The pounding stadium music swelled and the middling crowd at the Payson Spring Rodeo leaned forward for the single most dangerous moment in sports — the foolhardy attempt to sit on top of a furiously bucking, spinning, twisting, slobbering, kicking bull.
The 2,000-pound bull exploded from the chute, leaped up entirely into the air, came down, half spun, then did a hoof stand — kicking his back legs up so he was nearly vertical. The cowboy on top clung to the bull rope, tied beneath the beast with its clanging bell. The bull rider clutched the leather handhold braided into the rope with his rosined leather glove, which was effectively tied to his hand to keep the spin from ripping it off. Leaning far back as the bull went vertical, the cowboy let his free hand circle overhead in perfect form as the frenzied bull tried to rid himself of the rider and the galling flank strap.
The bull cleared the ground entirely, spun a half turn in mid air, launched himself again and spun back in the opposite direction. That did the trick. The bull rider slid sideways. The bull felt the
shift and went into a renewed, murderous spasm of spins and kicks, launching the rider into the air.
He landed hard in the dirt of the arena and the bull spun, seemingly seeking his fallen foe.
It looked like death. It looked like murder.
But the bull clearly hadn’t factored in Luke Kraut, in baggy pants festooned with strips of cloth, his clown makeup incongruously cheerful. The bullfighters are the firefighters of the rodeo. When bulls spin, everyone else runs to climb the fence. But the bullfighter rushes toward the bull.
Kraut appeared from nowhere and inserted himself between the bull and the cowboy. He extended a palm toward the bull’s face, half turned to protect the cowboy and somehow managed to reach out with a foot and push the bull’s black leg aside so that it missed crushing the fallen rider’s foot by a couple of inches.
The bull spun, Kraut shifted again to remain between the bull and the cowboy, now scrambling to his feet. The threesome executed a strange, shifting dance, rotating as a unit, until the cowboy could find a trajectory that would intersect the safety of the fence.
Kraut stayed with the bull in his clown makeup, a great, colorful ripple of offhand courage.
And to think, I almost didn’t go to the Gary Hardt Memorial Spring Rodeo on Saturday, with my life sliding sideways like a fat greenhorn with a loose saddle strap. Water rates, fire marshals, graduation tabs, I had plenty to swallow up my Saturday without hacking off a big chunk of afternoon for an anachronistic display of horsemanship.
But Andy, our photographer, was off on a rare vacation. Someone had to go. Besides, this year the Spring Rodeo was dedicated to Cowboy Carl Hall, the beloved, longtime KMOG radio jock and stalwart of the Payson Rodeo Committee. We couldn’t miss that.
Once through the gates, my reluctance made no sense at all.
The team ropers were already performing their magic and I was instantly flummoxed by the implausibility of the task. Two riders — the header and the heeler — bolt out of the chute right behind a frantically headlong steer. The header rides at a smooth gallop on a tenaciously trained horse, the big lasso swirling above his head. He has one throw to catch the steer by both horns, the neck, or the neck and one horn — all at a gallop. It seemed almost plausible, although I can’t get more than about two spins of a rodeo lasso over my head standing stock still. The heeler gallops a few strides back, waiting for his partner to rope the steer and turn him. Then in a completely implausible piece of timing, the heeler throws his rope from his wheeling horse so that it unfurls along the ground and catches both back legs of the steer.
Teamwork and grace, like a metaphor for everything hard and beautiful.
Blew me away — me and the half-a-stadium’s worth of rodeo lovers.
Then out rushed the barrel racers, sprinting the length of the stadium twice, while spinning around three strategically placed barrels — hopefully in the 17 seconds and change it took to win it all. They took my breath away, these headlong riders in perfect communion with their 1,000-pound horses. The partnership seems uncanny in this arena, developed in the course of the 4,000 years since horses threw their lot in with humans.
Scientists have lately concluded that horses can count (to four), make complex social distinctions, learn unexpectedly complicated concepts and group things by mental categories. As anyone who has loved a horse can attest, they’ve each got their quirks, courage and crazy. They’ll make you fall helplessly in love — and then break some major combination of bones. But here in the arena, the riders and horses seems like a poem of motion, a cloud of dust, a turn, a stretch and gallop that will bring your heart to your throat and stop it.
And all that before the bull riders climbed the metal railings of the fence and descended into the chute to settle gingerly onto the backs of the monsters, which sometimes rose up in the chute as though they could climb over the railings.
The judges rate both the bulls and the riders on a 50-point scale. In the three days of rodeo, only one bull rider (maybe two, we haven’t got the final scores yet) stayed on for the full 8 seconds. Last year at the Spring Rodeo, not a single bull rider made it to the buzzer.
I made it to the buzzer — the last bull of the day — hungry for more.
But you know, it’s weird. Out of all the grace and courage and grit that went into the Spring Rodeo, it’s an image of Kraut that comes back to me — in his face paint and his ridiculous outfit. He’s standing between 2,000 pounds of enraged bull and a cowboy who went down so hard he can’t get a breath. He’s got the flat palm of his hand in the bull’s face, his knees flexed, his courage so routine he’s turned it into a shrug. And when the bull spins away, he makes himself look foolish for a laugh.
It makes me think maybe life’s not as hard as I’m making it. Maybe you just show up and get a laugh and then step in front of the bull when you have to. Let that be enough. That’s the job. No big deal.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m over thinking it. But I am thinking that even if Andy’s here in August, I’m definitely going to the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo.