The west has been won, and cowboys now ply their trade on fenced ranches instead of the open plains, but this past weekend the western spirit found its way back to Ohio with a professional rodeo in Dover, Ohio.
The rain had fallen off and on all day Friday on the Tuscarawas County Fairgrounds so the dust would not fly that evening, but hooves and hats still did. The evening saw the first-ever Buckeye Stampede, a Professional Rodeo in Dover, Ohio. The stands were filled with expectant fans, cowboy hats, and even the white bonnets and flat hats of the local Amish.
Cotton Yancy, the rodeo's host, who provides commentary by microphone from horseback in the arena, explains the origins of the sport known as rodeo.
"Well, it originated with the great American cowboy many, many years ago. And so, at the big ranches, the cowboys would get together, from one ranch to another, and they'd start betting on who could rope a calf the fastest or who could ride a bronc the longest, things like that, and testing out their cowboy skills, and that's how rodeo got started basically, with the roots of the everyday, working cowboy," Yancy says.
In Dover cowboys from the Great Lakes region test their mettle in events ranging from calf roping, where the quickest time wins, to bull riding, where every contestant attempts to ride for eight seconds, at which point a score is assigned to the ride. The highest score wins.
A bareback rider leaves the gate, the horse bucking and jerking beneath him. The horse throws him before the buzzer sounds. Yancy encourages the crowd to applaud the cowboy - the applause are all he'll take home with him. He must cover his traveling expenses and entrance fee - he has no million dollar contract - and he is only allowed one ride per rodeo. At the next rodeo he will try to recoup his expenses.
Jess Hume is a calf roper from Wisconsin.
Hume admits, "When I was born, I didn't know there was nothing else to do in the world until I got to about the middle of grade school and I realized there was basketball, flag football and stuff like that, but I've been doing this since we've been born - I got a brother, Casey, that is two years apart in age, so we pretty much compete against each other the whole time, and so, we've been doing it all of our life pretty much."
Hume is hoping to rope his calf in eight or nine seconds. He'll do just that, putting him in the lead of the night's competition, but there's still no guarantee of a paycheck with two more nights of competition ahead.
In the next event a saddle bronc twists and jumps, throwing its rider. The cowboy hits the ground with the thud of a belly flop. He lies on the ground unmoving as the other cowboys rush to his side. He lifts himself up on his arms, waving away help. The scene recalls the classic piece of cowboy logic:
If it's a horse ride it. If it hurts hide it. Dust yourself off, and get back on again.
He will ride again, but tonight his pain cannot be hidden. Eventually he gets to his feet and leaves the arena under his own power. The crowd cheers, his only payment for the injuries he's received.
Later in the evening a bull rider is thrown, only to be caught by a slashing horn. The cowboy's body is tossed fifteen feet in the air, but this rider hits the ground in a roll, and he comes up in a run and exits the stadium. He won't get paid, but luckily, he won't have hospital bills.
Mike Prysi is a bull rider. This is his first professional rodeo, but his ride on Sunday will not be his first bull. He says while in the chute he carefully checks his equipment and his position on the bull. When he's ready, he nods to have the gate opened.
Prysi explains what happens next, "Gate comes out, and it's down to business then. There's technique to it, I mean, you got to watch the shoulders, and depending on what his shoulders do depends on which way he's mostly likely going to go, cause the head will throw you off - if you're looking at his head he can throw his head one way and keep going the other way, and it's just a distraction, and just try to stay up on my rope that way there's less extra movement - if you get slung back off your rope you're going to go out the back door, but if you stay up in the center of the spin you'll sit up on top and make a ride."
The animals seem to understand their role in the rodeo. Once an animal has lost its rider it quiets down to a trot and heads for the gate. It seems to know its work for the evening is done.
On Friday, the animals do their jobs. Bareback and saddle bronc riders are tossed about like western confetti. Of the nearly dozen bull riders only two finish out their eight seconds. Over the course of three days only four bull riders receive a score. Young Prysi is thrown on his first professional bull ride Sunday night.
Jess Hume is luckier. Roping his calf in 8.9 seconds is not topped during the three days of competition and he leaves for home with fourteen hundred dollars.
None of the cowboys can explain why they keep doing it. The miles are long, the punishment is brutal, and the payoffs are too low for most of the cowboys to make it their primary living. Yancy, though, knows why he announces rodeos.
He says, "The reason I announce rodeo is because it is the heart of the great American cowboy. I am in total awe of them."
Hume leaves Dover for Michigan and another rodeo, and the fairgrounds empty as the rest of the cowboys head home or to the next event where it will all come down, once more, to another eight-second ride.