Last week I attended the San Antonio Rodeo with friends J.R. Huddleston and Audrey Parish. Thanks to their arrangements, we had premium seats close to the action and yet up far enough in the stands to have a bird’s eye view.
My favorite part of rodeo is Mutton Busting. For those of you who don’t know: In the Mutton Busting event, rodeo officials help four to six year olds into helmets and padded vests before lifting them to the backs of sheep. The kiddos grab a double fist of wool and blast out of a tiny chute. Most fall off in only a second or two. Some stumble and stammer in the roar of a cheering crowd, wondering what all the fuss is about. A determined five year girl rode her sheep around the entire arena. When officials caught up to her, she threw her arms up in triumph. Precious. The crowd shot to their feet to applaud in thunderous admiration. Last Mutton-Busting Girl Riding, I thought to myself, a history in the making. And, not a bad title for a book.
Truth be told? The grown up part of rodeo makes me nervous. The sight of handsome, triple-starched cowboys riding thousands of pounds of beef and horse flesh, subjecting their strong young bodies to all that jerking, flinging, and stomping makes me wince. They don’t bounce from the arena floor and throw their hands up in triumph, even when they have scored big. Instead, they limp away holding onto injured shoulders, elbows or hips. They slump and amble like old men and I wonder what kind of physical pain they’ll have to endure ten, twenty years from now. Like the little ones, they seem dazed, but for very different reasons. The line from Willie Nelson’s song, “Moma, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys,” takes on new meaning.
I can’t imagine the kind of ambition that puts those young men on the backs of bucking, aggravated animals. Are they the last true Mavericks? Is it lust for danger? Or, is it ego, the idea of besting a 1500 pound spinning bull and wearing a six-inch belt buckle to prove you did it?
I’m going back to the rodeo grounds this week. I’ll watch and listen, glean any bit of insight about why cowboys do what they do.