None of this is familiar to me. It’s wild, and I love it already. I’m standing on the platform behind the bucking chute, a three thousand pound contraption of steel and iron - and it’s shaking. A leather clad cowboy is lowering himself down onto the most intimidating of farm animals. In mere moments, the chute gate will swing open and this 2000 pound ball of testosterone and muscle will thrash, buck and twist until the rider is flung into the air.
Story + Photos Brendan Byrne
All around us are 20,000 screaming, hollering rodeo fans who came to see what can only be described as a mesmerizing display of humananimal interaction.
Taking place under the hot blue sky of Cheyenne, Wyoming makes this not just the mecca of rodeo in the United States but arguably, the cowboy capital of the world.
The chute gate opens, the roar of the crowd intensifies and the whole platform on which I stand quakes as the bull and rider are thrust into the arena.
Welcome to the Cheyenne Frontier Days.
“I am not used to seeing any of this. Despite knowing that rodeo is an important part of rural Australian culture back home, I have lived in the United States for 9 years and I am somewhat embarrassed to say that this is, in fact, my first rodeo. You may as well start big.”
I thought I knew what to expect. I’ve seen the films and the TV shows. The picture of the cowboy hanging onto the bucking horse is hardly an obscure image. It’s even a trademarked emblem by the State of Wyoming.
However being there is different, as is with most things, but this was palpably different. After spending 9 days at the rodeo one thing stood out to me above many other fascinating observations; these people are tough. Really tough.
The Cheyenne Frontier Days is the biggest rodeo on Earth, attracting over 250,000 fans and 1,400 contestants from across the United States and around the world.
The backgrounds and hometowns of these cowboys and cowgirls are incredibly diverse but the consistent characteristic that was clear to me was a toughness that is hard to overstate.
The sport of rodeo is no joke. At its best it’s a beautiful interplay between animal and rider but the health risks are real and the consequences of coming off second best to these animals can be grave.
What’s that famous John Wayne quote about courage? Being scared to death and saddling up anyway? Well, that certainly epitomized a lot of what I saw backstage as these athletes were gearing up to ride the fired up farm animals in the chutes next to them.
One cowboy I had a chance to meet backstage wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I thought of a ‘bull rider’. Tall, lean and unassuming, I sought him out after a very impressive 84.5 ride earlier in the day. The talent he has for this sport was clear after watching him ride but I wanted to speak with him specifically because of the unmistakable hometown of this bull rider that flashed across the screen in the arena before his ride.
Ky Hamilton is from Mackay, Queensland. After being surrounded by southern and western drawls for the better part of a week, the force of Ky’s Australian accent was a nice reminder of home as I went up to him and introduced myself backstage. A Queensland native, Ky Hamilton now lives in the cowboy crammed region of north-east Texas. It’s his first time competing at the Cheyenne Frontier Days and his excitement is palpable. He describes the event as a rite of passage, a baptism of sorts for ambitious cowboys and cowgirls who seek to master the art of staying atop these fourlegged beasts.
At the time of speaking with him, Ky is already within the top 5 competitors in bull riding at Cheyenne, not bad for a first time contender. Even more impressive is that Ky Hamilton in fact went on to win the entire bull riding event at Cheyenne mere days later. He reigned in an extremely skillful 89 point ride on Championship Sunday. Seeing him get up onstage and hearing his thick Australian accent ring through an arena of 20,000 cheering Americans in the real heart of cowboy country was a heartwarming end to an already very memorable nine days.
Witnessing these cowboys and cowgirls handle these animals so majestically really helped me appreciate what a remarkable pastime rodeo is. The skill and courage of those who compete in the sport cannot be denied.
During my 9 days in Cheyenne I saw performances atop broncs and bulls that almost defied belief. I also saw multiple contestants carried out of the arena on a stretcher, a sober reminder of how the potential glory and peril of rodeo is ever present.
While the Cheyenne Frontier Days attracts contestants and spectators from around the world, the event takes place in a very American context. Each day before the rodeo began, 20,000 people bowed their heads in collective prayer then turned to face a massive billowing American flag that stood tall at the end of the arena while the Star Spangled Banner blared live across the loudspeakers from a singer centre stage. As the national anthem came to a climax, the roar and fervor of the crowd was enough to give this expatriate the chills.
It was at this moment each day, as I stood camera in hand next to the bucking chutes waiting for the action to begin, that the full force of this American cultural institution hit me.
Under the great blue Wyoming sky, in the heart of hearts of cowboy country, these men and women were about to continue a tradition that goes back well over 100 years.
The first cowboy of the day is in the chute atop his horse, one hand tightly grips the bronc rope, the other pushes his cowboy hat firmly down on his head and raises his arm in the air.
A small swift nod of his head signals the gateman to yank his rope, swinging the gate wide open and allowing the bucking bronco to take centre stage at the world’s most famous rodeo.
Not even a mere 10 minutes later, another cowboy is thrown from his horse shortly after exiting the chute. He is twisted in the air and his leg gets stuck in his stirrup. He can’t free himself and is dragged by his horse across the arena floor. The audience and announcer gasp. His leg is eventually freed and he slowly brings himself to his feet. The audience roars. The cowboy dusts off his hat and thanks God by lifting one finger and pointing towards the sky.
The audience roars louder. This is the gallantry of rodeo. I guess John Wayne was right.