Border Studies at EPCC
Some Boys Still Grow Up to be Cowboys
Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992.
By Geraldo Guitierrez & Myrna Porras
Life may have been much simpler back in the old days, but it was also a lot harder. In the mid-1800s cowboys had the difficult task of rounding up the cattle and delivering them to different market towns. The work was hard and kept the cowboys on the trail for weeks, sometimes months at the time.
Bull twists rider every which way but loose. Photo by Kevin Nichols.
The way cowboys dressed was more a matter of practicality than style. Their hats served several purposes. During the day, the hats kept the sun out of their eyes and their heads cool. Throughout the day they also used them for pillows. Their boots were designed to keep their feet from slipping from the stirrups during rough rides. To protect their legs from scratches and chafing the cowboys wore chaps.
The cowboys that worked on the cattle drives developed many skills and eventually started celebrating the end of a cattle drive with informal competitions. At first everyone in town would watch these informal competitions free of charge. Then the first rodeo with an admission charge for spectators was held in Prescott, Arizona, in 1888. The American rodeo has since become a popular national sport, as well as a border favorite.
Here in El Paso, people come from miles around the enjoy the rodeo early in February during the El Paso Livestock Show. Rodeo fans in the city get into the western spirit by dressing the part from head to toe. But the difference between professional rodeo cowboys and those who just dress like them is evident in the area.
Life is still hard for the rodeo cowboy. In addition to being tough physically, the athletes have to pay their own expenses, including entry fees. This can be especially difficult considering that rodeo cowboys are not paid salary. They are awarded buckles and saddles, but the only money they make is the prize money that is awarded by the promoters of each rodeo.
There are 741 professional rodeos sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), which has ranked the Southwestern Livestock Show and Rodeo 14th in the nation. The function of the of the PRCA is to represent the rodeo cowboys, approve the shows, arrange dates and award prizes and titles at the end of the season.
Rodeo today is a sport, and the participants are athletes. Many of the contemporary rodeo events developed from the techniques that were used in the old West to break an untamed horse, holding on with one hand to a 10-inch wide leather strap and keeping his other hand up in the air. He attempts to stay on for eight seconds as the horse bucks wildly all over the arena. Points are awarded for the cowboy's spurring action in this event.
Another exciting event, saddle bronc riding, requires the rider to stay on for eight seconds with one hand on the saddle and the other up in the air. The cowboy must keep his toes turned out and his spurs must remain over the break of the horse's shoulders. The more rhythmic the action, the more points the cowboy scores.
Calf roping is another event, which evolved directly from the cowboy's work on the ranch. In this event, the calf has a running start, and the cowboy adjusts his horse's speed to that of the calf. The cowboy ropes the calf, jumps off his horse, throws the calf to the ground, and using a pigging string, ties three legs and rises his hand to signal time. Points are based on speed.
Bullriding is one of the most dangerous events in rodeo competition. A bull can weigh more than 2,000 pounds, and the rider is required to stay on for eight seconds while holding on to a braided rope with only one hand. The cowboy scores pints for maintaining position and control.
One of the last main events, steer wrestling, is credited to a black cowboy by the name of Bill Pickett. In this event the cowboy rides beside the steer while leaning off his horse. He then grabs the steer's horns, turns his head, and throws him to the floor. Points are awarded for style and timing.
In each event the cowboy risks falling off his mount and getting trampled, so it's no wonder that rodeo cowboys suffer more broken bones and other injuries than any other athlete. Despite these risks, rodeo cowboys continue entertaining fans all over the country. The skills rodeo cowboys use to compete in the arena today were once all in a day's work. Now, rather than drive cattle over along trail, the rodeo cowboy may jump in his pickup and drive or even take a plane to the next rodeo, hoping to win big.