by Meridith Zembal
photography by Liz Lucsko
The air is thick with heat, dust and the smell of livestock, Oct. 6, 2002. The sound of bustling people and anxious children filters through the background of the cowboys’ apprehensive thoughts. Behind the stands, the incense of kettle corn arouses the senses and makes a stomach growl for the sweet but salty flavor. Hot dogs and beer pass the eyes in a tailgate-like atmosphere. Guests are excited while contestants prepare for their event. Those who attend the San Dimas Rodeo have a chance to feel the magic and the enigma that unite them with the cowboys and cowgirls. With a patriotic theme and a competitive edge, it is not surprising why rodeo is escalating to new heights. What once was considered to be a ranch hand’s typical day’s work has evolved to an important piece of American culture.
The mysterious cowboys of the Old West framed the true meaning of the American spirit and gave way to one of the toughest sports of our time. The cowboy’s rough, brute exterior, coupled with his love for life and animals has drawn curiosity from many and is symbolized through rodeo competition-the ultimate extreme sport. 1869 marks the the year when rodeo, on the vast land of Colorado, became more than just a way of life. The innate competitive nature of cowboys drove them to challenge each other in their ranch-hand talents.
In the 1930s, rodeo evolved into an addictive sport both for fans and participants. What began as the famous Cowboys’ Turtle Association became the Rodeo Cowboys Association in 1945. The first National Finals Rodeo took place in Dallas, Texas in 1959. Then in 1975, re-organization produced the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Wrangler is now the proud sponsor of the NFR in Las Vegas, Nev. The 2001 event resulted in $4.6 million in profit.
For eight years running in Horsethief Canyon, San Dimas has staged its own Western Days Rodeo. Cowboys and cowgirls travel from all over to this open PRCA rodeo competition to earn points to qualify for the NFR. Held as the kick-off event for its “Western Days” event, San Dimas takes pride and gains recognition in preserving the western heritage so often neglected on the Pacific coast. Western Days features nightly events, games and a street market, and is held annually during October’s second week. The array of cowboy and cowgirl stickers, shirts, license plate frames even hats and ropes creates an authentic environment. It is a great weekend for both children and parents. Running around with their hats, boots, Wranglers and collared shirts with leather vests, children have a blast at this amazing event. Men and women who are normally seen in their work outfits or casual clothes pick this event to dig out their old hats, boots and western apparel.
The dream and desire for a rodeo in San Dimas was established by Tex Shoemaker, a man described as honest and charismatic. He was a true cowboy and an accomplished Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officer. As founder of Tex Shoemaker & Son, one of the largest police leather manufacturers in the United States, it was his wish to bring the west back into San Dimas through rodeo. Although he passed away in 1994, his spirit lives on through the annual local celebration.
The Horsethief Canyon arena is named in Shoemaker’s memory the cowboy who loved and lived fully in true Western style. Current Board of Directors President Gary Enderle, with 13 others, dedicates long and vigorous volunteer hours to produce an event unlike any other. “The best part about the rodeo is that we contribute back to the community that’s most beneficial,” he says. Enderle became an asset with the very first Western Days; he was in charge of concessions. “Prior to that, I had never even seen a rodeo,” he says.
The volunteers have that innate love for the western spirit and work hard to pull the event off every year. It is their hope that each guest can share a glimpse of the patriotism and love that was a constant in the Old West. Board member Maureen McGuire asks, “What’s more American than rodeo?” Her question is answered during the first few minutes. The 2001 opening ceremony, awarded by the PRCA for its representation of nationalistic pride, once again in 2002 was a spectacular sight. For the presentation of the American flag, skydivers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department streamed smoke in red, white and blue. While “Proud to Be an American” played, a special flag, which honored the armed forces and read “POW/MIA We Remember,” slowly descended over the heads of the audience. Loud cheers and clapping greeted all the skydivers. Hats were raised to the sky in honor of this great country. Keeping with tradition, John Wayne’s famous speech of why he loved America came next, while a cowboy rode a quarter horse around the arena, holding the American flag. Cheyenne Pipkin, the personality of the rodeo for eight years running, was again the rodeo announcer. His western charm and rodeo experience makes him the perfect cowboy for the job. With a background in bull riding shortly after serving in Vietnam, Cheyenne later found a niche announcing rodeos and has been doing so for 23 years. Reflecting on the San Dimas rodeo, Cheyenne says, “We had a super-packed house again. It’s one of the best we’ve ever had, and it just seems to get better every year.”
The talented rodeo clown “Radical Ryan Rodriguez” assisted Cheyenne with announcing. Rodriguez has a flair for making people laugh, but this is not all that is required of a rodeo clown. Rodriguez and his compatriots must be quick and agile to keep fallen riders out of danger. There are three different clown categories: bullfighter, barrel man and clown. Their first priority is to distract the animal from injuring the rider. During the weekend, the women’s professional drill team, “Painted Magic” of Riverside, performed both days, carrying both the American flag and the sponsor flags.
Honorary Grand Marshal for 2002 was Larry Mahan. Mahan won the saddle bronc event in 1965 and bull riding event in 1967. He also received “All-Around Cowboy” titles for 1966-’70 and ’73. Mahan is a Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee for his talents in the arena. As a retired rodeo cowboy, Mahan reserves time for his country music band and his own brand of western wear, the Larry Mahan Collection. He has written a book,”The Fundamentals of Rodeo.” Also featured both days was Miss Rodeo California 2002 Kelly Kraegel. From Temecula, this talented young woman has accomplished many feats in the equestrian field. Kraegel and her horse Dusty have traveled 30,000 miles in the past year throughout the western United States, working rodeo events.
San Dimas hosts not only quality cowboys and cowgirls, but quality livestock as well. Although many animal rights activists feel that rodeo is harmful to the animals involved, the PRCA takes pride in making sure that event animals are well taken care of and are treated with respect in and out of the arena.
The livestock provider for the San Dimas Rodeo is the Growney Brother Rodeo Company from Red Bluff, Calif. Owner John Growney has a positive reputation throughout the rodeo circuit. Growney is often recognized for the famous bull Wolfman – the only bull in history ridden for a perfect 100-point score.
Growney Brothers Rodeo Company is also known for the famous beloved bull Red Rock. From 1984-1987, Red Rock remained unridden, bucking off 309 riders. Lane Frost in 1988 finally made the eight-second mark. This famous ride marks the plot line for the movie “8 Seconds.” Growney’s partner Don Kish runs the “Buckin’ Best Bull Breeding Program,” an important section of the livestock company. In 2001, Growney and Kish had nine bulls and two horses at the NFR. With this great combination, it is not surprising that the rodeo is packed every year. Enderle says he loves, “Knowing 3,500-4,400 people are having a good time.”
A recommendation: experience rodeo. Feel the heat, sweat and excitement it has to offer. Let your western roots come out. Travel back to a time when a promise was made and kept with nothing more than a handshake and a tip of a hat-a cowboy hat.
A Rodeo Primer: Racing, Wrestling, Roping, Riding and Bucking
Of course, there’s more to rodeo than the the atmosphere-there are the events. Two categories in the sport of rodeo are the timed events barrel racing, steer wrestling, team roping, calf roping and steer roping, and then there are the roughstock events bareback riding, saddle bronc riding and bull riding.
This event started with a group of Texas women who wanted to be a part of the tough, man-run rodeo. Three barrels are placed in a clover formation (picture a triangle). The rider shoots out and heads for either the left or right barrel. Once completely circling that barrel, the rider travels the 90 feet to the other base barrel. After riding around the barrel, the rider must circle it at the peak of the clover formation, then race back to the starting line.
The object is to wrestle a steer using leverage and brute strength to get it to the ground. Steer wrestlers are often referred to as “bulldoggers” and must be strong and athletic to reach their goal. The wrestler, on horseback, waits for the steer’s head start, then slides down the right side of his horse and grabs the steer’s horns. By digging his heels in, the cowboy can work the steer on to the ground.
Modeled after the way ranchers used to catch calves for branding or for medical treatment, team roping is the only real rodeo team event. Similar to wrestling, the calf gets a head start. The “header” is the first man to rope. His job is to catch the steer around the neck or around one horn and the calf’s head, then “dallies” (wraps) the rope around the horn of his saddle. Then the header must ride away to turn the calf away from the “heeler.” The heeler is the second man to rope. He must rope the calf’s rear hooves. The clock stops after the rope is taut. This is how team roping originated, as well as calf roping.
Like team roping, the calf is given a head start. The rider takes off, roping the calf, and his horse makes a quick stop. Once the calf is caught, the rope must be dallied around the horn of the saddle. Next, the cowboy must “flank” the calf (throw it to the ground) and tie any three legs of the calf together. The calf must stay tied for six seconds for the rider to receive a time. This is similar to the steer roping event.
Bareback riding is a very physically demanding sport. Broncs (horses) are very long and limber, producing a very stressful buck and kick. They can torque their bodies, producing amazing amounts of force on the body, specifically the lower back and spine. Judges score riders on their spurring technique, and the amount they are willing to lean back and take the bucks. Half the score is given for the horse’s bucking action. The rider’s mode of support consists of “rigging” he holds with a grasping hand. (Rigging is thick leather and rawhide strap that is fastened to the horse.) The rider must stay on for eight seconds to receive a score, and the free hand of the rider must not touch the bronc at all during the ride.
Saddle Bronc Riding
This event is similar to bareback riding, but as implied, it is with a saddle and is a rodeo classic. It began when riders were forced to stay on while breaking and training horses. A controlled ride in rhythm with the horse once again is required for a high score. As it is for bareback, the eight-second ride is necessary to earn a score.
The most awaited event of the whole rodeo, bull riding, takes power, guts and a whole lot of strength. Bulls can weigh up to 2,000 lbs., but are still quick and can be dangerous if the rider falls into a bad position. The rodeo clowns often put their lives on the line for the riders to escape to the fence for safety. A flat braided rope is wrapped around the rider’s hand that is secured on the bull. The rider’s free hand must not touch the bull during the 8-second ride to receive a score.