July 1, 1994

Learning the Ropes at Rodeo School

TO UNDERSTAND THE RODEO COWBOY’S ENTERPRISE BETTER, I decided to get on a couple of horses myself. Lyle Sankey’s Memorial Day weekend course in Okeene, Oklahoma, sounded like the chance. “Stock for all levels,” read the ad in the rodeo newspaper. “Video playback. Class Room Instruction. The School Designed for the Man Riding Bucking Horses.”

There was no reason why a 34-year-old with no experience couldn’t qualify, Sankey told me over the phone. “It’s really up to you,” said the acclaimed teacher and former champion. “It’s how much you really WANT to do it that will determine your success.” Rodeo, as its followers everywhere will tell you and as Sankey repeated all weekend, is primarily a mental game.

But to attend rodeo school as a novice, I learned, you had better want to do it a whole lot. Enough to risk getting significantly banged up, because none of us, not even the seasoned vets, left rodeo school unscathed.

Borrowing a term from aviation, Sankey calls the weekend’s session “ground school.” In a shed next to the arena his assistant checked our spurs and the fit of our gloves in the riggings. (The rigging, like a sturdy leather suitcase handle with girth straps, is what bareback riders use to attach themselves to a horse.) The fit needed to be tight, Sankey counseled, but not so tight you couldn’t get out when you needed to.

Before screening videos from the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas to illustrate his lecture on the fundamentals of form, Sankey asked for a show of hands to find out who had been riding for how long. Everyone but me had ridden for years, many in high school rodeo. The others, mostly farm boys ages 16 to 24, but also including a pilot for USAir, seemed eager — a little too eager — to see how I would fare.

We practiced awhile on bales of hay. Then, donning chaps and slipping foam-rubber tailbone pads down the seats of our jeans, we walked to the arena.

You imagine the moments spent on a bucking horse to be the most thrilling, but they are not the most dangerous. That distinction, Sankey said, is reserved for the seconds right before the ride, when a cowboy is inside the chute with the horse, and right after, when he’s on the ground, often surrounded by the galloping mounts of the pickup men and the flailing hooves of his own horse. But, dropping gingerly onto your horse in the chute, it’s what will happen in the arena that you think about. Lyle had taught us to visualize the ride: shoulders back, stomach tightened, chin down, free hand skyward, spurs high so they’d be set in the horse the first time he landed outside the chute. Staying on eight seconds is the first challenge, he said; doing it stylishly the second. I nodded.

That maiden voyage lasted perhaps five seconds. I remember little of the passage of time, only a brief circumscribed mental picture of my gloved hand, my boots in the air, and then the ground looming up fast. I landed on my face and chest. Lyle ran out, picked up my hat, and chastised me for getting up slowly when the horse was still close by, bucking. If there’d been any air in my lungs, I would have tried to defend myself. Back behind the chutes the others slapped me on the back. “When your breath got knocked out, we saw it make a little poof in the dust,” Lyle joked, grinning.

Not until the adrenaline subsided did the ache in my hip and the knot on my calf make me wonder what I’d knocked them against. The fence around the arena was a good place to watch all the action during the next three days — some good rides, but mostly bad ones, and a few disasters.

James, a high school sophomore from Alpine, Texas, whose Border Patrol father had driven him the 12 hours to the school, got hung up on his second try; we saw the horse stamp on his legs a couple of times. Before long his calf had swollen to twice its normal size, but James went out again. He lasted the full eight seconds on his third ride, but after Lyle blew the whistle, his horse’s lurch dropped James down directly onto the rigging handle, so hard that every man on the fences groaned and put his knees together. Hobbling off, James thanked the pickup men and tried hard to walk normally.

The next day Pete, too, got hung up and stomped; Greg got tossed off backward and landed on his head; even Doug, the stock contractor whose ranch was hosting the event, was propelled off a horse and against the metal fence, which he slid down and then walked away from, slowly, with a limp. My third horse spooked in the chute, slamming me against the back of it and bruising my shoulder before cowboys could pull me out.

Evenings, at a cafe in town, one could measure our progressive decrepitude. Men sat down stiffly, reached slowly, ate quietly. Our entertainment the second night, over chicken-fried steak, was Jason’s X-rays. Jason, a trim muscular hunting guide, had held his arm after a seemingly successful ride. No one paid much attention until 10 minutes later when someone noticed that tears had slipped out under his eye. From what little I knew of Jason, this meant he was in agony.

“Lyle, I think I better go to the hospital,” he had said, refusing a ride even though his truck had manual transmission. At dinner Jason was in a cast, with a spiral fracture of the ulna that would require surgery within a week.

Sankey handed out gear bags as awards the last day. “The guys who succeed are not always the most talented,” he began. “They’re the ones who are the most mentally tough.” Eighteen-year-old Chad, who had vastly improved his saddle bronc riding, received one, and the other went to the indomitable James. Lyle praised James’s improvement but then, laughing, got to the point: “His leg’s so bad he can’t even walk, and here he is with a big grin on his face all the time, going, ‘Isn’t America great? Isn’t rodeo wonderful?’ ” As Lyle handed him the bag, James rose creakily to his feet one last time, beaming.