How does the idea of strapping yourself to a grumpy 2,000lb animal with a brain the size of an egg sound? I should mention that the beast will be bucking like mad to throw you off. Interested?
From May through to September cowboys from all over the US aged between 14 to 60 years willingly climb onto a bucking bull or horse without a thought to the risk to life and limb. They do it for the love of the rodeo, to win a buck or two and to compete at the Colorado Pro Rodeo Association's finals.
On a Colorado road-trip last September, I burned some rubber along the Interstate 70 to see the rodeo for myself. It was a 247 mile drive from Colorado's capital, Denver, through the fantastically scenic Rockies to the valley area of Grand Junction. The journey took five hours but would have probably taken far less time had the landscape not been so spectacular.
Grand Junction is the largest city in western Colorado and so named because it sits where the Colorado and the Gunnison rivers meet. It's the gateway to the Colorado National monument, the wine country and home to the annual Colorado Pro Rodeo Finals.
The region is steeped in farming and cattle rearing history. Working ranches thrive and Rodeo is based on the skills of working cowboys. One this is for sure, these ranchers are athletes and they are as bold as the horses and as fast as the livestock they work with.
At the start of the competition 500 contestants compete in 30 rodeos around the US. The number whittles down to the top 12 in each of the ten events. All hope to get their hands on a cut of $60,000 in prize money.
By the time I arrived at the Fair Ground at Mesa County, the air was thick with anticipation. In the background I could see a posse of four meticulously uniformed US Marine Corps Color guardsridi ng their mustangs. I took my seat clad in a wide-brim cowboy hats, cowboy boots and a wide-buckled belt hoping I'd meld in.
The rumble of voices hushed as the team roping events kicked off the competition. Two cowboys on horses take their positions and a steer (a male bovine) is let loose. The 'header' catches the head with a lariat and the heeler has to do the same with the hind feet. Within seconds the steer is stretched and immobilised.
The barrel-racing was tense. Horse and rider weave through a clover-leaf pattern of preset barrels in the fastest time. It is a true test of horsemanship.
But let's face it. It's the bronc riding events that everyone comes to see. A discipline that demands precise timing. It evolved from the need to break in a wild horse; it's the cowboy lifestyle that has helped to tame the Wild West in the 1800s. An expectant silence descended as we watched the riders climb onto the horse in the bucking chute. We watched and waited while he mentally prepared; when the chute opened, we saw the animal burst out.
Bucking began immediately. The rider must not touch the animal with his free hand for eight whole seconds while hanging on for dear life with the other. Blink and you could miss the event.
Probably most awesome are the bull riders. They have to grapple with full-grown beasts that are unpredictable. Once the rider has been thrown off, the bull may decide to attack. Out there in the arena is the rodeo clown inside a protective steel barrel whose role is to distract the bull so that the cowboy can make his escape.
Larry Carter, 19, who won the bareback horse riding said "I was brought up and worked on a ranch all my life and I have been training and competing for years". Has he ever had time-out? "Yes, when I was laid up in hospital with a broken back". Ouch.
The Saddle Bronc Riding champ, Britt Jessop would never ride a bull. "I tried it a couple of times but got beat up. I wasn't tough enough for that".
Women are just as keen. Pricilla Medina has been interested in the sport as far back as she can remember. "I've barrel raced since I was a little kid," said Medina, a finalist in the Colorado Pro Rodeo Finals.
"It all comes back to the horses, the cowboys and the American West. It's part of our heritage and we're trying to keep that alive," said Chuck Colletti, president of the Colorado Pro Rodeo Association. "All year long they go to rodeos — all to get here."
Rodeo competitions run throughout Colorado. Events include bareback, barrel racing, breakaway, bull riding, saddle bronc, steer wrestling, team roping, and tie-down roping. Finals are held in September 14-16 at the Mesa County Fairgrounds in Grand Junction, CO.
Where to stay:
We stayed at Smith Fork Ranch (read our review) offers a touch of the Wild West. For alternative choice, find more hotels in Grand Junction.
Rodeo's Wild West reputation can be traced back to Spain's 18th century colonial cattleman, the vaqueros, who taught American cowboys the horse-breaking, roping and herding traditions that turned ‘rodeo' into a modern sport. They take place around the US generally starting in spring and ending in September.
How to get there:
Grand Junction has a regional airport, located 3 miles (6km) northeast of the central business district of Grand Junction. Find regional flights to Grand Junction from the USA:
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