On November 19, 1971, in Santa Ana, Calif., the performance artist Chris Burden enacted one of his most remembered pieces, Shoot, in which he had himself shot in the left arm by an assistant from a distance of 15 feet. Two years later, outside a small town north of Colorado Springs, Colo., an unsuccessful bull rider long since forgotten died along with his younger brother in a shoot-out with the local sheriff’s department after robbing a rural convenience store. He gained $12 in the robbery and a moment of the fame that had eluded him in his brief rodeo career. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t live to savor it.
If that cowboy had better luck on the circuit perhaps he might have avoided the whole thing, but who knows. At the time, the small rodeos he was competing in didn’t offer much of a purse to the winners; they still don’t. But then, it’s not really about the money. During those last moments, the two robbers surely weren’t trying to hold on to their paltry winnings. More likely, they were mortified at being caught in such a botched job, and with their getaway car stalled, opted for glory like in the movies.
The two episodes have shooting in common, but rodeo has more in common with art than what the cowboy and his brother did. Like baseball, rodeo is a distinctive American sport, but unlike other sports, it does something that art does — it pictures a world. Bareback and saddle bronc riding and varieties of roping are joined by steer wrestling and bull riding to form eight competitive categories in all. Rodeo is ranch life — transformed into art.
The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo is in town this week, and it’s one of the biggest rodeos in the country. It is highly respected, too, having won the sixth consecutive award as Large Indoor Rodeo of the Year by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), the organization that regulates the industry. Over a million people will visit the grounds this year, which include stock barns, a carnival, a midway with dozens of vendors, big name music acts, and educational programs. Livestock and horse shows are a part, as are stock sales, and at the heart of it all, the rodeo. But PRCA spokesperson Susan Kanode claims, “I don’t think people really understand rodeo. It has always delivered great rides and great wrecks, but I’m not sure that they know or want to.” Coming from a woman who is conversant in all things rodeo, this may sound a bit distressing at first. It is, instead, a confirmation of rodeo’s appeal as pure spectacle, its dazzle and pageantry.
Beyond the obvious, though, are realms of appreciation that, as in dance or classical music, demand connoisseurship. Viewed as an art form, rodeo is classical art. Rooted in tradition, it has parameters of performance that can be discussed. The essence of classical art is that the form, be it a sonata or a ballet, is known. Like sport, classical art lives in repetition, in performance. Only the individual’s expression varies. Even in visual art — of the classical varieties — this holds true. Traditional forms like landscape painting and realist portraiture are predetermined by convention. In a sense, the artwork already exists before the artist strikes out on a new work. Mastery rather than innovation is the thing. What all types of classical art have in common is also shared by sport — it can be judged, but only by those with knowledge of the criteria, the fine points of the game. There are of course other ways to value art. Originality, being new, is the trait that — in the movies — is supposed to drive artists, especially in modern art. And there is some truth to that view. That art be democratic, accessible to those without expert knowledge, is a value shared by many contemporary artists. Could it be that sport, with its formal structure and all its rules, is a bit elitist? If elitism means having knowledge, understanding subtleties and nuance, then well, I guess so.
First, a bit of economics. A big difference between professional rodeo and team sports is that the rodeo contestants — the athletes — don’t get a paycheck. They risk everything on winning, and only the winners get the money. Though some rodeo cowboys now receive sponsorship, it may be as little as calve ropers being kept in ropes, though some cowboys get the backing of larger companies like Crown Royal, the Canadian whiskey maker. Like all sports, indeed, all events, the cost of putting on the show far exceed whatever monies are taken in at the gate in tickets. Naming rights for the event itself are common in other sports, but rare in rodeo. The Wrangler National Finals in Las Vegas stand out as an exception, but hey, it’s Vegas. Each rodeo committee attracts some sponsorship out of necessity, but the total costs of rodeo production are dispersed, with contestants and stock contractors each paying their own way.
If not for the thousands of volunteers that make up the bulk of the committee staff, it all wouldn’t be possible, especially the raising of scholarship funds, which is at the heart of the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo’s mission. For the rodeo-touring cowboy, this all means that, win or lose, he is buying his own gas and renting hotel rooms to keep moving down the road. Horses can cost over $100,000 each, and for a cowboy only making $50,000 a year in rodeo winnings, that’s a problem. Professional cowboys who can survive on the sport itself are the exception, not the rule. Many have other jobs and careers to get by. These are pros, not amateurs. It’s just a different world, perhaps a world more rooted in the countryside with its traditions of multi-tasking. This life-way contrasts in no small degree with the all-providing ways of corporate life. Like pro ball.
Butch Kirby was the 1978 PRCA World Champion Bull Rider. After almost two decades as a rider, he retired and began officiating, becoming well-known as a professional rodeo judge. If anyone knows the sport’s criteria, this would be the man. I had the good fortune to meet him before Sunday’s competition at the San Antonio Rodeo; he talked about his life in the sport and how it’s played. Hailing from near Cowtown Rodeo in south New Jersey, where his father had a cattle transport company, Kirby has spent many years in Texas and on the rodeo circuit. He began riding as a child, climbing up on his St. Bernard, then moving on to Shetland ponies. By 11, he was riding the cows at the cattle company when no one was looking. Kirby went pro at 16, two years younger than the current legal age to compete.
Prior to officiating, Kirby did not always have the best appreciation for all rodeo judges. But not trusting the officials to see his ride accurately didn’t hurt him any. “Some judges I didn’t respect brought out the best in me,” he said. “They were stupid, but I made them smart.” When he began officiating, however, he discovered that judging other cowboys was hard on him. He didn’t like giving out penalties. Kirby recounted telling his mentor he wanted to quit. “I judged two, three rodeos, and told Jack, ‘I’m done, I can’t do this. These guys are trying to feed their families.’ But he told me to hang in there.” Having been on both sides of the deal, Kirby has a mild obsession with fairness. “I’m not making a call against any particular cowboy, I’m making a call by the rulebook to protect the contestants who did it by the rules. The cowboy veterans know me. My rules in San Antone are the same in Red Bluff, California.”
After patiently explaining the sport to me for an hour, I finally understood, or hoped I did, the gist of the competition. The judging criteria in rodeo take account of the contest between cowboy and animal. Each is rated on a scale of 25 points, the higher numbers being the better score. If the animal doesn’t perform well, the judges will let the cowboy ride again with a different animal. Whether the cowboy or the bull or bronc comes out on top, the two scores are added together, and that’s the score of the ride. It’s all a bit involved, and it is truly an art to master rodeo’s arcana. There are 11 criteria to judge a bull’s performance; nine for a horse, but the key points are drop power, movement, and speed.
Criteria for riders focuses on control of the rider’s body, making sure he’s seated squarely on the animal instead of flopping around. Is he in rhythm with the animal? Is he spurring the animal or just hanging on? Missing one buck without spurring will cost a point. These are just starting points. If you want to know more, go to the rodeo. The announcers give running commentary that is clear and more succinctly described than the jargon used in other sport. Timed competitions are easier. Barrel riding, it’s pure speed.
Rodeo seems to blur categories, mixing speed and collision, animal and human, chance and skill, in ways that spin metaphor with wind, sweat, and blood. I’m not sure if it’s art, but on a good day, art might reach these places, too. •
The San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo continues through Feb 20. Visit sarodeo.com for daily event schedules, directions, and tickets.