Tough on dirt

The more cowboys that are bucked off at events, the more a bull’s value increases. And bucked off they were, at the second annual Flint Hills Bull Blowout in the Strong City arena just north of Cottonwood Falls. The bulls, provided by the rodeo bovine buckers industry, were the glorious winners of the game, with just two contestants managing to stay up for eight seconds and three guys injured, including one severely, he not a cowboy but one of the rodeo clowns who run around trying to divert the bulls’ attention and lead them away from the cowboys they’d smashed down into the dirt. Some of these bulls, 1,000 pounders all of them, are able to shake their hips with a snake’s whiplash and send their rider, whoosh, up into the air to land more or less bruised and aching some fifteen yards away. The cowboys tear up rotator cuffs, they break bones or ribs, get stomped on, dealt kicks to the head or flesh-tearing hits by the big horns. The crowd, whatever the outcome, responds with wild clapping and loud shouts of approval.

Yes, there is a rodeo bovine buckers industry, a genetic bucking bull production business. The owners, such as Kim Reyer from Reyer’s Country Store right across from the Strong City arena, know that if they’re done with rodeoing, the next thing to riding bulls is raising them. They believe the industry will survive and prosper even in these dire economic straits, for the bulls provide lots of entertainment. “It’s much harder to get people excited about an emu,” bull breeder Jim Crowther recently told the Emporia Gazette. Also, the bulls have a salvage value for human consumption. And they can breed, of course. Compare the bulls with race horses: top buckers make top money for their owners. They are really huge and fast and scary animals.

Most bull riders are cowboys coming from families with a long ranching history. They were started off on sheep then graduated to young steers. As Alwin Bailey from Matfield Green says: “My brother Darwin and I would always jump on the ‘Brammer’ steers when they’d go down the alley to the catch pen. Anything that bucked, I wanted to ride.” They’d get up early in the morning to practice before it got real hot, then do their cattle work. A nap in the afternoon, before they’d practice again after it had cooled off.

Guys like the Bailey brothers were on horseback before they could walk, and dreaming of bucking broncos and wrestling steers before they could read and write. They have never been able to get it out of their system; they hurry to the rodeo grounds to compete even on the days that they have to get up before sunrise to round up and ship double-stock and three-quarter-season cattle on their ranches. Some of them are champion rodeo contestants just like their fathers were and their sons will be; no few of them married a champion cowgirl, a barrel rider so united with her magnificent and fast horse that I’ve seen admiring tears stream from experienced as well as baffled novice watchers’ eyes. Cowboying is their family’s profession. It is also their recreation.

Yet, fewer and fewer real cowboys are competing. More and more contestants were not raised on a ranch, have little horse riding experience, and have no experience at all working with livestock. They are general athletes sometimes without a feel for the action they get involved in. They may be tough, but that doesn’t mean they are naturals and quite a few do not survive for long in the rough stock events. They are not making any money if they don’t ride the bulls they are randomly matched with “to the buzzer” (which sounds after eight seconds). Soon after discovering they will never make it to the National Finals Rodeo where the really mean caliber bulls are to be contested, they decide it’s not worth breaking their bones for anyway and switch, well, maybe to breeding emus … They miss one of the best parts of the rodeo, which is the bonding and fellowship of friends going down the road. As Bailey says: “You’re never out there on your own because there’s always somebody you know through the friendship of rodeoing.”

This September, I attended the Flint Hills Bull Blowout in Strong City in the company of two dear friends from Europe, Risk Hazekamp from Holland and Tania “Caya” Witte from Germany. They live together in the German capital, Berlin. For Caya this is her first visit to the US and even in Berlin everyone wanted to know, “What the heck are you going to Kansas for?” There is a simple answer to this question: they flew to Wichita’s Midcontinent Airport because both were invited to be artist in residence in Matfield Green, in connection with The Gallery at Pioneer Bluffs. Risk is a visual artist who uses photography as her medium; Caya is a writer and a journalist. They are in Kansas for three months and six weeks respectively, minus a trip to the former dust bowl area of western Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle and to the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, New Mexico, where Risk had a show in 2009.

They often work together and then they are crossing borders between image and word; they interact and influence each other especially as regards content. Following their different ways of experiencing life through art, the two artists search for new possibilities to describe and show gender-related issues. Risk’s photography explores issues of identity and in particular the way in which gender and identity intersect in fact and fiction. Caya has been a writer since she learned how to spell and a performer since she discovered the pleasure to speak out loud. Her 2011 novel ‘beziehungsweise liebe’ (‘respectively love’) got positively reviewed in- and outside the European LGBT scene. They are in Kansas, and in the Dust Bowl, to do projects of which the direction is still unclear. “The scenery, the history of the land, the people we meet – these experiences will guide us to defining our intercultural Kansas projects.”

It was a true experience to attend the bull blowout accompanied by two young lesbian women who live in Berlin, amidst one of the world’s liveliest and most openly gay communities. Immediately, they were struck by the pink shirts so many of the cowboys were wearing. It didn’t take long before they detected that the blowout was providing assistance to Ride Rank For A Cure, a cancer awareness group which has been involved in fundraising at rodeos and horse events throughout the Midwest – hence the pink shirts. “Although,” grinned Justin Garr, the openly gay medic standing by to attend to wounded cowboys, “for some of these guys this may be the opportunity to wear pink without creating suspicion.” And his buddy Scott Wiltse pointed out more than one guy in the arena, and a few others in the stands watching “the toughest sport on dirt,” of whom he said to know, and no doubt about it, that they are gay, although not yet out of the closet.

Through the experienced eyes of gender-savvy Risk, and her professional camera’s lenses, the event was recognized as not unlike gatherings of bands of leather-clad bikers. “So many machos crowding together, bonding; backslapping buddies, glad to meet again, on this occasion also working in close harmony – this struck me as a potentially gay environment. Not that the cowboys were all gay, of course not, but, yes, I recognized a few tell-tale postures and walks, and I noticed which ones of them definitely recognized me. I shot some great pictures. Don’t know yet how to use them, but I will. And I really had the best of times,” says Risk. “By the way, I was happy to learn that the rope made out of cotton which is tied around the bull’s flank contrary to popular belief is not tied around the bull’s testicles. This flank strap serves merely to encourage the bull to use its hind legs more in the wildly bucking motion that is a true test of a rider’s skill. Riding bulls is so much nicer than fighting them to their death.”

Risk was invited to position herself practically above the bucking chutes where the riders were helped onto the already wildly bucking bulls and with a clear view of the short rides once the gates were opened. This blowout, too few made it to the buzzer with only one hand allowed to hold on to the braided rope in what is said to be “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports,” but what a spectacle they offered.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, Kansas, September 2011 

Photo: Risk Hazekamp at work above the bucking chutes