Letter from the Editor: A look behind the chutes

Photo by Valerie Shelton

What a rodeo!

Although I’ve been a Valley girl all my life and a close Clovis neighbor (Fresno address within the Clovis school district) this was only my second year covering the exciting Clovis Rodeo.

Last year, as a newbie here at the Roundup, I was first exposed to rodeo at the high school rodeo hosted by CHSRA District 6. Then, I was catapulted into the big leagues, covering the 101st Clovis Rodeo on a sweltering Saturday and Sunday. I still remember the sunburn I got on my neck that year and I have a great keepsake in an award-winning photo I captured of a saddle bronc ride.

This year, the weather was cooler and thankfully, I had some assistance, with reporter Lauren Mueller and photographer Nick Baker covering most of the Saturday and Sunday rodeo events—allowing me to sit in the stands as a spectator.

Although the 101st Clovis Rodeo was a wild ride for me, I learned a lot more about the sport of rodeo covering this year’s 102nd Clovis Rodeo. Why? Well, I have the Clovis Rodeo Association to thank for giving me and other members of the local media an education on the Wednesday afternoon prior to the big four-day rodeo.

Arena Director Vince Genco and stock contractor John Growney led reporters and editors like myself on the first ever behind the chutes tour. During the tour, they explained everything from how the various events are scored to how the horses and cattle are treated. I’d like to share with you readers some of what I learned about the latter—put simply, these animals are treated quite well.

There are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there about how animals used in the rodeo arena—specifically bucking horses and bulls—are treated. PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] is probably the most vocal in opposition of rodeos nationwide, and some media sources are guilty of amplifying PETA’s outcry, accusing or merely just suggesting that cowboys, stock contractors and others involved in rodeo are somehow cruel to their animals.

Even before I covered the rodeo, I was never one to hold such a radical opinion. Common sense convinced me from the get-go that these animals are lucky. The cattle, after all, get to run and perform in the arena, rather than be fattened up in a slaughterhouse somewhere. Plus, these bulls and steers aren’t owned by some large beef supplier, they are owned by stock contractors and they get to roam on a nice ranch somewhere when they aren’t headed to a rodeo.

My in-laws have a small ranch with cattle—mostly Black Angus and a few Charolais—and although some of the steers are raised for meat, each and every cow grazing on their land is treated well. My in-laws are out there working on that little ranch every day to make sure those cows have all they need. The spend thousands on hay and medicine and other necessities for their cows—is all that hard work just for some steaks? No. They keep working that ranch because they love those cows.

As for the horses, well, it’s pretty obvious to me that no cowboy or cowgirl would let any harm come to their horse. Every single person I’ve met who owns a horse has a special bond with that horse. Horses are like family and are treated as such. I could equate the relationship someone has with their horse to the relationship I have with my dogs. If something or someone hurt one of my dogs, there would be you-know-what to pay. Horse owners feel the same or, if anything, they feel more strongly about protecting their horse.

Taking a look specifically at animals used in the rodeo, John Growney explained it best. The statistics are this: the average bucking horse goes to 12 rodeos a year and the average bull goes to 15. At each of these rodeos, an animal can only be used one time—that is why you see so many horses and bulls waiting in pens behind the chutes—and that one time ride only last eight seconds, maybe less if a rider is bucked off before the timer sounds. Basically, a bucking horse or bull works eight seconds every two weeks, on average. Why do they work so little? Well, because people like Growney care about their animals.

“These animals are so good that when they put out 100 percent, we don’t know if they have pulled a muscle because they can’t tell us how they are feeling so we give them time off after they’ve performed to heal their muscles in case anything was pulled,” Growney said. “We don’t see that many injuries in our livestock, but you just know that if they could, they would tell you ‘hey, coach, I need to sit this one out.’ It makes it easy to just buck them one time, of course that means twice as many animals come to the rodeo.”

So are the animals overworked? No.

The main thing the rodeo gets flack for is the use of flank straps, or bucking straps, which are tied around the bull or horse to motivate them to buck. Tim Bridwell, who owns many of the bucking horses used at the Clovis Rodeo, said the misconception is that these straps hurt the animal. That, he said, is not the case.

Bridwell showed members of the media on the tour both kinds of flank straps used. The one used for bulls is essentially just a sheepskin-covered rope, while the one used for a horse is sheepskin-lined or padded. The flank strap, he explained, is tied around the bull or horse’s flank area (the torso area near the hind legs) to encourage the bull of horse to use its hind legs in a bucking motion. It’s essentially like the belt we wear to keep our jeans up, but not as tight. The strap irritates the bull or horse—they want to get it off—but it doesn’t hurt them. It’s like putting one of those cute outfits on your dog Fido; Fido hates it so he tries to shake it off.

To summarize, the animals aren’t overworked and they aren’t being forced to buck. That said, Growney says, “out of confrontation comes a lot of good.” For example, back in the day it wasn’t required that a veterinarian be on hand at every rodeo. Now, veterinarian Troy Ford is there every second of the Clovis rodeo, just in case an animal is injured. While few are injured, having Dr. Ford around has created an opportunity for cowboys entering the timed events to ask for his opinion on their horses and how to care for them. New measures to ensure the safety of both cowboys and animals have also been taken.

“What we were taught 100 years ago isn’t the same as it is today and we evolve as much as anybody else,” Growney said. “Clovis Rodeo has evolved more than anybody. It is a great rodeo and a great town and a great ranching community.”