levels," read the ad in the rodeo newspaper. "Video playback. Class Room Instruction. The School Designed for the Man Riding Bucking Horses."
There was no reason why a 34-year-old with no experience couldn't qualify, Sankey told me over the phone. "It's really up to you," said the acclaimed teacher and former champion. "It's how much you really WANT to do it that will determine your success." Rodeo, as its followers everywhere will tell you and as Sankey repeated all weekend, is primarily a mental game.
But to attend rodeo school as a novice, I learned, you had better want to do it a whole lot. Enough to risk getting significantly banged up, because none of us, not even the seasoned vets, left rodeo school unscathed.
Borrowing a term from aviation, Sankey calls the weekend's session "ground school." In a shed next to the arena his assistant checked our spurs and the fit of our gloves in the riggings. (The rigging, like a sturdy leather suitcase handle with girth straps, is what bareback riders use to attach themselves to a horse.) The fit needed to be tight, Sankey counseled, but not so tight you couldn't get out when you needed to.
Before screening videos from the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas to illustrate his lecture on the fundamentals of form, Sankey asked for a show of hands to find out who had been riding for how long. Everyone but me had ridden for years, many in high school rodeo. The others, mostly farm boys ages 16 to 24, but also including a pilot for USAir, seemed eager—a little too eager—to see how I would fare.
We practiced awhile on bales of hay. Then, donning chaps and slipping foam-rubber tailbone pads down the seats of our jeans, we walked to the arena.
You imagine the moments spent on a bucking horse to be the most thrilling, but they are not the most dangerous. That distinction, Sankey said, is reserved for the seconds right before the ride, when a cowboy is inside the chute with the horse, and right after, when he's on the ground, often surrounded by the galloping mounts of the pickup men and the flailing hooves of his own horse. But, dropping gingerly onto your horse in the chute, it's what will happen in the arena that you think about. Lyle had taught us to visualize the ride: shoulders back, stomach tightened, chin down, free hand skyward, spurs high so they'd be set in the horse the first time he landed outside the chute. Staying on eight seconds is the first challenge, he said; doing it stylishly the second. I nodded.
That maiden voyage lasted perhaps five seconds. I remember little of the passage of time, only a brief circumscribed mental picture of my gloved hand, my boots in the air, and then the ground looming up fast. I landed on my face and chest. Lyle ran out, picked up my hat, and chastised me for getting up slowly when the horse was still close by, bucking. If there'd been any air in my lungs, I would have tried to defend myself. Back behind the chutes the others slapped me on the back. "When your breath got knocked out, we saw it make a little poof in the dust," Lyle joked, grinning.
Not until the adrenaline subsided did the ache in my hip and the knot on my calf make me wonder what I'd knocked them against. The fence around the arena was a good place to watch all the action during the next three days—some good rides, but mostly bad ones, and a few disasters.
James, a high school sophomore from Alpine, Texas, whose Border Patrol father had driven him the 12 hours to the school, got hung up on his second try; we saw the horse stamp on his legs a couple of times. Before long his calf had swollen to twice its normal size, but James went out again. He lasted the full eight seconds on his third ride, but after Lyle blew the whistle, his horse's lurch dropped James down directly onto the rigging handle, so hard that every man on the fences groaned and put his knees together. Hobbling off, James thanked the pickup men and tried hard to walk normally.
The next day Pete, too, got hung up and stomped; Greg got tossed off backward and landed on his head; even Doug, the stock contractor whose ranch was hosting the event, was propelled off a horse and against the metal fence, which he slid down and then walked away from, slowly, with a limp. My third horse spooked in the chute, slamming me against the back of it and bruising my shoulder before cowboys could pull me out.
Evenings, at a cafe in town, one could measure our progressive decrepitude. Men sat down stiffly, reached slowly, ate quietly. Our entertainment the second night, over chicken-fried steak, was Jason's X-rays. Jason, a trim muscular hunting guide, had held his arm after a seemingly successful ride. No one paid much attention until 10 minutes later when someone noticed that tears had slipped out under his eye. From what little I knew of Jason, this meant he was in agony.
"Lyle, I think I better go to the hospital," he had said, refusing a ride even though his truck had manual transmission. At dinner Jason was in a cast, with a spiral fracture of the ulna that would require surgery within a week.
Sankey handed out gear bags as awards the last day. "The guys who succeed are not always the most talented," he began. "They're the ones who are the most mentally tough." Eighteen-year-old Chad, who had vastly improved his saddle bronc riding, received one, and the other went to the indomitable James. Lyle praised James's improvement but then, laughing, got to the point: "His leg's so bad he can't even walk, and here he is with a big grin on his face all the time, going, 'Isn't America great?Isn't rodeo wonderful?' " As Lyle handed him the bag, James rose creakily to his feet one last time, beaming.
Rodeo cowboys, often in a hurry and on a strict budget, tend to eat a lot of fast food and sleep in their trucks. But they would not wish the same for you. If you'd like to combine a rodeo weekend with a stay at a guest ranch, or need advice on where to hike and fish by day and hit a rodeo at night, you can't go wrong contacting BILL AND PAM BRYAN'S OFF THE BEATEN PATH (109 E. Main St., Bozeman, MT 59715; 406/586-1311). A highly personalized travel consulting service, Off the Beaten Path will customize a rodeo-based itinerary -- or help dovetail your trip with local events. Independence Day weekend is one of the busiest of the year; reservations should be made well in advance.
IRMA HOTEL 1192 Sheridan Ave., Cody, Wyo., 307/587-4221. Doubles $84 (historic room), $57 (motel room); dinner for two $35
Named by Buffalo Bill after his youngest daughter, the Irma is, after 90 years, still the best place to stay in Cody. Renovations to the sandstone landmark's guest rooms have rendered them less evocative of the past than the grand tin ceiling, booths, and cherrywood bar of the Irma Restaurant, but the hotel is well run and its porch is a fine vantage for the Fourth of July parade. Prime rib is the entree of choice at the Irma (as in many restaurants in this region).
POLLARD HOTEL 2 N. Broadway, Red Lodge, Mont., 800/765-5273 or 406/446-2860. Doubles $65 - $125; dinner for two $60
Closed since 1922, the venerable Pollard reopened last month with a new entryway, hot tubs and steam cabinets in the 40 rooms, and a health club downstairs with two racquetball courts. In the new Dining Room restaurant, the menu changes daily and includes game and seasonal specialties.
ROCK CREEK RESORT Hwy. 212, five miles south of Red Lodge, Mont., 406/446-1111. Doubles $79 - $140; dinner for two $45
An upscale complex nestled in the woods. Rooms in the new Beartooth Lodge have great views; the adjacent Grizzly Condominiums are less desirable. Swimming and tennis on the premises; golf and riding close at hand.
MURRAY HOTEL 201 W. Park St., Livingston, Mont., 406/222-1350. Doubles $49 - $150; dinner for two $40
Livingston's historic hotel, across from the train station, retains a downscale charm foreign to Cody's Irma or the Pollard of Red Lodge. The hotel's Winchester Cafe has some of the best food in town.
TALCOTT HOUSE 405 W. Lewis St., Livingston, Mont., 406/222-7699. Doubles $55 - $70
L.L. Bean used the handsome Edwardian exterior of this five-room bed-and-breakfast, three blocks from downtown, for a recent photo shoot; inside, hostess Pam McCutcheon extends a warm casual welcome, even to your dog.
PROUD CUT SALOON1227 Sheridan Ave., Cody, Wyo., 307/527-6905, dinner for two $35.
Small and homey: "Not bragging or anything, but we probably serve the best shrimp around."
CASSIE'S SUPPER CLUB 214 W. Yellowstone Ave., Cody, Wyo., 307/527-5500, dinner for two $30.
Live country music nightly from 9 p.m. Located west of town, on the way to the rodeo grounds.
17 BROADWAY 17 S. Broadway, Red Lodge, Mont., 406/446-1717, dinner for two $30.
Good Sunday brunch; contemporary American food.
LIVINGSTON BAR & GRILL130 N. Main St., Livingston, Mont., 406/222-7909, dinner for two $25.
A buzzing scene that's not too cowboy.
BUFFALO BILL HISTORICAL CENTER 720 Sheridan Ave., Cody, WY 82414, 307/587-4771
Four museums in one big complex: the Buffalo Bill Museum, the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, the Cody Firearms Museum, and the Plains Indian Museum.
DAN BAILEY'S FLY SHOP 209 W. Park St., Livingston, Mont., 800/356-4052 or 406/222-1673
A river runs pretty close to it. World-famous.
CHATHAM FINE ART 120 N. Main St., Livingston, Mont., 406/222-1566
A gallery devoted mainly to painter Russell Chatham's celebrated landscapes.
BEAR CREEK SALOON Rte. 308, seven miles east of Red Lodge, Mont., 406/446-3481, no credit cards
Pig races, karaoke, and Mexican food.
-- Ted Conover
COWBOYS ARE MY WEAKNESS by Pam Houston (Washington Square) -- The stories, which take place in the wilder regions of the West, feature sassy heroines who may be vulnerable but are strong at their core.
AMERICAN RODEO: FROM BUFFALO BILL TO BIG BUSINESS by Kristine Fredriksson (Texas A&M University Press) -- The well-told story of this sport, from its roots in impromptu cowboy contests at the end of the cattle drives to the multimillion-dollar industry it is today.
RAIN OR SHINE by Cyra McFadden (Vintage) -- The memoir of the author's love-hate relationship with her father, Cy Taillon, the dean of rodeo announcers.
-- Martin Rapp
THE GATEWAY RODEOS
July 2 - 4
This venerable rodeo, rich in prize money, has performances at 8 p.m. daily, plus a 1:30 show on the 4th. At 9:30 a.m. on July 3 - 4, parades down Main Street commemorate the event's 75th anniversary. All seats at the rodeo cost $11 and are reserved; call 307/587-5155.
Livingston Round-Up Rodeo
July 2 - 4
Look for Peter Fonda and other stars in the rodeo grandstand ($10 reserved seating, $6 general admission. Call 406/222-3199. Performances at 8 p.m. every day.
Home of Champions Rodeo
Red Lodge, Mont.
July 2 - 4
Stunning scenery and a local dynasty of friendly rodeo stars make Red Lodge a can't-lose destination. Families should attend July 2, when $10 will get everyone through the gate; other days it's $6 general admission. Call 406/446-1718.
OTHER FOURTH OF JULY RODEOS
Greeley Independence Stampede
June 29 - July 4
Greeley bills itself as "the largest Fourth of July rodeo in the world," with $152,640 paid out to riders last year. Performances June 29 - July 1, 7:30 p.m.; July 2 - 4, 1:30 p.m.
July 8 - 17
This famous northern rodeo takes place during the best time of year to visit nearby Banff and Jasper national parks. Performances at 1:30 p.m. daily.
West of the Pecos Rodeo
July 1 - 4
For that West Texas flavor on the site of one of the first rodeos in the country.