At some point in life, everyone wants to be a cowboy, and in Texas, where rodeo is designated as the official state sport, you run into quite a few wannabes, and a fair share of the real deal. The two are usually not difficult to tell apart.
Some of the best rodeos in the country are scattered in towns across Texas, and one of the best is in Fort Worth. The Stockyards Championship Rodeo happens year around, each Friday and Saturday night, and is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first indoor rodeo held in its home, the historic Cowtown Coliseum.
My first trip to the Stockyards Championship Rodeo was as a guest of someone, and as usual I took my camera. I actually got a couple of nice pictures by wandering away from the seating and through a turn of events came to the attention of the folks who run the show there. Our relationship has led to me being able to shoot rodeo action as well as take photographs during the “Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show” on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
Now shooting pics at the rodeo is becoming one of my favorite activities. While I am usually dressed as one of the before mentioned “wannabes”, I get to hang out with some authentic, living the life, working cowboys and cowgirls. Many of the participants are working ranchers and live the cowboy life every day of the week. While shooting music shows is often fun and exciting, there is little to compare to thrill and energy of an 1800 pound bull slinging snot and kicking dirt.
The rodeo is an ever changing, always high energy, two hour show. The saddle
bronc riders, a sport that may be the origin of rodeo, often kicks off the show. It’s rodeo’s classic event and requires more than just strength. Every move the rider makes should be synchronized with the horse and demands style, grace and precise timing. With all of its action, saddle bronc and the similar bareback riding may be the easiest event for a photographer to shoot. The movement of the horse is powerful leaps, often moving slowly across the arena, making an easy target for the camera.
Team Roping may be the most difficult event for me to shoot, with three different focus points moving in different directions at once. It is the only true team event in rodeo, requiring two highly skilled ropers to use near perfect timing, to rope both the head and the rear feet of a steer.
Barrel Racing is becoming one of my favorite events to shoot. While cowboys battle broncs and bulls, cowgirls charge around a cloverleaf pattern circling barrels in a race against the clock. It’s all about angles and it’s a delicate ballet on top of thundering hooves, requiring three good turns and then a sprint home like your life depends on it. Top riders often finish within 1/100th of a second of each other so perfection is demanded by this sport.
Tie down roping and steer wrestling team horse and rider against steer. Both are a race against the clock to subdue a steer using different techniques, and make for a fun challenge to photograph.
The finale and big crowd pleaser is the Bull Riding. While a lot of rodeo competition is an extension of the daily challenges of a working cowboy on a ranch, bull riding probably emerged from the fearless nature of the cowboy.
Intentionally climbing on a two-thousand pound bull can only be thought of as fool-hardy by most of us. The ability to push fear aside and just think “elbow down, stay square, keep moving” is otherworldly. Bull riding gives me some of my best photography opportunities. It’s 8 seconds of epic chaos frozen at a fraction of a second. The fan in me roots for every rider to survive 8 seconds. The photographer pulls for the “wreck”, the rider spectacularly tossed from the bull, the bull turning on the rider and the bull fighters rushing into the gap to defend the rider. And let’s not forget the bull fighters. Their courage and dedication to protect the riders at the expense of their own safety makes them the first responders of the rodeo and is always good for a few great shots.
World Champion bull rider J.B. Mauney once said, “If you’re not doing this to be the best at it, you might as well stop now.” It’s a great honor to get to shoot athletes who all have that mantra, and I have to believe the same way as I try to improve my work each time I walk into an arena. Wonder if there is a gold buckle for photography? Probably not.