Ride ’em, cowboy!

 

The bruising sport of rodeo holds lessons for America’s conservatives

TO THE crowds at the Cody Stampede—a four-day rodeo that draws thousands to Wyoming over the Independence Day weekend—the bull-rider Bryce Barrios is just a name among many, drawing cheers with a confident, prizewinning ride on a bucking, wheeling animal weighing three-quarters of a ton. Among fellow bull-riders Mr Barrios, a 21-year-old Texan who looks like a schoolboy once he doffs his helmet and armoured vest, means a bit more. He was named national Rookie of the Year in 2015: a hint that, just maybe, he will leave the pack of perhaps 600 cowboys who eke out a living on the circuit into the world of champions competing for six-figure purses.

To devotees of rodeo, young cowboys like Mr Barrios mean something more precious. They see them as guardians of the gritty-yet-chivalrous values of an older America. Among those waiting in the earth-floored, dung-scented arena to greet the bull-riders on July 3rd is Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, a wiry, genial Republican who as an orthopaedic surgeon spent years patching up rodeo-battered cowboys. “They’re young, they consider themselves bulletproof,” explains Dr Barrasso fondly. He recalls a popular belt buckle that says: “Wyoming Is What America Was”. In the senator’s telling, that America was built on “independence, resilience and self-reliance.”

Mr Barrios politely tells the senator that this was his second Wyoming rodeo of the day, and that he and two colleagues are now driving eight hours to Denver, there to catch a flight to a contest in Arizona (not all bull-riders are cautious drivers, he admits). Cody is a profitable stop: second place earns Mr Barrios $6,674.30 in prize money. Brought up on a ranch, he missed a season after breaking his leg at 18. All around him men sport alarming splints and braces, strapped to elbows and knees. Rodeo doctors sometimes meet competitors asking for dislocated shoulders to be popped back in for the second time that day. Medical notes are littered with the acronym AMA, as cowboys head to the next event Against Medical Advice.

As rodeo announcer, Boyd Polhamus guides the Cody Stampede on horseback from the arena floor. Interviewed between shows, he says the sport “takes us back to the values we had as a nation in 1880.” Mr Polhamus paints a romantic portrait of a West “that believed a handshake was as good as a contract, when faith was practised openly.” The announcer is proud that rodeo scorns the all-shall-have-prizes culture: many competitors are thrown off almost at once, or fail to lasso their steer. “If they win, they’ve earned it,” he rumbles.

On duty as Miss Rodeo America, Katherine Merck rides round the arena in sequinned white boots, an embroidered blue shirt and red cowboy hat. But she must also work, herding steers after roping events. She thinks it matters that cowboys pay their own entry fees for each event ($250 is typical) and mostly walk away with nothing: it makes for “less of an entitlement culture.”

Elsewhere in this election season, nostalgia for a simpler America has led to resentful politics, and charges that someone has stolen the country’s greatness. In contrast, rodeo folk sound both exceedingly conservative and pretty upbeat about the future. It probably helps that partisan confrontations hardly trouble such one-party towns as Cody (in the 2012 presidential elections the county of which Cody is the seat gave Mitt Romney, the Republican, 76.4% of the vote). Only faint echoes of divisive subjects intrude on the holiday weekend. Among the celebratory parade floats is one that not only salutes the armed forces but—startlingly—recreates a military funeral, complete with a flag-draped coffin, mourning comrades and an honour guard who fire loud funeral volleys as they trundle down Cody’s main street.

Most important, rodeo is a tradition that has adapted to survive. Go back a generation or two, and competitors were typically ranchers’ children or hired hands. Now many come up through high school and college rodeo teams, with eyes not just on glory but on scholarships awarded to rodeo-athletes who may never work on a farm (Miss Rodeo America is at law school). The industry is “far more aware” of animal welfare, with rules requiring a veterinarian at every professional rodeo, says Del Nose, a former champion and rodeo coach at Northwest College, near Cody. With a good roping horse now costing $50,000-60,000, rodeo cowboys have ever more reason to care for animals, adds Mr Nose’s wife and business partner, Becky.

Bred to buck

By custom, Cody’s holiday parades are watched by Wyoming grandees from the roof of the Irma Hotel, built by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, the scout, soldier and impresario. This year the swells on the Irma include former Vice-President Dick Cheney, once a congressman for Wyoming. His 16-year-old granddaughter competes in rodeo barrel races, a timed horseback charge around three oil drums. Mr Cheney approves of rodeo culture, which teaches his granddaughter to be responsible and look after animals, and to withstand “intense” competition. “I like the people she hangs out with,” he says.

The competition is growing more intense. Another bigwig on the Irma roof is Jerry Nelson, an oil man with a sideline in breeding champion horses and bulls for professional rodeos. Decades ago broncs might be saddle-horses that proved too mean to ride. Now animals are bred to buck. Mr Nelson has even cloned horses, though he murmurs: “I’m not sure what God makes of that.” The result is that rather than rodeo dumbing-down to stay popular, animals are harder to ride each year.

The future is not cloudless. “I see ticket sales going up, but the number of events going down,” says Mr Nelson. Smaller events are especially vulnerable. But by being willing to change and focusing on what really matters, an American tradition is surviving. There is a lesson there for conservatives everywhere.