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A century and more in the making, rodeo continues to thrill crowds – and push the limits of human endurance

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 9, 2018, 1:41 p.m.

Thirty minutes to showtime and the air is thick with horse dung and baby powder.

Cowboys sit and stand, some shirtless, some without pants, crammed into a small space hemmed in by chutes, livestock pens and arena fencing. They’re wrapping elbows and shins, prepping saddles and rigging, and doing what they have to do to get ready for the big event, the Spokane Interstate Rodeo.

Where the cowboys get ready is like any other locker room – except without the lockers or privacy. Any keen eye in the grandstand could spy cowboy flesh without much effort, but the men don’t pay any mind. The clock ticks. Horses snuffle. Country and rock music blasts out of the arena’s speakers, the beat bouncing off the stands and returning a second or so later.

As Jake Owen’s “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” fills the air and reverberates around the arena, Steven Peebles sits on his duffel bag, fitting his right hand into a burly leather riding glove. His clean, white button-up shirt is busy with sponsors: Yeti, Wrangler, Tree Top Ranches.

Peebles, from Redmond, Oregon, is one of the world’s best bareback riders, and was one of 11 bronc riders among 89 competitors on the docket Friday evening. Though just 29 years old, he has qualified for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association seven years in a row, culminating in 2015, when he won the world championship in Las Vegas. His wins at elite rodeos – Calgary Stampede, Reno Rodeo, San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo, Pendleton Round-Up – are impressive, and so are his PRCA career winnings, which total more than $1.1 million.

Like the other cowboys scheduled to compete that night, Peebles was calm despite the situation he was facing – a predicament many would prefer to avoid. The bareback bronc rider must ride a thrashing, jumping, thousand-pound beast for eight seconds, holding on with just one hand. Like the name suggests, there’s no saddle, just some rigging to grasp near the horse’s withers.

It doesn’t always go well, even for someone like Peebles. On July 2, 2015 – six months before he earned the title of world champ – Peebles was at the Livingston Roundup in Montana. He made the eight seconds, barely, lost his grip and was thrown immediately. He hit the ground hard and broke his ribs in four spots. Bone pierced a major artery, and his lungs filled with blood.

In the three years since his world title, he’s broken his back twice, once in a all-terrain vehicle wreck and once when his horse reared up in the chute before a ride, which he completed anyway. He’s been kicked in the face and had his right leg broken. He’s had shoulder surgery, elbow surgery and lower back surgery.

Of course, these injuries are not the reasons he keeps competing. What keeps him going is love of the sport.

“I love it, man,” he said. “It all comes with it. It’s not if you get hurt. It’s when you get hurt.”

As with NASCAR and American football, the threat of injury is part of the spectacle, the reason the fairground grandstands continue to fill up as Peebles prepares, his movements strained from either the raft of injuries or tight jeans and starchy shirt.

It’s not that people want cowboys or other athletes to get hurt. It’s that we want to see them willingly engage in a dangerous situation, and fight to avoid its potentially worst ending. We want to see men – and this sport is male-dominated by design – fight animals, tame the creature that is five, 10 times their size through sheer will and dogged perseverance. We cheer when the eight-second buzzer sounds, and wince when a cowboy is thrown or, worse, dragged around the arena, dangling by one hand from the bucking animal.

Most of the cowboys Friday night said they didn’t notice the crowd, that the competition between them and the livestock, and between the cowboys, was the only thing that concerned them.

But Peebles, the world champ, acknowledged that hearing tens of thousands of people cheer for him is something not many people experience.

“It’s always nice to have good crowds, but this is a competition between us and the horse,” he said. “If there’s 80,000 people cheering, well, there’s enough to worry about.”

Sport or spectacle?

Despite the physicality and talent needed for rodeo, and despite the fact that rodeos play on the sports cable network ESPN, and despite the steel will needed to climb aboard an angry horse or bull, and despite the practice necessary to ride a charging horse while attempting to lasso a fleeing bovine, despite all that, some people question if rodeo is a sport.

But no one wonders if it’s a spectacle. Especially Steve Kenyon, the announcer for Spokane’s rodeo and host of his own Sirius XM radio show, “Western Sports Roundup.”

“We’re taking the Western lifestyle and turning it into entertainment,” said Kenyon, who was a play-by-play announcer for high school football, baseball and basketball before filling in for a high school rodeo, an accident of his own history that has come to define his life.

“People like animals, and people like to watch athletes do things we only wish we could do,” he said. “But our industry and lifestyle is based on tradition, and tradition gets old. We’ve added some spotlights, we’ve added some glitz and glitter.”

That’s putting it mildly.

The exact origin of rodeo is lost to time, but the early iterations didn’t look much like what we see today. The events – bareback, tie-down roping, steer wrestling and bull riding, among others – haven’t changed much. Everything else has. The loud music, the clowns, the expensive beer, the sponsors.

Rodeos likely derived from round-ups, an annual event and “time for cowboys to count the results of the spring calving, brand the young calves, cut their ears for identification, and ‘doctor’ the sick ones,” wrote Michael Allen, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Washington-Tacoma, in his book called “Rodeo Cowboys in the North American Imagination.”

But since “cowpunchers” were alone so much of the time, the round-ups were a time for seeing people, hearing the news and “cowboy fun” – horse racing, roping and bronc-riding contests among the cowboys and vaqueros. That round-ups led to rodeo, as well as its roots in Latino culture, is clear from its etymology. Rodeo comes from the Spanish verb rodear, which means to surround, encircle, enclose, encompass, to wrap. In other words, to round up.

Even without knowing its exact history, Rodeo’s mythmaking is as strong as any icon associated with the American West. A 1955 press release from the Rodeo Information Commission said the “sport of the cowboys” originated with the “lonely, hardbitten men who worked out their lives on the vast ranges and long trails of Texas after the Civil War, carving from the wilderness the beginnings of the industry that was to bring prosperity to a half continent.”

Though the news release said rodeo’s first chapters are “lost in the unwritten history of the early frontiers of the American west,” it took a shot at writing the story anyway.

“Their lives were hard and lonely, and when they gathered a few times a year to work together on the roundups or trail drives, their recreation was typically tough,” it read. “The hands from the different outfits would meet and bet on horse races, roping and bucking contests. The arena was the open plain and the only spectators were the cowboys, the vast herds of longhorns, and an occasional gopher or rattler.”

Many communities still say they hosted the first rodeo, though none can truly claim that distinction. Steer-roping and bronc- and bull-riding were observed in the 1820s in Texas and California, when those states were still part of Mexico. Other rodeo-like contests were described in San Antonio in 1844 and Santa Fe in 1847.

In 1888, a rodeo in Prescott, Arizona, charged admission and awarded trophies, qualifying it, Allen suggests, as the first professional rodeo.

Around the same time, a different type of event that shared characteristics with rodeo was touring the country and world. Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show kicked off on July 4, 1882, in North Platte, Nebraska, and soon had hundreds of imitators. The theater-like shows featured a parade, rifle-shooting exhibitions, a stagecoach race, a “buffalo hunt” and a re-enactment of Plains Indian warfare. It also had “Cow-Boy’s Fun” that had men riding bucking ponies and roping and riding steers, leading some to link Cody’s shows with rodeo. Allen puts distance between the two, noting that the shows’ performers were “contracted, salaried professionals, not entry-fee-paying competitors.” The shows also allowed women like Annie Oakley and Lillian Smith to play major roles in the performance, something rodeo still largely limits to barrel racing.

As rodeo professionalized, it gained in popularity during the early 20th century. In 1936, a rodeo in New York City’s Madison Square Garden drew more than 250,000 paying attendees.

Allen, the historian, acknowledged the competitive nature of rodeo, and respected its description as a sport with professional athletes. But Allen describes rodeo more as a “folkway,” a Western folk festival that is made up of traditions. What were once skills necessary to survive in the frontier era of the American West have been “commercialized, marketed and diluted for the sake of popular entertainment.”

Kenyon, the announcer, probably wouldn’t disagree with that description, but good luck convincing him that the rodeo is anything other than the greatest event on Earth.

“I always think that when we were growing up, way down deep inside, we all wanted to be cowboys,” said Kenyon, who grew up on a potato farm just south of Klamath Falls, Oregon. “I did. I’ve always been fascinated by horses, always been fascinated by cowboys. I grew up loving John Wayne.”

For him, the competition is a thing to behold, but he loves the people, the animals, the show.

“I really enjoy the interaction between the people and the animals. It’s just a bunch of fun people. Some of them are crazy, but they’re fun,” he said. “I love telling their stories. I’ve fallen in love with the stories of the livestock.”

Rodeo circus

Trenten Montero has one thick hide. The bareback rider from Nevada made it his eight seconds on Friday, but his dismount was awkward and comical.

The act did not go unnoticed by Danger Dave Whitmoyer, who is officially the rodeo’s barrelman, but is really the rodeo clown. The full face of makeup and baggy denim overalls give it away.

As Montero picked himself up and dusted off, Whitmoyer let it rip. In his microphone, he laughed at Montero and encouraged the hundreds of people in the grandstands to laugh along with him. Montero, with a mustache but suddenly missing his hat, didn’t acknowledge the jeering.

Every rodeo has a clown, and they have many jobs. They help distract angry bulls, who ram the barrel the clown is in, if the crowd’s lucky. Along with the announcer, they fill the moments between events and rides with jokes and attempts to keep the crowd engaged. Whitmoyer, for instance, pitted Washington State University fans against University of Washington fans, and was more than happy to confuse WSU’s mascot with a section of women, who were soon exposed to his wildly shaking backside.

Whitmoyer had the crowd cheer for the fact that the day was Friday, and demanded they hold their Coors Light cans aloft. Three-quarters of the crowd obliged.

Not halfway through the rodeo, Whitmoyer dragged a trampoline into the arena, and began a bit about world-class trampolinist Gerard Lundquist putting on a show in Spokane.

“Gerard, get your German butt out here,” Whitmoyer yelled about the man allegedly from Luxembourg, a small European country.

Kenyon, the announcer, broke the news that Lundquist had flown to Seattle by accident, forfeiting his $15,000 salary. Whitmoyer jumped into action and claimed to be Lundquist.

“For $15,000, I’ll be whatever you want me to be,” he said. “You people must be entertained here in Spokane. You are here to be entertained.”

Whitmoyer bounced and flailed on the trampoline, to a soundtrack consisting of Van Halen’s “Jump,” R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” the Chariots of Fire theme and “Jump” by Kris Kross. It was juvenile and diverting, light as air compared to the hard rides the cowboys performed.

Other songs played that night thumped in the rodeo fans’ chests, a barrage of noise to keep the crowd happy and distracted over the course of nearly three hours. Music from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Garth Brooks, Duran Duran, the White Stripes, Beastie Boys, Alan Jackson and PSY’s “Gangnam Style” pummeled the crowd.

Cowboys’ rodeo

The cowboys couldn’t care less for the show. They ignore the clown. They ignore the cheers. They ignore the jeers. They huddle behind the fences, waiting for their turn at glory.

Kevin Lusk, from Ellensburg, is third in the Columbia River circuit, one of 13 qualifying circuits that lead competitors to the coveted Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas every December. The circuit system began in 1975 to help increase the number of participants and allow cowboys to compete closer to home. Aside from the Columbia River, there are the Badlands, Montana, Great Lakes and Mexico circuits.

Lusk is sitting pretty in third, with more than $8,000 in winnings this year. Peebles, the 2015 world champ, is in first. Lusk swears he doesn’t notice the crowds, and describes his reason for competing in a way that any other athlete in any other sport would.

“The rush. There’s nothing quite like,” said Lusk, who supplements his winnings as an arborist back home. “The feeling. It’s definitely not for the weak-hearted.”

Keenan Reinhardt, from Cochrane, Alberta, spoke similarly.

“It’s not like any other sport,” said Reinhardt, who will graduate in the spring from Montana State University with a degree in accounting. “You’re competing with everyone. You’re competing with the animal. Even when it’s bad, it’s good.”

But don’t shed a tear for these cowboys. The PRCA is of their making, and therefore so is the spectacle.

A 1987 article in The Spokesman-Review described the PRCA as a direct descendant of the “original, informal trail-drive competitions of the late 19th century,” part of a sport that “generally is acknowledged to have begun spontaneously over the years.”

But the PRCA was born a hard birth.

As rodeo grew and big money was to be had, in 1929 local rodeo organizers, sponsors and people who supplied the livestock banded together to form the Rodeo Association of America. Its goal was to nationalize the country’s many disparate competitions.

But the cowboys – the competitors – were left out of the decision- and money-making, and they noticed. The cowboys formed a “coherent labor organization,” the historian Allen wrote, and went on strike, refusing to participate in the 1935 Boston Garden Rodeo, pointing to inadequate prize money and unfair judging.

The protest worked and the next year the cowboys formed what would become the PRCA, which rules the rodeo circuit to this day.

The same year, 1936, a rodeo is mentioned for the first time in The Spokesman-Review’s archives, at the Gonzaga University stadium, which was hosted by the Elkins and Brady Roundup Association. The fledgling competition only lasted four years.

In 1950, the rodeo returned thanks to the sponsorship of a Freemason organization called the Sadir Khan Grotto. The rodeo was founded to raise money for the Grotto Foundation for Spastic Children, and the first rodeos were called the Spokane Stampede, which were held in the Sports Center Arena, at the corner of Division Street and Francis Avenue.

“Broncs that bucked themselves into pretzels vied with world-famous cowboys for the hearts of a crowd that screamed and stamped its appreciation for Spokane’s first ‘stampede’ last night,” the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported in September 1950.

The following year, the stampede drew 12,000 spectators. In 1954, 14,000 people packed the stands on one night alone. In 1956, the rodeo began awarding cash and “diamond-studded silver spurs” to its champions, and the Spokane Stampede was known as the Spokane Diamond Spur rodeo until it ceased operations in 1987.

The PRCA had sanctioned the Diamond Spur Rodeo in Spokane, but that competition’s closure left the door open for a new Spokane rodeo.

Before 1987, the Spokane County Interstate Fair hosted the Northwest Amateur Championship finals. When Diamond Spur closed its doors, the PRCA awarded its “prestigious contract” to the fair. From then on, the fair’s rodeo became a qualifying event that allowed it winnings to count toward national championship rankings.

Eight seconds

Peebles is here for that very reason. It’s been a rough few years for the cowboy, especially considering his quick rise. He went pro in 2008, when he graduated high school, and was at the finals in Las Vegas the next year. That began his seven-year streak, when he went to Vegas every December, winning it all in 2015.

Then the injuries piled up, and he’s struggled to get back since. He’s doing well this year, with nearly $14,000 in winnings, but he had to have a good showing in Spokane.

“I’m just trying to get back” to the finals, he said. “I need to win.”

Twenty minutes into the rodeo, Peebles got his chance.

When a cowboy climbs into the chute to mount a horse, both man and beast are nervous; both know what’s about to happen. The horse is raring to go, and the cowboy tightens his grip. Officials look on, waiting for the sign that he’s ready. The chute opens and the conjoined competitors blast out of the confined space, erratically and wound with energy. Almost immediately, the horse bucks.

In Peebles’ case, Arabella lowered her head, raised her hindquarters and kicked into the air with all her might.

The force of that kick from a thousand-pound animal, meaty and muscle-y, is something to see. The whole horse comes off the ground, its large body snapping like a whip, its hind feet taller than any cowboy. You can almost see the corresponding tremor travel through the cowboy’s body, up and out of the top of his head and off the fingertips of his free hand. You’d almost swear the air shimmers around the gripping competitor, like it does around a sun-beat rock on a hot summer day. Then the horse and man hit the ground hard, and repeat the spectacle.

In Peebles and Arabella’s case, it repeated 12 times in eight seconds. Buck, tremor, buck, tremor.

The buzzer sounded, and Peebles was still hanging on. He dismounted gracefully, and barely acknowledged the howling crowd.

As the judges tallied his score, awarding points for his control and technique in context of the horse’s power, speed and agility, Peebles walked back. Then it came: he scored 79 out of 100 total points.

It was a good score, but not quite good enough. Just moments later, Grant Denny from Minden, Nevada, kept hold and scored 80, leaving Peebles tied for second place with Cody Kiser, from Carson City, Nevada.

After the ride, Peebles sits 21st in the world standings. He needs to be 15th or better to go to Vegas. But he’s not done yet. He’s got 21 days before the end of the season, and the rodeos in Puyallup and Pendleton await. He still has a shot. And like any cowboy, he’ll hold on until he can’t hold on any longer.


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