Dances with horses
Kiwi cowboys have been riding, roping and wrestling on the rodeo circuit for night on 50 years.to these down-under marlboro men, rodeo is more than a sport, it’s a life -a quest that takes them from Invercargill to Kaitaia in pursuit of that magical eight-second ballet between man and beast
In 1975, the running of the bulls in Pamplona got savagely and seriously out of control. The idea of this Spanish festival is that the menfolk are chased through the streets of town to the bullring. It’s always dangerous, but that year—the year I was there—somehow the narrow entrance to the bullring became plugged by a pile-up of men who’d fallen over each other in panic.
Into this human log-jam slammed the bulls, tossing and goring with their horns. For several long minutes these big black animals tore at trapped people, seriously injuring 17 and killing one. Some of the braver men attempted to draw the bulls away. Me? I’d joined the run early on, but at the first sight of the bulls I’d climbed a fence. I watched in powerless horror.
I never imagined that this kind of brutal and archaic test of manhood—bull versus man—existed in New Zealand. This summer I discovered rodeo. It’s a ritual that comes here from Spain, via Mexico and North America.
Rodeo is Spanish for round-up. Loco is Spanish for the breed of men who, addicted as they are to the sheer sharp rush of adrenalin that only genuine danger provides, choose to tangle with bulls.
Anyone who’s encountered a bull whilst out for a rural stroll has an idea of what this means. Real bulls, the ones built like they’re on steroids, trigger a severe sense of inadequacy. Meet some such swaggering specimen on the other side of seven strands—the fence is inadequate, you’re inadequate. Their roar is a bladder-weakening battlecry aimed at you personally.
Irritate this wilful beast with some inadvertent gesture and you just know there’d be no way to successfully leapfrog the fence to his side as he smashed his way through to yours. You could do it once, you might do it twice, but he’d get you in the end. He’d gain on you.
From the safety of the big city I had sneered at rodeo as another version of line-dancing: a bogus excuse for Western wanna-bes to play dress-ups while performing circus tricks on horseback. Arriving early at Rerewhakaaitu, my first-ever rodeo, a frisson of real fear began to tell a different story.
There, a little south of Rotorua, cantering about the hills and hollows of the officials’ paddock like a stampede of bison were some 20 belching, bellowing, behemoth bulls—slabs of muscle and meat dainty on their feet like boxers. Brahman bulls, six-foot-at-the-shoulder bulls. Not ordinary farm bulls but rodeo bulls trained to bolt at the first squeak of a gate hinge.
Like a city-slicker sook, I waited with my children in my car outside the gate until I could follow another car through to the fenceline on the far side of the paddock, where the rodeo people were nonchalantly going about their business. As I passed among this herd, none attacked, none even lifted its head. Even so, it was impossible to believe that anybody, in this rational fag end of the 20th century, would actually ride these things.
How to understand? Well, compare it to rugby, the better known rite of Kiwi manhood. They used to say being tackled by Colin Meads was like being hit by an earthquake. But what did he weigh? Seventeen stone? Think of doing battle with a rugby player weighing 180 stone with a skull hard as granite, and then you’re talking real earthquake; you’re talking rodeo. One hundred and eighty stone of gristle, hoof and horn. Ten Inga the Wingers rolled into one, on the hoof and wanting to do serious personal damage. A snorting, raging scrum on four hooves.
Rodeo is real business. Rugby’s for line-dancers.
Behind the chute is the best place to be at a rodeo. It’s where the chemicals mix, the chain reaction begins. The chute is where the cowboy is added to the bull—bulls that come bellowing and roaring down the race, blindly bashing into the rails, spraying mucus streamers from their muzzles until finally, with prod and whip, they’re confined in the chutes, fenced-in boxes with a gate on one side that opens into the arena. Even when they’re locked inside this box they’ll still suddenly shunt forward, crunching into the timbers. Some rise up and attempt to shoulder out of the chute, eyes rolling. There’s a sense of some giant rage; some crated creature barely contained.
While the beasts shudder and jostle and barge, the cowboys make ready for the ride. Just as a boxer shadow-boxes, so a cowboy, to focus the mind and the body, enacts the ride before he even gets near the animal. In behind the chute they bunch their fists at the groin as if gripping tight to a rope. They fling back the balancing hand into the air and shuffle forward in the dust, eyes glazed, body rigid. It’s a bow-legged break-dance strut. Riding the bull in their minds.
Just being there as a bystander is an intoxication. The heat, the dust, the smell of bull. The sweat from the hatband leaking into your eyes. A sense of real danger. Bulls do get out, do run amok. There are visions of fence poles shattering like matchsticks. Your mind rehearses the leapfrog technique. Everything builds to a moment of raw disbelief: a cowboy climbs into the tight confines of the chute with a maddened animal.
In this commotion of beast and man the cowboy must choose a lull in the bull’s temper to lower himself into that box, insert his legs between the bull’s rawhide flanks and the timbers. Lost in the eye of this storm, the cowboy’s body is bunched tight in deep tension. The lips lock in a rictus that compresses the blood from the tissue. The cowboy screws a handhold in the bull-rope, dresses the plaited leather with rosin for more grip and finally draws the rope tight around his fist in a knot. Frozen moments of trembling calm.
All bull riders must tie one hand to the bull. The forces generated by the toss, snap and spin of a bull ride are so great that no hand-grip is strong enough by itself. Fall from a bull to the left and the knot unravels by itself. Fall to the right and the knot winds tighter, turning a man into a rag-doll caught by the wrist. Every bull rider fears a fall to the right.
It’s then that the bullfighter, dressed up and made up like a clown, takes over. His job is to save the cowboy’s life, to bust that cowboy’s wrist out of the knot, draw the bull away from the rider who can’t get up. At Rerewhakaaitu Paul Brown is the bullfighter. “If they get hung up on the bull-rope you haven’t got a lot of choice how to handle it. You’ve got to get in there real quick, and that means you’ve got to go over the bull’s head or around the head. A cowboy can get sick real quick.”
I’d just seen Paul smack into a bull with a full-blooded tackle to rescue a cowboy, pulling the bull-rope loose in one savage jerk. As the cowboy flopped to the ground, Paul swung in front of the bull so that it would charge him, rather than go for the cowboy who lay helplessly stunned, face-forward in the dust. It’s a split-second brutal ballet with a 180-stone partner.
But the chute is the most dangerous place of all. Time and again a bull will start up afresh once he senses the rope pull tight. It’s horrifying to watch, a bull crunching backwards and forwards in the crate, a cowboy tied to his back. There’s the real risk of bones being wrenched from their sockets or of a cowboy being pulled down into the crate and crushed to death.
Once in the chute, tied to the beast, there’s no going back. The chain reaction has been tripped. It’s a moment of unbelievable danger that the cowboy’s got to learn to ride. Lose nerve and signal for the gate to swing open too soon, before the breathing’s right, before your body’s found its balance, and you do your chances of lasting the eight seconds that qualifies as a ride. Delay too long and there’s the risk of being crushed in the chute.
Jay Coulter, a 16-year-old cowboy from Pukekohe, puts it this way. “You got to focus in on a peak within yourself. Everybody’s trying to rush things along, but you’ve got to hang in there . . . make sure it’s just right before you get the gate opened, make sure you time that with your peak, with your breathing. You can’t have any blanks in the brain.”
The best bull riders are built like bulls. Short and powerful. Short in the body so there’s less whip in the spine to throw a man off balance. Powerful so the legs can clamp and the arm can dampen the shock-load. The bulls have their own characteristics, too, and the riders get to know which way they jump.
Lasting a ride is first about finding the pivot-point of the see-saw. Shift forward—or slide back—an inch too far and it’s all over. But the bull’s also spinning and pig-jumping, so the cowboy’s got to lean into the spin, stay ahead of the pig-jump. There’s no lead time to settle into any of this. It’s about riding an explosion, one that detonates the second the gate snaps open. That’s why the cowboys do their dance: to lock into the ride ahead of time.
Jay Coulter remembers what a rider’s early days are like: “First time, it’s all over real quick . . . you’re flat on your back and you don’t know what happened. But the more you do it, the slower it becomes. It’s like you’re riding each second as it ticks by. But when it’s over you can still be shaking half an hour later.”
Getting cowboys to talk isn’t easy. Jay, with the freshness of youth as a spur, was prepared to grant me a few minutes, but most of the older hands quite rightly failed to see the point of even attempting to talk rides with somebody who hadn’t done his time.
One cowboy, Bo McLauchlan, said it all anyway: “All you have to do is not fall off. It’s as simple as that.” Bo paused, tipped the brim of his black Stetson. “It’s as simple as that and as hard as that.”
None has a lot to say to the newcomer from the city with a pen who talks too much. But then, from what I eavesdrop from the fringes, they don’t have much to say to each other either. “How ya goin’, Mad Dog?” asks one. Mad Dog raises an eyebrow, clicks his tongue, says nothing. “Thought you were in Canada.” Mad Dog settles his brim, grunts: “Was. Now I’m back.” (New Zealand riders are big time on the North American circuit.)
In a territory where everybody knows his ropes, the greenhorn’s big mistake is too many words. My first lesson was quietly dished out the day before the rodeo when, with a carload of kids and camping-gear, fresh from Auckland, I turned up in the officials’ paddock. The one with 20 monstrous bulls snorting and pawing the turf. I spied a cowboy by a fenceline. Hello, I’m from Auckland and my name is . . . and we’d been told to camp in the officials’ paddock. But there’s some mistake . . . there’s no tents . . . these bulls here . . . my children . . . is this where you camp? Yep.
Suspicious of the advice—I mean, you don’t have young children in a brightly-flapping pup tent in the mother of all bull paddocks, do you—I sought a second opinion from a group of Stetson-hatted folk taking their ease by the chuck-wagon. I mumbled something like is it okay to camp here? Really truly okay?
One, Charlie Brown, turned out to be the stock contractor who follows the rodeo circuit around, supplying the requisite animals—bulls with names like Hacksaw, Black-Jack, Phantom, Electric Puha, Utu. One of the cowboys turned to Charlie. “Whaddya reckon, Charlie?”
“Yeah, this is where you camp. My bulls are so tame, you look them in the eye and they’ll run the other way.”
What about at night? Won’t they get among the tents as we lie asleep, children in our arms . . .?”
“Bulls got to sleep too, don’t they? Think it through, city slicker!”
He didn’t say the bit about city slicker, but he didn’t have to. The question of how soundly bulls slept was stillborn on my lips.
And so, with every sense of safe camping practice screaming violation, I pitched the family pup-tent in that paddock aroar with bulls. Course, there was never any question of leaving the bulls loose. We were the first campers to arrive, that’s all. Within ten minutes the bulls were all safely inside the corral. Charlie Brown tossed a horseback grin in our direction.
Towards nightfall we were joined by the rodeo trucks rolling in from Gisborne. These trucks carry the horses that are used for the riding and roping events, but also double as mobile homes. Rerewhakaaitu is just another stop on the rodeo trail that over summer sees maybe 300 riders, both men and women, compete in 35 rodeos, scattered all over the country. There’s no way they do it for the money, not when the entry fees alone can cost $100 in a day, or when the all-up costs for the season (November to April) can reach $10,000, the same money last year’s top rider took home.
Nationwide there’s maybe 30 riders, the elite, who will try to hit most of the rodeos. They’ll think nothing of driving nonstop from Wanaka to ride the bulls in Kaitaia one day, then drive on to Gisborne the next. Some fly and hire horses for the roping and steer wrestling events, but few do better on the prize money than break even. When the New Zealand summer season closes the best will fly out for the lucrative North American circuit.
And so, winding up the farm track at Rerewhakaaitu, these rodeo trucks—brightly embroidered with multicoloured road lights strung across their cabins—have a hard-bitten, on-the-road gypsy feel. Their dusty diesel roar, the whoosh of the air brake as the trucks settle in, cosying up to one another for the night—these are animal sounds.
Soon that is traded for silence, the swish of canvas horse-covers, the clink of tackle. “Whoa there. Shish.” The smell of horse and hay. From a campfire comes the plucking of a gentle guitar, the crooning of a rodeo ditty.
Actually there was no guitar, nor even campfire. These particular cowboys are no crooners, and their nomads-of-the-night routine is lit by Camping Gaz, not flickering flame. LPG barbecues and $9.99 PVC patio chairs, fresh from The Warehouse, do the work of the bedroll and blackened fry-pan . . . but then anybody who rides broncs and bulls can camp how they choose.
They can also wear what they choose. And they’re into some serious costumes, some serious rig. It’s not all Grand Ol’ Opry star-spangled sequined Liberace stuff, but even so, the idea of Kiwis wearing Stetsons, embossed chaps, snakeskin shirts and huge brassy belt buckles takes some getting used to. It’s all there: the lariats, the tassels, the piebald ponies. But what else do you wear to a rodeo? Jodhpurs and tweeds? Bush-singlet, track pants and gumboots?
Rodeo has certainly won its place in the provinces. The ethos of damper and billy tea has long given way to coffee, bacon and the six-pack, and, for people who work stock, there’s nothing bogus about an event where mastery of stock skills is demonstrated.
You won’t find anything in the library about New Zealand rodeo, but you will find an album, Rodeo Ballads and Sad Country Songs, put together by Dusty Spittle and his wife Merelda in a studio in Crookston, West Otago. Their songs, gems of homespun Kiwi folk heritage twanging out a lazy rural imagery, confirm the place of rodeo in New Zealand. Dusty affects that ersatz Kiwi-country drawl that’s supposed to suggest Texas but never quite gets out of Invercargill—a sort of warbling Southland burr. The words, though, are pure provincial kiwiana. The Spittles’ music gives a rare insight into a world big-city New Zealand knows nothing about. Who, these days, would eulogise a famous Southland bull?
He’s rough, rank and ugly, he’s nobody’s fool,
All the cowboys know Kojak the rodeo bull.
Bull riding is just one of the events that make up a rodeo, but even Dusty would be hard-put to lyricise something like calf roping. The idea here is to release a calf, which then attempts to flee a horse and lariat-twirling rider who, against the clock, seeks to lasso it and truss the legs. Done right, it’s over so smartly that the exhibition of skill somehow helps justify the calf’s clear distress. Done wrong it’s plain ugly. Problem is, the lasso can pack a potent whiplash to the neck as the animal jack-rabbits for safety. This event has been dropped in Australia. In England in 1937, a travelling rodeo from America was forced to drop calf roping from its programme. Rodeo is now banned in that country.
Steer wrestling, where the contestant leaps from a sprinting horse to throw a steer on the ground, demands superb timing for success. This is another event that can lack appeal. Some cowboys do it brilliantly, somehow passing directly from the saddle to the horns of the steer in one fluid movement. They dig their heels in the ground and use the animal’s momentum to flip it flat on its side. It can be graceful, but if a cowboy misses that timing it turns into an unedifying twisting of a neck to force the steer to yield. In America it’s called bulldogging, so named because back 90 years one famed rodeo rider, Bill Pickett, used an actual bulldog technique to toss the steer: he used to bite into the animal’s lower lip. If that sounds a little aggressive, consider the event’s predecessor as practised by the gaucho last century, the idea being to reach around the animal’s head while riding it, and cut the throat.
Rodeo’s come a ways since then. In New Zealand a code of practice is strictly applied, with a vet in attendance at all times to monitor stock condition. Improper spurring is heavily penalised, and the most common form of injury to an animal arises from a fall.
Animal welfare groups, while conceding the professional approach now taken by rodeo, are unconvinced. Bob Kerridge, from the SPCA: “Rodeo is grotesque. We have evidence that substantial injuries can be inflicted, and what is the point of it? So some macho fellow can say he’s sat on a bull for eight seconds. With horse racing you’re talking about something natural for a horse—the natural herding instinct. But rodeo? It’s abhorrent stuff. The bottom line is that the animal would rather not be there.”
“Rather in a ring than in a tin can,” says Pat McCarthy, president of the Rodeo Cowboys Association. “The sort of animals we use nobody wants anyway. We admire a horse or a bull ‘cos it’s mean.”
Certainly, the fact a bull has a macho disposition of its own doesn’t make the business of being electrically prodded into chutes any less traumatic than, say, the experience of a calf at the end of the rope. Most, like Ferdinand, would probably prefer to sniff the flowers.
There is one horseback event in rodeo that the animals unequivocally enjoy, and that’s barrel racing, an event reserved for women. This time trial involves completing a course laid out around barrels. At Rerewhakaaitu, nobody can beat 12-year-old Lisa Tauariki and her horse Stix. She’s been barrel racing since she was nine. For most of the 17 seconds it takes to get round the course little Lisa is airborne.
In America, women do the whole bit—ride broncs and bulls. In 1927, one cowgirl, Tad Lucas, earned much infamy for bull riding while three months pregnant. In New Zealand, cowgirls are limited to just barrel racing.
I ask Lisa Tauariki if she’d ever like to ride a bull or a bronc.
“Nah, that’s only for men.”
But girls can do anything, can’t they?
“I don’t want to do it. I might get stomped on . . .”
Indeed, why get stomped on when someone with Lisa’s promise has a rodeo scholarship to look forward to. One champion barrel racer, Lani Jackson, is now in the States at rodeo school, all her costs paid for by an American club.
Lisa and Lani have one thing in common, and so do at least 20 other rodeo contestants: they’re related to the Church family of Rerewhakaaitu. Some reckon that by the time you’ve added up all the cousins and distant relatives, the Church family rodeo contingent is nearer to a hundred. At the Rerewhakaaitu rodeo the MC doesn’t bother with calling the Church surname. Instead it’s Dion, Merv, Corey, Darryl, Clarry, Rex and Tama—all built like bulls. Short and powerful, living for the ride.
There’s more to master than bulls. If bulls are about a bruising wrestle then riding a bronc is high-wire ballet, a dangerous high-velocity ballet. Horses don’t turn and thrash in a circle like a bull, they head off at high speed, twisting, bucking and caterpaulting. They’re cleverer than bulls, with a mean bag of tricks all their own. The worst is when the horse runs at the rails—which way is the sucker going to turn? Or when the bronc runs along the rails trying to scrape the rider off.
At Rerewhakaaitu I catch in the face of one bronc rider who read the turn wrong a look of resigned desperation as the horse, shrewd as they all are, proceeds to tenderise him along the fence before finally spitting him head-first into the rails. This guy reaching in mid-air with his hands to fend off the impact, groping for the chance of a handhold on the rails. The clear sound of bone cracking. At least a bronc doesn’t go in for the kill.
The risk of injury is something cowboys live with. Cracked ribs, broken legs, split skulls. Mery Church broke his leg last year, but found the plaster cast interfered with his riding. So he cut it off with a hacksaw. One young rider, Jamie Schuster, spent two days in intensive care when a bull broke his ribs and punctured his lung. Three weeks later, he was back in the ring. While no rider has been killed in New Zealand, two Kiwis have died on the North American circuit.
There at Rerewhakaaitu in just two days the evidence was clear: in rodeo it’s the humans who get hurt. Take the cowboy with his scalp split open, lying motionless face-down while 180 stone of bull stamped and thrashed above his head. He ended up with an ear that wasn’t just cauliflowered but coleslawed. Or take the rider bulldozed around the arena by a trampling scrum of hooves, visible only as a bundle of clothes trapped somewhere underneath. Or the rider who took a kick so hard in the chest you could hear the whoosh of air and the crack of bones clear across the ring.
Since cowboys ride with their legs apart, an undue proportion of impacts are centred in tender regions. One rider from Australia had a horse topple backwards and land on him so that his groin took the force. This cowboy staggered away from his horse like the survivor of a bomb blast, staggering away to anywhere, with stiffly tender movements like a scarecrow walking on eggshells. The treatment for groin injuries is a bucket of ice down the jeans.
Animals crawl off to die. Apparently, it’s also a human instinct. At various stages you’d catch sight of the casualties, cowboys wishing they were dead. Maybe one lurking grey-faced behind a trailer studying his knees, another bent double at a distant fenceline. This in addition to those getting full-on first aid in the resident ambulance.
At no stage do the casualties get anything like sympathy, nor do they want it. The best they can hope for is a chuck on the shoulder, or their hat dusted down by a mate. If rodeo is about facing down danger, it’s also about surviving the falls.
The will to ride is almost unstoppable. One cowboy, Murray Dette, broke his ankle on a bull the first day at Rerewhakaaitu. Next day he was back in the chute, this time ramming his busted bone, his damaged muscle, down between a horse’s flanks and the rails. The horse rises up and falls back, crunching the bound ankle again. I’m wincing. But not Murray.
Out in the arena it goes from bad to worse. The horse spills Murray off its back, but he gets hung up on his ankle—dangles head-first from his busted ankle. The horse is all fired up, stomping and whirling and smashing Murray into the rails.
In the ambulance, Murray tells me it’s all worth it. “Yesterday I won the bull ride, the bareback bronc and came second in the saddle bronc. I got $220 for it. The way I see it, that’s $220 for just three times eight seconds. You can’t get better than that. My ankle? That’ll fix up.”
Why do they do it? I never got an answer. I mean, how does a paunch-gutted city feller with a pen, who talks too much, front some sinewy cowpoke still awash with the adrenalin of surviving a death-ride and expect to be favoured with reasoned insight?
But among the literature on American rodeo I unearthed at the city library I found a sociology professor with an answer—a dangerous breed. His 18-page article in the American Ethnologist magazine was entitled “The Rock Creek Rodeo: excess and constraint in men’s lives.”
For the cowboys of Rerewhakaaitu it’s a must read. Academic Frederick Errington writes, the smell of professorial pipesmoke still strong on the pages: “Through this event men are able to relive and transcend their pasts in such a way that they, as responsible citizens, have indeed appropriately controlled but not significantly relinquished their autonomy as men. The oscillations in rodeo have special salience and efficacy in the American context for the enactment of such existential issues concerning the relationship of the individual to society.”
The professor’s put his finger on it! Just substitute the New Zealand context for the American and you’ve got it in a nutshell. And according to him, nothing demonstrates the salience of the oscillations better than the bull ride.
“Bull riding has no conceivable practical function. Therefore to engage in a fundamentally pointless and hazardous activity as attempting to ride a bull is a display of virtually pure bravado.
“The rodeo bulls are particularly impressive because of their obvious size, power, fearless irascibility and sexuality [pardon me?]. Moreover, that a bull rider is likely to have a reputation in rodeo circles as a rough sort of lover—see Lawrence, 1982—suggests that his sexuality is regarded at least somewhat comparable to that of the bull.”
What manner of cowboy let the professor in on these secrets? Who was Lawrence? And how come no one at Rerewhakaaitu was prepared to tell me any of this? The professor has more. “The clowns, unlike the bull and the bull rider, have no apparent sexuality, but the sexuality of the bull rider is balanced by the asexuality of the clowns—see also Lawrence 1982.”
No thanks. I have no wish to see Lawrence, who, on the evidence, is one warped cowboy. I confess here occupational jealousy. How was a professor with a clipboard able to gain the inner view where I had failed so miserably.
I tried, you don’t know how I tried: Some ride, huh? Yep. How did you do it? Stayed on. You wouldn’t catch me out there. No comment. Did you feel the asexuality of the clown somehow balanced your sexuality as the bull rider, and is your name Lawrence, by any chance?
So is the professor on the right track, citing this sexual business as a prime ingredient of rodeo’s allure? Well, I prefer Dusty Spittle on the subject. Dusty speaks for why the risks are worth it. It’s called the right stuff.
Cowboys ain’t heroes,
They often rate zero
To people who don’t understand them at all.
For they love bars and whisky
Living lives that are risky
And it seems that they’re always riding to fall.
Cowboys are ramblers
And rave-it-up gamblers
Wearing out lives that won’t tie them down.
They’re a hard act to follow,
Here today, gone tomorrow,
Wandering in search of some rodeo town.
The lyrics, sugared as they are with slide guitar, point to the undeniable provincial status of cowboys as footloose heroes who, oozing testosterone all the while, embody a lean-muscled vision of freedom. In rural New Zealand, this vision has particular attraction around milking time.
And at the Port Waikato national championship I finally placed rodeo, finally figured the reason why. There, fresh-scrubbed and out to rub shoulders with the dream was one cluster of large-boned florid farmers wearing agricultural implement tee-shirts, Stubbie shorts and gumboots.
Hot dogs in hand, they browsed awkwardly closer to a solitary cowboy taking his ease following a bull ride. Soon they just happened to be talking to him, these towelling hatted men, wrestling the elastic on their Stubbiessubconsciously revisiting every few minutes the endless conundrum of the beer-bellied, the farm-fed. Does the elastic go under the belly or over?
The cowboy? His two thumbs were hooked behind a centurion-sized champion’s buckle that held a pair of battered skintight Wranglers. His legs were quietly, confidently apart. A squint from under a Stetson coolly acknowledged the farmers’ banter.
Why ride rodeo? Take just the hat. The rim of a $200 Stetson frames a face, lends a purposeful air, a cool watchfulness to the eyes. It’s the John Wayne difference. Pick your nose wearing a Stetson and you’re digging out the dust of a bull ride. Do the same wearing a towelling hat and it means you’ve somehow got tomato sauce from the hot-dog up your nose.
And me? With both hands busy note-taking, my elastic rode my belly as it pleased. If the farmers I was observing felt soft, foolish and somehow humbled by this 19-year-old athlete with the warrior nonchalance, then I knew the feeling. So do the cowboys. They’ve made their choice.