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New book depicts a kinder, gentler rodeo culture

What's the only event more disturbing than a renaissance fair, a Civil War re-enactment or a Star Trek convention (in which nerds dress up like their favorite Vulcan, Romulan or Starfleet captain)?

The answer has got to be the American rodeo. Whether it's the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo or the Professional Bull Riding Finals (both in Las Vegas) or the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo in Denver, the spectacle of so many fake cowboys gathered in one arena is something that has to be seen to be believed. You'd think these folks all lived on rugged ranches when, in fact, most live in deed-restricted communities and pay homeowner's association fees like the rest of us. Whatever, dudes.

As much as I can't stomach being around people who wear designer 10-gallons, Melody Groves' Ropes, Reins, and Rawhide: All About Rodeo has opened my eyes to the world of rodeo fans. Sure, at times, her book reads like a lengthy news release sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. But overall, this is the perfect introduction to rodeo for the novice and what I can only imagine to be a handy refresher for the true rodeo enthusiast, written by someone who obviously cares about the (ahem) sport.

Groves is a fascinating figure in her own right. A freelance magazine writer, she has self-published a couple of Western novels under the name Mesa Dean and performs every Sunday as a member of the New Mexico Gunfighters in Albuquerque's Old Town. She lives and breathes the Old (and New) West, and she's got the credentials to prove it. It's no wonder then that Ropes, Reins, and Rawhide lassos the reader.

The book begins with a brief history of rodeo, with a special emphasis on the humane treatment that rodeo animals receive during these events. Some of this sounds like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales describing the strict rules that govern waterboarding. For instance: "Spurs, used by bull and bronc riders, are equipped with blunted rowels (the round part of the spur) and do not hurt the animal." I have a feeling that, if I donned some of these "blunted" spurs and dug them into a cowboy, he or she would not it enjoy it very much. Then again, animals don't enjoy getting carved up for dinner, either. Well, at least there are always veterinarians on call in case a four-legged creature gets injured during a rodeo.

There's a great chapter devoted to stock contractors, those responsible for supplying rodeos with wrangle-worthy beasts. Groves focuses on Casper Baca, a New Mexico-based contractor with plenty of experience at training bulls to buck. He does this with a little help from his robotic friends:

To begin, a 2-year-old bull, too young to buck with a person on board, is outfitted with a mechanical "dummy," a small box with antennae on top designed to simulate a human rider. The dummy is programmed to come off the bull after six seconds. Around the age of 3, if the contractor deems his bull to be strong enough, a live rider will sit on top of the animal.

Mechanized dummies riding flesh-and-blood bulls? I, Rodeo Robot.

Groves' description of ranch rodeos as a team sport is compelling. Contestants are required "to be actual cowboys who make their livings from a ranch." Events include ranch bronc riding, team penning, team branding and team doctoring (in which participants separate an animal from the herd using lassos). But the most intriguing event is wild cow milking, which, not surprisingly, takes four team members. Still, it's no laughing matter:

Wild cow milking is one of the more dangerous events in a ranch rodeo: Pasture cattle tend to have sharp horns and hooves, and a cranky disposition, unlike the docile dairy cattle. The Charolais cows will even head butt the roper's horse. None of the cows like being touched except by their own small suckling calf. Even on good days, they can be hard to handle. Because they are mature cows, these animals are also the biggest cattle used in any of the events. Think 1,200 to 2,000 pounds or a VW Bug.

I'd rather not think about it.

Groves offers informative chapters on bull riding, bareback riding, steer wrestling and barrel racing that do much to illuminate the intricacies of each event. And with 100 photographs (including one of the author busting out of a chute atop a large bull), Ropes, Reins, and Rawhide will open your eyes to the appeal of a sport that only seems to growing more and more popular.

If only the Trekkies had such an accomplished voice to better explain whatever it is they do! Regardless, Groves demonstrates why subcultures shouldn't be dismissed for their superficial qualities. Indeed, she proves that a rodeo possesses as much passion and intellect as any other activity

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