Wacey Cathey, the nation's top-ranked bull rider, eases himself onto the back of the 2,000-pound Brahman with all the confidence of an Air Force pilot slipping into the cockpit of a jet fighter.
He calmly slides his gloved right hand under the rope that's tied around the bull's midsection. A cowhand in the chute helps pull the rope taut, while Cathey pounds it into his open palm to get an even better grip.
Then he nods his head. With a bang, the chute opens and Eighty-Five--a ton of angry, horned leather and hamburger--takes three ungainly leaps toward the center of the arena in Lancaster.
The bull abruptly rears up on his hind legs and twists his front half to the right, nearly throwing Cathey to the ground. The cowboy struggles to steady himself, but the bull quickly reverses direction and whips his shoulders to the left, going into a spin.
A Cowboy in the Air
Cathey now looks as helpless as a rag doll atop a cyclone, pitching left, then right, then left again. The bull makes one, two, three circles, finally launching the cowboy head first onto the soft sod of the arena's floor a few moments before the buzzer goes off.
Like Wacey Cathey desperately trying to hang on to a bucking Brahman, so do rodeo and its estimated 20,000 or so active cowboys and cowgirls cling to a way of life that nearly disappeared with the Iron Horse, wild buffalo and the U.S. Cavalry.
"It's the last page of the old American frontier," bronc rider Dave Appleton, 28, said at a recent rodeo. "That's basically what all rodeo is about.
"People who don't know anything about rodeo can come in there, and they can almost sit there in the stands and see a part of history."
More than 50 cowboys and cowgirls, clowns and rodeo queens will give one of those bronc-busting history lessons at 2 p.m. today at the Simi Valley Days Rodeo, corner of Los Angeles Avenue and Madera Road in Simi Valley. A second rodeo will be Sunday at 2 p.m.
While the rules of rodeo haven't changed much since Buffalo Bill Cody helped popularize the sport with his traveling Wild West Shows around the turn of the century, today's rodeo contestants are much different from their predecessors.
"First off, most of these guys aren't real cowboys," says Wilbur Plaugher, a 66-year-old rancher and weekend rodeo clown who wrestled steers and rode bulls with the likes of Slim Pickens and William Boyd in the 1940s and '50s.
"If I took these kids up to my ranch and told 'em to flush the cattle out of the brush or do some other normal chore, most of 'em wouldn't know what to do."
Indeed, most of today's rodeo participants are merely "weekend cowboys," who hold down jobs in retail, construction and other trades Monday through Friday. Even those who work on ranches during the week are more likely to ride the range in pickup trucks than on palominos.
Part of it stems from the dwindling number of farms and ranches. No longer are most rodeo participants cowhands who mosey into town for a few days of bronc-riding, drinking and womanizing. Many of today's contestants are college graduates who picked up the sport while attending a university that fields a rodeo team.
"To an extent, the college circuit has replaced the ranches as sort of a 'minor leagues' for up-and-coming rodeo stars," says Tim Bergsten, a spokesman for the 9,000-member Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn. in Colorado Springs, Colo.
But plain old economics is the main reason why so many of today's cowboys perform in weekend rodeos while working 9-to-5 jobs during the week. Rodeo riders don't draw salaries.
"By the time you've paid your entry fees, bought gas and fed yourself, you've spent $200 or $300 for the weekend," says Craig Root, a saddle-bronc rider who shoes horses during the week in Santa Paula. "If you don't finish near the top of your event, you don't get paid."
It's Not Lucrative
Rodeo isn't a lucrative sport. Only a few superstars who compete full time--hitting between 150 and 200 rodeos annually--earn about $100,000 for a year's work.
Most of the contestants are more like Root, who hopes to ride in 30 rodeos this year. "I'll make $15,000 or $20,000, if I get hot," he says.
Expenses typically eat up between 40% and 60% of a cowboy's gross earnings. The obvious need to economize has helped at least one rodeo tradition survive: Like their predecessors, most modern-day cowboys travel together in order to cut costs, sharing rooms at cheap motels and eating at fast-food restaurants or greasy spoons.
"No doubt about it, gettin' there is the worst part of rodeo," says Jim-Bob Custer, a 19-year-old bronc rider from Wickenburg, Ariz. "This is my first year on the circuit, and I'm already kind of tired of the travelin'."
Custer, his brother Cody and a few other cowboys had arrived at a Sunday afternoon rodeo in Ventura after driving 175 miles from a roundup in Yucca Valley the night before. The Ventura rodeo was their fourth in three days.