The rodeo culture of Arizona and the Southwest

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(To view larger photos or video clips of barrel racing and team roping, click on the image during the slideshow)

It’s rodeo season again in Arizona and the Southwest.  That means heavy competition for thousands of athletes who strive to get the most points or the best time in their events to win cash prizes and hopefully move on to the regional and national finals.

Last month, Tucson held the 88th Annual La Fiesta De Los Vaqueros, which is a nine day event and one of the top 25 professional rodeos in North America, according to the Tucson Rodeo’s official website. While attending the final day of this rodeo, patrons were overheard complaining of the size of the crowd, stating, “Seems like it gets worse every year.” In fact, this year’s rodeo had a record attendance, according to Dr. John Marchello, who coaches the University of Arizona rodeo team and has been a meat scientist at the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences since 1965.

 

Alexandria Gaulin, 22, attended the rodeo for her first time on Feb. 24.

“It was so cold it almost made it unenjoyable,” Gaulin said of the blistering winds at the rodeo. Gaulin also said that she especially enjoyed the mutton bustin’ event during the junior rodeo, where children age 5 and up ride sheep as opposed to the much more dangerous bull riding event in the professional rodeo.

The Junior Rodeo events for this year’s Tucson rodeo were mutton bustin’, barrel racing, calf roping, goat roping and team roping.  Winners of each event received a belt buckle and a certificate for two pairs of Justin boots.

Julio Serrano, 23, has been volunteering at the Tucson Rodeo since 1999 when he was just a kid. Serrano was working as a ticket taker this year and cited a variety of perks that come with the volunteering gig, including free beer or nonalcoholic beverages for underage volunteers, free admission to the barn dance that takes place immediately after the rodeo, and a party that is thrown just for the volunteers a couple of months after the rodeo.

“It’s fun. It’s something to do every year,” Serrano said, adding that his favorite event is the bull riding and he remembers when he was younger he was allowed to watch the event close up from a pit.

The culture of rodeo originated on ranches, where cowboys and ranch hands would use lassos to catch cattle that had strayed from the herd or that needed to be branded. From there, rodeo evolved into competitions between ranches and eventually became an official sport so that riders could make a profit by showing off their skills to the public, according to Marchello.

The basic rodeo consists of six events: three are timed events, where competitors have to ride for eight seconds to receive a score and three are scored events, where competitors and the animals they ride are given a score of up to 100 points as determined by judges.

The scored events are bull riding, bareback riding and saddle bronc riding.  Marchello said that mostly men compete in these events, but women are also allowed to compete. The timed events are steer wrestling, also known as bulldogging, tie-down roping and team roping, which Marchello said is a very popular event in Arizona and allows family members to compete in the same event together.

In the bull riding event, riders use what’s called a bull rope that’s tied around the animal and must remain on the bull for at least eight seconds, using only one hand on the bull rope. The bareback event is similar in that they must ride using only one hand on the leather rigging that’s tied around a bucking bronco. Saddle bronc riding is a little bit different because riders are allowed to use a saddle, but the saddle doesn’t have a horn for safety reasons, Marchello said.

In all of the scored events, judges give a score for up to 50 points based on how well the bull or bronco performs. If the animals don’t buck enough, their score is lowered. Riders are given a score of up to 50 points based on how well they “spur,” which is when riders rake their spurs from the animals shoulders along their backs, and of course, how long they stay on the animal. Both scores are then combined to make the total score for the event.

Timed events vary a bit more than scored events. For each of these events, the animal is contained in a chute with a rope tied loosely around its neck. There is a rope with a flag that is tied across the front of the chute that’s known as the barrier. To begin the event, the animal is released from the chute and the clock starts as soon as the animal breaks the flag barrier. If the animal breaks the barrier before the clock starts, the rider receives a ten second penalty.

The steer wrestling event involves the rider, who rides to the left of the steer and must dismount his horse, grab the steer by the horns and throw it to the ground with all of its feet pointing in the same direction. There is also a hazer, who rides to the right of the steer to keep it running straight.

For the tie-down roping event, riders must lasso a calf, dismount their horse and “flank,” or pick up and flip over the calf.  The rider then ties three of the calf’s feet with “pigging string” and throws up his or her hands to signal the end of the event. The calf must remain tied for at least six seconds for the rider’s score to count.

Team roping often involves father and son teams that consist of a “header” and a “heeler.” The header, often the older, more experienced rider, must rope the steer around the neck. The heeler then tries to rope the steer’s two hind feet. There is a five second penalty if the heeler only ropes one hind foot.

Marchello said his most memorable rodeo experience was when he and his sons did team roping together and went on to finals in Wyoming. “We won a bunch of money and we had the fastest time,” Marchello said, “I think we were 5.5 [seconds] on the steer.”

Another rodeo event that is exclusively for female riders is barrel racing. In this event, three barrels are placed in a cloverleaf pattern and the rider must go around all three barrels and return to the starting line in the shortest amount of time. Riders are given a five second penalty if they knock down a barrel.

“There are a lot of rodeo associations,” Marchello said, referring to the plethora of rodeos that are associated with elementary, middle and high schools across the state. “There’s a lot of great camaraderie between kids at different schools.”

There are youth rodeo associations for children ages 5-12 and ages 12-15, junior rodeo associations for those between the ages of 16 and 18, senior rodeo associations for riders over 50 years old, gay rodeo associations, black rodeo associations and the list goes on. Marchello said the Grand Canyon Professional Rodeo Association is Arizona’s largest and most prominent rodeo association.

“The beauty of it is it gives the youngsters something to do,” Marchello said. “They train to compete and it keeps them off the street.”

Today, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association is the oldest and largest rodeo-sanctioning body in the world, according to the official PRCA website. The PRCA is divided into circuits, with Arizona and New Mexico in the turquoise circuit. Rodeos are held within each circuit and the winners move on to circuit finals and then national circuit finals.

Marchello said that rodeo regulations have changed over the years, with bull riders now wearing protective vests and often helmets for their safety.

“The big thing in rodeo now is to make sure we treat animals humanely,” Marchello said.

He said that all animals can only be run twice a day for any given event and “hot shocks,” which are used to give animals a small jolt of electricity to get them bucking and improve their score, have been pretty much eliminated.

“These animals cost a lot of money,” Marchello said of those concerned with the animals’ treatment, “Why would we want to abuse them?”

In addition to the numerous rodeos held throughout the year, Marchello said there are “probably hundreds of barrel racing jackpots.” These jackpots are individual events where competitors pay their entry fee and take home cash prizes for placing or winning the event. Marchello said there will be a barrel racing jackpot on March 24 to raise scholarship money for students in the UA Animal Sciences program.

For those interested in attending local rodeos or supporting UA, the 74th annual college rodeo will be held March 23 at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds and admission is free.

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