The Longest Eight Seconds

Story and Photography by John Denman

Stop off at a country rodeo and see why a few moments can seem like a lifetime.

There's no mistaking the atmosphere at a rodeo; the air is charged with it, as well as a fair amount of dust from the arena. Then there’s that perfectly still moment just before the chute boss opens the gate, then about half a tonne of beef launches itself into the arena, the crowd goes wild, and usually, the cowboy on top doesn’t stay there for long.

This time the bull is called “Forklift” and the cowboy is a young lunatic called Brad Ison. Forklift played his part to perfection with a premier display of twisting jinking and corkscrewing that threatened to buck his brand off. Brad ended up having a good ride, stayed on for the whole eight seconds, then jumped off to the acclaim of the crowd while rodeo clown Denis Johnson distracted the bull.

You have to ask; why would someone do something that puts them so close to mortal danger? You might think the only winner here would be the local physiotherapist.  

Part of the answer goes back to the days when after a big muster, the stockmen would try to ride some of the “rough stock” they had mustered to let off a bit of steam. It became competitive, and the next thing you know people are making money doing it.

Time to dance.

In the USA, generally regarded as the “home” of Rodeo, things got going in pretty much the same way. There are a lot of parallels to be drawn between the two countries, but the American talent for organisation made it almost inevitable that rodeo would become the high profile sport that it is today.

In the States you can go to a Rodeo College where the entire curriculum is devoted to matters related to rodeo. Students come to this college from all walks of life, with a surprising number from the upper income and professional bracket. Some of these “yuppie cowboys” have been known to take six months off to attend Rodeo College.

Small wonder then that top rodeo stars earn six-figure annual incomes. And with rodeo rating up near third place as a spectator sport, it’s right up there with football and baseball in the US.

But back here things are a little more down to earth. Most riders are still more likely to be connected with a rural pursuit of some sort, and top riders are happy if they finish the year with up to $50,000 earnings.

Not too shabby you might say, but the overheads are high. There’s a lot of travelling with big distances from one event to the next, and of course there’s always the down time after you’ve had a spill and hurt yourself. Personally, I think that these people earn every cent they make. Even so, we are gaining on the US, not only in the way we run our events, but also in the quality of our riders. Australians now compete regularly on the US and Canadian circuits, and North American riders frequently come her to see what we have on offer.

Australian roughriders had for many years stuck to the traditional ringer’s gear, including the Australian stock saddle, at least until the mid-1960s. Since then the sport has become more Americanised, with Australian saddles being largely replaced by the US seat in the saddle bronc event.

The competitors too have changed the way they dress. It was realised some time ago that, regardless of our own origins in the sport, to draw the big crowds and therefore the big prize money, spectacle was required.

So today you can go to a rodeo and experience all the hoopla that the people in the US and Canada get including the colorful shirts and chaps, 10-gallon hats, tight jeans and cowboy boots, as well as the all-important rodeo queen. What more could you ask?

For spectators the most popular events are nearly always the rough stock ones. That means bull riding, saddle bronc, and bareback bronc riding. Stock for these events are no longer the scrubber bull or half-wild horses that epitomised the early days of the sport.

Skill, as well as courage, is required.

Today, rodeo organisers can order their stock from specialist suppliers who train and groom bulls and horses purely for the rodeo circuit. To this end, the animals need to be easy to handle, at least until a rider gets on their back. 

In many cases the horse or bull will have a bigger following from the fans than the best known riders will.

In recent times one of the best known bulls was a handsome beast called Chainsaw. They always give them names like that; after all, the name of the bull has to be an indicator as to its potential. Names like Flossy just don’t cut it.

The fact is that bulls like Chainsaw are so docile out of the arena they are often led around on a rope to be patted by children. These are valuable animals.

When a competitor sends in his entry fee, his stock is allocated by a draw. The competitors' names go into one hat and the names of the stock animals go into another. Stock are drawn on a random basis and, while the cowboy knows before the event which animal he has drawn, at least he knows the draw has been fair.

In the rough stock events the judges award points out of 25 for both stock and rider. The rider must stay on for eight seconds to score, and the free hand must be held well clear. If the hand touches any part of the animal or if the rider is fouled in the chute, a re-ride can sometimes be awarded depending on circumstances.

The cowboy is seldom allowed to ride the stock to a standstill these days because the aim is not to break-in the animal.

While most people come to the rodeo for the rough stock events, there are a number of other events that offer great examples of riders' skills, as well as skill in animal handling. All these events have their basis in day to day stock work.

Breakaway roping, barrel racing and calf roping all have their origins in cattle work, and in the case of calf roping there is usually a fair bit of support from the crowd on behalf of the calf. Once again, no stock are injured or mistreated in these events.

Rodeo is a sport in every sense of the word, and one that often makes Rugby League look like a walk in the park. It’s an activity where you have to expect a few injuries; when there are flailing hooves belonging to fairly hefty horses and bulls, something has to give, and it’s usually the comparatively fragile human form.

Organisers always try to minimise the dangers, but the law of averages will often catch up with someone. 

So if you go expecting lots of action and skill, the spectacle of the opening parade, and the general atmosphere you will not be disappointed.

Rodeo clowns - even more insane that the competitors

When the dust has settled you will probably agree that rodeo is hard to beat, provided you’re in the stands and not down in the dirt.

Rodeos  have also come to the Big Smoke with regular events being held in all capital cities. But the really big ones to look forward to are the Warwick (Qld) rodeo and the annual Mt. Isa rodeo. There is also a rodeo held every year at Tamworth to coincide with the Country Music Awards.

For a competitor to build his points up so he can compete with any degree of success at the major events, he still has to enter as many sanctioned events as possible.

For the spectator, there is just as much value in attending the smaller events.

The action is still there although some of the big name stock may not attend, and the smaller events have the advantage of having that indefinable small town feel about them.

Entrance fees are usually modest, seldom more than $10 or $15 per person, and you can bring your own tucker with you. It’s a pretty cheap day’s entertainment, and you can soak up some local color while you’re at it.

If you get all fired up and want to compete, remember what one competitor told me about rodeo: “Being on a decent bull or horse may well be the longest eight seconds of your life.”


Where To See A Rodeo

Here are some of the rodeo events scheduled around Australia in 2001 by the three main organising bodies. 

There are three different organisations that run sanctioned rodeo events in Australia. These are:

  • The National Rodeo Association in Caboolture Qld., phone 075 4958668

  • The Australian Professional Rodeo Association in Warwick Qld., phone 074 6618183

  • The Australian Bushmen’s Campdraft and Rodeo Association in Tamworth NSW phone (02) 6766 5863. 

A phone call to any or all of these will yield information on the rodeo that will be on next in your area, or in an area you intend travelling through.

Australian Bushmen’s Campdraft and Rodeo Association:

Gloucester, NSW, 13 January 2001

Cooma, NSW, 21 January 2001

Armidale, NSW, 27 January 2001

Singleton, NSW, 10 February 2001

Mudgee, NSW, 2 March 2001

Cootamundra, NSW, 7 April 2001

Lightning Ridge, NSW, 15 April 2001

Coonamble, NSW, 9 June 2001

Australian Professional Rodeo Association:

Tumbarumba, NSW, 1 January 2001

Berri, SA, 20 January 2001

Scottsdale, Tas, 27 January 2001

Albury/Wodonga, Vic, 9 March 2001

Kyabram, Vic, 12 March 2001

Heathcote, Vic, 15 April 2001

National Rodeo Association :

Rathdowne, Qld, 27 January 2001

Gympie, Qld, 20 February 2001

Ipswich, Qld, 21 April 2001

Casino, Qld, 26 March 2001

Caboolture, Qld, 9 June 2001

Kingaroy, Qld, 22 September 2001