October 1, 2006
Sport brings us into the present moment, and can extend us beyond ourselves. We are taken beyond our limits: you can’t go on, you must go on. Both the mind and body like to be extended. The event, the team is greater than the sum of the players; you are part of something much greater than yourself.
These three thrills of being alive - being in the moment, pushing your limits, the sense of unity with all things - are very much part of rodeo riding. It’s a strange thing to ride a wild horse or bull, but the attraction is clear. Thousands of people spent last Sunday at the Kundabung rodeo because seeing men riding wild animals is a beautiful thing to watch.
The Kundabung rodeo is set just outside Kempsey on cleared land, with one small, full grandstand and most people sitting on the grass, looking down on a round fenced ring of dirt. It’s a country event, the riders walk round in big hats, wearing chaps and talking slow, the younger riders trying hard to be men. There’s a few stalls, including the turning show clowns, and a big line for the kebabs, which seems to be the new way to make hamburgers.
Watching a rodeo is not just a vicarious thrill, or a marvelling at skills, it’s an aesthetic experience. Our culture fears death, and we disdain death-seeking activities, such as riding a wild bull. But look at the kids - so many boys want to do it, to test themselves, to ride wild nature. If they had some ride suitable for mid-forties guys, where I got all the excitement but couldn’t be hurt, I would have be on it. But that’s the point - you can’t get the thrill without the danger.
I imagine rodeos are avoided by people whom think Steve Irwin tormented animals, because surely some argue that we are tormenting those poor bulls and horses. But I think such viewpoints are based on a belief that we have evolved ourselves away from the animals, that we stand separate from nature. I think that being part of nature, working the land, working animals, is a natural part of a life, and can eclipse all the distractions offered by our grand cities. Rodeo-riding is less about conquering a wild beast than becoming one with the animal.
The greatest man versus animal experience I have seen is bull-fighting in Spain, and I think rodeos are part of the same ethos. The big difference between a bullfight and the Kundabung rodeo is the that in Spain the event is great ritual, where things move slowly and majestically, with a solemn tone that respects the acts of bravery being performed. At Kundabung, the ever-present loud music and the non-stop inane repartee of the commentators detracts from the beauty of the riding. You don’t need constant commentary to watch things of beauty. It’s like having a voiceover describing sun-rise.
There is an orientation to kids, which is intrusive because of the amplification. I am sceptical about pitching events directly at kids - as a kid, I liked feeling privy to adult’s events, the awe of being part of something that I couldn’t participate in and didn’t fully understand. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but give us workers the real thing, and let the kids entertain themselves. At Kundabung, everything was a bit slick, a bit Yankee, and I came away with a thirst for something more authentic, just riders and animals, without the constant talking and explanation.
The voiceover was particularly offensive when one rider fell badly, and the bull came at him as he lay unconscious on the ground. If we let silence fall at such times tension builds as the the crowd as one bates breath and prays. But the commentators just kept blithering on, as if afraid we’d get bored.
The Kundabung rodeo is well-organised, the roads are good, the guy in the yellow overalls from the Kundabung bushfire brigade does a good job directing traffic with a beer in his hand. There’s a few bikies around who look like they have just dismounted from the seventies. I suppose there is some correlation between riding Harleys and wild horses.
The riders are phenomenal, younger guys starting off and older guys who can’t get it out of their system. It is clearly a joy to ride, and we love them for doing it. Like all Australian sport, we both admire the sportsmen and feel not too removed from them, as opposed to Yankee sport, which feels like a lot of Norms watching super athletes with whom they have no connection.
Rodeo riding is a team sport like cricket, where one guy is primary. It’s humbling to watch the rousters and the clowns working together to protect the rider, putting themselves in the way of a rampaging bull. It’s very much a man’s sport as presented; the one women’s event, riding a horse round three barrels, seems pretty lame. I don’t know whether there are women riders, and maybe we should be happy that gladatorial tendencies inflict only one gender.
A lot of blunt philosophy tends to downplay the differences between cultures and genders, but I think maybe we should be celebrating the differences. In the same way, an Australian rodeo should be Australian, and I was a bit unsettled by the Yankee flag behind the stage. Playing loud Cold Chisel doesn’t compensate as it doesn’t seem in keeping with the event - if we need music, give me Slim Dusty, or even better a local school band with appropriate drum rolls and ka-chings.
But we don’t need music, and I am disappointed that the presenters don’t appreciate the majesty of the riding, and feel it necessary to fill the gaps with noise. Let the event focus on the riders, spare the adornments, let the spectators strain to capture the feelings of the participants. That’s what sport is about - riders overcoming their inhibitions, pushing body and mind beyond the normal limits, taking us armchair riders with them on every buck and turn.