Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Sitting Bull & Crazy Horse

By Elizabeth Lemond

JULY 13, 1998:  I’m basically a city person. I like tall buildings, air conditioning, traffic, and malls. And I like to limit my contact with nature to dogs on leashes. But even I get those occasional yearnings to chuck it all and get down in the mud with nature’s beasts. I’ve seen my share of cowboy movies, and I’ve even fantasized about waking at the crack of dawn, russlin’ up some vittles, mounting my trusty steed, and riding out to the herd for a long, sweaty day of ropin’ and brandin’.

And so it was with the wide-eyed naivete of a city slicker who’s seen one too many Bonanza episodes that my companion, Allen, and I drove north to Millington to get a little taste of the wild life. For a few weeks now, in a brand-new facility adjacent to the USA Baseball stadium, the International Professional Rodeo Association has been holding regular rodeo events. What better place to leave air conditioning behind than a good old-fashioned rodeo – complete with steer raslin’, calf ropin’, and bare-back horse ridin’?

No sooner had we parked in a giant grass clearing and worked up a healthy sweat by simply stepping out of the car into the early-evening oven that is the Mid-South, than we were treated to the arrival of the Tennessee Rodeo Queen, Courtney Stevenson, via WMC-TV5’s traffic helicopter. Bedecked in white denim jeans, the classic white cowboy hat, and an awe-inspiring blue sequin-covered jacket, complete with fringe, Stevenson marked the commencement of the rodeo festivities with a Miss America-style trip around the arena – minus evening gown, plus horse. Unfortunately, all the rodeo devotees in town knew the action wouldn’t start right at 7 p.m. as advertised, so Allen, I, and four other people clapped appreciatively for the somewhat unfashionably early horse queen.

From 7 p.m. until 8 p.m., Stevenson and pals rounded up all the children under 10 years of age from the marginally increasing ranks of audience and judged some amusing kid-style rodeo events. I would have been content to watch adorable 3-year-olds run around on horse-headed wooden sticks all night, but I sensed that most boot-sporting men in the audience craved something more. My heart went out to these mini-wranglers’ poor mothers, who, after a short while without their bambinos, were forced to reclaim their now thoroughly manure-covered children for the rest of the evening.

At 8 p.m., the real action began. I turned around to note with surprise that, while I had been fixating upon wee ones with lassos, an enormous number of people had filled the stands behind us. Most audience members seemed to belong to a family unit of some sort, although the stands were complemented by the requisite number (apparently higher than one would expect at such an event) of teens in tight jeans participating in the Friday-night mating ritual common to all parts of the country. But at the rodeo, this familiar picture included extra hair spray, chewing tobacco, and a lower giant-metal-buckle-per-person ratio than one would find on Beale Street.

The first event was bull riding, which was typically over as soon as it started. We watched several contestants emerge from the pen on exceedingly agitated beasts, complete with giant horns that would put the bulls of Pamplona to shame. While most riders fell off rather quickly, some tended to linger in a state that can best be described as “holding on for dear life,” while the bull struggled with increasing ferocity to rid itself of the thing on its back. Once the rider fell off, usually right into the midst of four stamping hooves, the ever-present rodeo clowns would attempt to divert the upset creature 1) away from the guy on the ground who had just had his brains shaken like they were in a paint canister, and 2) back into the pen so that the next round could begin.

The next event was bareback riding, which lasted a bit longer and took up more space within the arena. While the bulls had basically stood in one place to better focus all their energy to offing the rider, the horses’ strategy appeared to involve a method of dislodging that included running as fast as they could followed by bucking. If a rider stayed on the horse until the bell rang, another rider came to assist him so that rather than having to hurl himself at the ground and pray, he had the more appealing option of flinging himself directly onto the other horse and being whisked to safety. Enter more clowns to russle up the unhappy horse.

Next, we were treated to steer wrestling (aka: raslin’). During this surprisingly amusing event, two guys rode out on horses with a steer in between them. At the center of the arena, one cowboy would fling himself upon the steer as the other cowboy took off with the horses. The adventurous rider then had the task of wrestling the steer to the ground. However, this was not quite the spectacle for which we were hoping; no WWF fanfare here. Usually, the rider simply grabbed the horns in one deft motion and forced the steer’s shoulders to the ground.

“I didn’t know steers’ necks could twist like that,” said Allen.

Indeed. I wondered what sort of practice was required to lead up to an event like that. Do you start with stuffed steer? Dogs? What?

We were enjoying the rodeo immensely. Despite all my neurotic fears, no one had been trampled and none of the small children hanging their arms inside the fence had been mauled. Three cheers for the rodeo!

The subsequent event, however, was rather upsetting to my rodeo-novice sensibilities. In my supreme ignorance of rodeos, I erroneously assumed that calf roping would involve throwing a lasso around a calf’s neck. Calf roped. Horse, man, and calf ride off into the sunset together. Game over. But when the second contestant in this event was successful at capturing the runaway calf by the neck, I was shocked and appalled when he abruptly stopped his horse and jerked the calf, by its little roped neck, about five feet up into the air. As the laws of physics mandate, the calf came crashing down, at which point the rider dismounted his horse and ran to the calf where he proceeded to completely tie up its legs as it basically just lay there. (After it was tied up, it was really just lying there.) Allen and I gasped and looked at each other, horrified; this was not, however, the overriding sentiment of the crowd.

After this 18-second display, Allen and I both became very upset. I felt betrayed by the rodeo. I began having very guilty, nauseous feelings about veal and the like, which were only exacerbated by the excited whoops and hollers of the other rodeo-goers around us. I had a strange and uncharacteristic Free Willy impulse to go liberate the rest of the calves, but I decided that was probably not advantageous to anyone involved.

As with most situations in life, I knew food would make me feel better. Allen and I tromped off for an absolutely fabulous round of hot dogs and Hawaiian shaved ice.

Shortly thereafter, we left the rodeo. There was little desire between the two of us to observe “team roping” unless it involved a group of calves getting to rope a guy riding a horse – and we sensed that would not be the case. So we bid the rodeo farewell, perhaps a little wiser. Despite our trauma, guilt, and wide-eyed naivete concerning the roping incident, we enjoyed the rodeo experience immensely. And it was quite an experience.


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