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The Young Riders

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Text Photos by Benjamin Tice Smith

"Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys." --Willie Nelson.

Saginaw, Tex.

In a sport where eight seconds of chaos separates the winners and the losers, time seems to stand still when cowboys get ready to rodeo.

Lean, rangy, his Stetson topped with a Santa cap in a nod to the season, a young cowboy braces his arms on the top rails of the steel pen that encloses his bull. He spreads his legs and gingerly lowers himself onto the Brahma's rolling back.

Gathered around the pen, his friends whisper encouragement, as they warily eye the horns protruding through the rails.

"Ooookaaaay," the voice of announcer Tom Ridel fills the arena here at the North Texas High School Rodeo Association, outside Fort Worth. "We're ready to go with the most dangerous event in rodeo: bull-riding."

The rider, meanwhile, slips his gloved left hand under the rope encircling the bull's belly--his only legal point of contact with nearly a ton of muscle and sinew that waits patiently to dislodge him with a series of spins, twists, and turns.

The rope creaks as the boy works his hand into the strap, in hopes of delaying the inevitable a few seconds, time enough to turn a mediocre ride into a money-winner. His bare right hand, meanwhile, pounds his gloved fingers, the better to bend them into shape around the strap.

Outside the pen, leaning cautiously forward, another young cowboy waits with his hands knotted around the six-foot strip of webbing used to spring the gate, while a clown--his eyes painted a shocked white and a skirt of bandannas swirling around his cut-off overalls--touches the rider's shoulder reassuringly.

"Don't panic, O.K.?" he whispers edgily. "I'm with you."

In the pen, the rider clamps down on a plastic mouthpiece, and gives a quick, nervous nod, as much to reassure himself as to signal the beginning of the ride.

And time moves into overdrive.

The gate swings open, scattering the clowns and corral hands, and the bull bursts into the muddy arena, kicking up clods of cold earth that spatter bystanders.

At ground level, from less than a car-length away, the animal seems impossibly large. The rider improbably small.

"It's lot slower than you think it is," says Rusty Hamby, an 18-year-old junior at Paradise (Tex.) High School, and already an experienced bull-rider. "It's the longest eight seconds of your life."

A lucky rider, drawing the name of an "easy" bull from the hat, will stay with his mount for the regulation eight seconds before dismounting. A skillful rider will also go the distance, though the strength and the understanding of the animal that it takes for a cowboy to stay on a tough bull are lost on the casual observer.

"After you start doing it a while, you can read the bull," Hamby notes. But, he adds, "everybody says I have a natural ability to ride bulls."

At times, neither luck nor skill prevails. Sometimes, like tonight, a hand will catch in the strap as a rider is thrown or tries to dismount. "Not the most pleasant thing in the world to be hung up on the side of a 2,000-pound bull," Ridel observes over the loudspeaker.

Or, worse, the animal shakes the rider loose and, ignoring the distracting clowns, continues to kick and buck until its hooves crash down on the prostrate cowboy with a sickening squelch.

Until four years ago, Chris Harris rode his share of bulls and enjoyed it. But then, he says, "I started getting hurt all the time."

"I was getting scared of every ride," he adds. "I was scared to the point I just wanted to just get on them and ride them just to get it over with."

His life changed when he literally dreamed about riding a bareback animal that wasn't a bull and shortly thereafter mounted his first bareback horse.

Today, at 18, with a cracked skull and numerous other injuries behind him, Harris is hailed as one the best "roughstock" riders in these parts--a master of bareback riding. Unlike Hamby, who hopes to diversify his skills to attract the college rodeo scouts, Harris has no truck with the "loopies," or riders who compete in the calf-roping events.

With graduation on the horizon, he hopes one day to ride the college rodeo circuit, then turn professional.

"It's an addiction," he sums up. "You've got 2,000 pounds of raw meat under you, and it's not a team sport. It's just you and the animal. No one else to help you."

One Dangerous Sport

The National High School Rodeo Association in Denver says that more than 11,000 high school students in 37 states and three Canadian provinces share Harris's addiction. And that doesn't include those students who participate in rodeos sponsored by such unaffiliated organizations as the North Texas association.

The very best riders usually go on to compete at the regional and state levels to earn a chance to ride at the National Finals each summer.

High school rodeo is usually a club sport, since no state will sanction it as an interscholastic sport. For one thing, the students compete for prize money. Harris, for example, collected better than $5,000 in one summer of competition; Hamby's single best ride earned him $600.

Rodeo is also one of the riskiest sports in the world, and no school wants to face the liability costs.

One of the benefits of belonging to the national association is that membership fees cover medical insurance, notes DeeDee Huff, a spokeswoman for the group. The association also certifies arenas to insure that there is adequate medical care for participants and humane treatment of the animals.

Of even more interest to the young riders are the college scholarships the national association awards to top riders, who know that only a handful of them will ever go on to the circuit sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Harris, for example, is realistic about how long he will physically be able to compete and plans to study ranch management in college. Most good roughstock cowboys begin to see the end of the trail in their late 20's. A very few are still at it in their 40's.

"I think everyone has finally figured out that you can't depend on this for a lifelong occupation," Huff says. "You sure better have something else. We really encourage them to go to college."

To face the physical dangers of their chosen sport, Harris and other riders cultivate an openly macho attitude that is equal parts cowboy mythos, youthful bravado, physical courage, and mental discipline.

Even Harris, who has broken more than his share of bones, who considers a ride on a bucking bronco "just fun," and who seldom admits to worrying in the arena, remembers a time when he was thrown from a horse and felt a chill of fear.

"I looked up and said, 'Hello, Jesus, How are ya' doin'?"' he recalls. "Then I said, 'God, forgive me for all my sins.' I thought I was going to die."

Huff's son Trey, a junior at Eaton (Colo.) High School, north of Denver, competes in three events--calf-roping, team-roping, and steer-wrestling. Not surprisingly, wrestling is considered the most dangerous.

The possibility of injury, however, doesn't faze his mother.

"His father did it," she says. "Sometimes, they'll get injured by a horn, but it's not near as bad as a football knee. It doesn't make me nervous at all to watch him."

She did, however, put her foot down when Trey asked to compete in the bull-riding, bareback, and saddle-bronc events.

Cowgirls Get the Blues

Yet, even in this traditionally male-dominated sport, girls have made their mark in competition, though very few are roughstock riders.

Jennifer Zeller, a 17-year-old junior at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Tex., competes in four events, including goat-tying, barrel-racing (in which a rider weaves at breakneck speed in tight circles around three barrels), pole-bending (a slalom-like event), and break-away roping (in which a rider ropes a calf from horseback but doesn't then tie it up).

Unlike Hamby, Harris, and many other cowboys, however, she does not spring from a long line of rodeo riders. "My parents don't even ride horses," she notes.

But once the addiction took hold, it was impossible to shake. She sometimes competes in as many as three rodeos in a single weekend.

"It's something that you can't let go of," Zeller says. "It's a camaraderie between you and your horse and with the other people that ride."

Like its national counterpart, the North Texas association cultivates good manners in the arena and fosters the family atmosphere of a rodeo. "Each profanity the kids spit out when they hit the ground, it costs them $5," says Betty Tate, a spokeswoman for the association.

Both associations also are careful to head off efforts to paint rodeo as an inhumane sport. "We understand that there is danger with some radical groups that could close down a rodeo," Huff says.

Even so, by urban standards, the treatment of some animals is far from gentle. Take goat-tying, for example.

"Chasing three inanimate objects around in the arena can get boring," Zeller says of barrel-racing. That's why she's come to prefer goat-tying. "To jump off a running horse, pick up this goat, slam it down, and tie it is a real rush of adrenaline."

Goat-slamming aside, Zeller does respect the animals she works with, and she cherishes the close working relationship she has with her horse, Butch.

"He trusts me, and he does what I ask him to do," she says.

Rodeo riding seems to have positive effects in the classroom, too. Hamby, for example, went from being a mediocre student to a straight-A one in order to meet the national association's requirement that students pass most of their courses in order to compete.

"The only reason I went to school last year was to rodeo," he admits.

Harris, who has attention-deficit disorder and dyslexia, struggled in school for a long time. "I was scared to raise my hand and ask for help," he recalls.

But because he is determined to compete in rodeo at the college level, he sought help and now attends Winston High School in Dallas, a school for children with learning disabilities.

"When I was in a [conventional] school, they didn't take the time to help you," he adds. "They didn't care."

Even so, his performance in the rodeo ring, not the classroom, gets his highest priority. He is aiming for national acclaim.

And though he can conceive of being so badly injured that he'd have to quit, "I'd have to be paralyzed," he declares.

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