Skeeter and the Cowboy Crowd
Sweat, blood, guts, and glory. All of these words seem to go together when talking about a rodeo. And as the legend of the cowboy is so closely linked to Texas, so, too, is the rodeo tradition.
But in spite of its pop-culture perception as a Western creation, rodeo’s roots extend back centuries to vaqueros on Spanish-Mexican ranches, where competitions were a mixture of cattle-wrangling and bullfighting. (The Spanish word rodeo means “roundup.”)
The American rodeo developed informally in the late 19th Century with cowboys celebrating the completion of cattle drives across hundreds of miles of vast, open land to various stockyards across the country. Cowboys from different ranches would challenge each other to see who was best at cutting cattle, throwing a rope, or riding a bull. Most likely, drinking and fighting were part of these early competitions, too.
Spectators would inevitably gather, and the modern-day rodeo was born. The town of Pecos claims “the [world’s] first public cowboy contest,” held in 1883, and the West of the Pecos Rodeo is still held there every summer.
As a young-pup photographer, one of my first “real” assignments was to cover the Texas Prison Rodeo in Huntsville. What an indoctrination to rodeo this was: Hardened criminals, given a taste of freedom, if just for eight seconds—with nothing to lose, and sometimes a stay in the comforts of the in-firmary to gain—put their all into each event. Under the ever-watchful eyes of guards, the cowboy convicts didn’t just compete in events, they attacked them with wild abandon.
From then on, I was hooked. Even though the rodeos I’ve seen since have proven somewhat tamer than the prison rodeo, they still embody everything American, everything Texan.
From the January 2009 issue.
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