Riding for a hiding

Thrills and spills are all part of rodeo life, as visitors at the Queanbeyan Rodeo will see, Ross Peake writes.

For city slickers, the Queanbeyan Rodeo on Saturday, March 9, will be an eye-opener.

Among the 5000 people coming from three states, many will be wearing big hats and boots.

Queanbeyan will host it's rodeo on March 9.
Queanbeyan will host it's rodeo on March 9. Photo: Ross Peake

The action in the ring will be fast and furious - with a touch of danger - just the recipe to attract keen amateur photographers.

The thrill for the crowd is obvious - the bull-riders are matching their skills and courage against animals that are 15 times their weight, facing their fears and testing their character.

Rob McMahon of Wagga Wagga hits the dirt at the town's rodeo.
Rob McMahon of Wagga Wagga hits the dirt at the town's rodeo. 

For some riders, rodeos are their life and full-time job. For others, lasting the hoped-for eight seconds on the animal is a rite of passage "into outback masculinity''.

Even if the ride lasts only a few seconds before the rider is slammed into the arena's sand, spectators witness a display of courage.

"Either way they define, in up to eight seconds of display, what being a man is all about,'' Deakin academic John Henry wrote after watching a rodeo.

"The riding of the bull has no connection to the animal's function back on the station. The activity is solely about carving out a short space of time within which the young human male at the peak of his physical prowess is triumphant over the mature, fully-powered and fully endowed bovine male."

In traditions inherited from the United States, the rider mounts the horse or bull in a chute, a narrow holding pen or "crush".

The gloved hand of the rider is tied under a rope that circles the animal's girth. The rider holds on with that hand and must remain on the animal for eight seconds, during which the free hand must not touch the bull.

Tightening a flank rope ensures the bull or horse explodes into the arena with tremendous energy and bucks and twists violently.

If the rider falls off before the eight-second hooter, as most do, he is at the mercy of the enraged bull, which spins and charges, its horns lowered ready to gore the human tormentor.

However, as soon as the rider is off, another cowboy releases the strap and the animal calms relatively quickly and professional clowns distract the animal.

For the poddy calf riding competition, men gather around the children pitting themselves against the beast and try to catch the rider before he or she hits the ground.

A helmet and vest are mandatory for participants younger than 18 years but after that the choice of protective gear is voluntary.

Helmets are not popular, probably because of their negative effect on the image of the tough cowboy.

The most dangerous situation is being "hung up" where a rider cannot free his riding hand from the rope or catches his spurs in the saddle.

The Queanbeyan rodeo promises to be a great family day out, according to secretary Christine Corkhill.

"Queanbeyan rodeo is now one of the biggest in New South Wales,'' she says. ''There's a country atmosphere, the events with the bulls and the horses, and there's also a carnival with side shows, so there's lots of entertainment for the kids.''

The committee will put up $2000 for some of the rides, attracting professionals on the circuit to Queanbeyan.

"For some people, it's their life and for others, it's their weekend sport," Corkhill says.

"The judges look at the style of the cowboy, how he's riding, how he sits on the horse, how the horse or bull is bucking.

"So both the stock and the cowboy get judged and just because you ride the full eight seconds doesn't mean you've won.''

All the people in the arena - judges, announcer, chute boss, timers, people pulling the gate open for the livestock to come out - have to be accredited. "It's all professionally done, it just can't be anyone, so I couldn't get you in there to stand there in the middle of the arena," she says.

Associate Professor Henry observes that bull riding events draw on the Australian pioneer individualist myth and reality. "It's hard to tell where the reality ends and the myth takes over," he says.

The rodeo has the "continuing theme of human domination over horse and beast".

"These events are a celebration of masculine identity defined by the signifiers of calculated disregard for bodily well-being, faith in one's ability to survive, facing danger and going through with it, reliance on one's own skills and abilities, independence of others when the crunch comes and overcoming fear of physical harm,'' he says.

"The event in the rodeo program that encapsulates the ritual celebration of this particular definition of masculinity is the bull riding event."

He notes bull riding is for men only and this event is the top billing of the rodeo program.

"To be a bull rider is to be at the pinnacle of the rodeo pecking order," he says.

"To be a bull rider is to be looked upon with respect and to be acknowledged as at the edge of the bounds of masculine activity.

"These are the test pilots of this masculine identity genre. Some go too far and do not return, most ride and survive.''

A six-year, retrospective study of bull-riding injuries in central Queensland, published last July, took credit as the first national study to investigate injuries in the sport. The researchers looked at records for 38 patients admitted to Rockhampton Base Hospital with acute injuries sustained while bull-riding.

"Unsurprisingly, bull-riding has the highest rate of injury of any rodeo event," they say. "One of the most noteworthy findings of this study is that the most serious injuries were due to being kicked or trampled by the bull, which has not been previously highlighted.

"The reluctance of cowboys to wear protective equipment, combined with the regulating bodies not enforcing use of helmets, can have serious consequences, particularly in rural rodeos, where transportation to the medical facility is often delayed."