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Military Rodeo Lures Riders of Different Stripes

May 24, 1990|KATHRYN BOLD

Dan Montano knows the feel of a bull's hoofs on his back, the sharp jab of a bull's horn under his chin.

He knows these things, but still he wants to ride the bulls.

Why would anyone want to straddle 2,000 pounds of bucking, snorting, uncontained fury, only to be tossed around like a rag doll and dumped in the dirt.

Montano, a stable foreman at Camp Pendleton and a professional rodeo rider, understands the lure of the rodeo.

"It's a challenge every time you get on the bull," Montano said. "I want to prove myself.

"You're out there in the middle of the arena, with all of these people cheering. It makes you feel great."

That feeling is what draws cowboys--both the authentic and the urban variety--to the Camp Pendleton Rodeo, which takes place at the Marine Corps base June 1-3.

Now in its 43rd year, the Camp Pendleton Rodeo is the oldest and largest military rodeo, attracting more than 130 contestants from all branches of the armed services, stationed around the world. Any active military personnel, retirees or their dependents can enter.

"If you have the bravado to get up there, you can ride. And Marines have a lot of bravado," said Paul Jones, spokesman for Camp Pendleton's morale, welfare and recreation division.

Jody Huston, a gunnery sergeant with the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, has the bravado. He's the all-around champion of last year's Camp Pendleton Rodeo, and he's been in constant training to defend the title.

"I've been riding rodeos since I was 15," he says.

A third-generation cowboy raised on a ranch in Montana, Huston spends almost every weekend riding in rodeos around the country. During the week, he runs 20 miles, works out at a gym and practices aerobics to maintain the strength to ride. For him, the rodeo holds a fatal attraction.

"It's a combination of fear, or caution, and the drive to achieve a goal. And that goal is to master the animal," he said. "It's like being on the edge. As soon as that animal busts out of the chute, your subconscious takes over. I find it's best if I just react to the animal and not think about what I'm doing."

There's nothing rational about the call of the rodeo. Last October, during the Military World Finals Rodeo in San Antonio, Tex., a bull threw Huston and kicked him in the face, requiring 26 stitches above his right eye. He got out of the hospital at 2 a.m., and by morning a bandaged Huston was back in the arena. He went on to become the all-around military world champion.

"This is the ultimate rush," Huston says. "You're putting your life on the line."

Rodeo rules are simple.

One week before the event, cowboys sign up for their choice of "rough stock," either bucking horses or bulls. They enter a drawing to see which particular animal they'll ride.

Once they climb onto their bull or horse and nod toward the officials, the contest begins.

"They have to stay on the animal eight seconds. That can be a lifetime," said Joe Curley, recreation director for base's morale, welfare and recreation division.

During those tumultuous eight seconds, the cowboys are judged on how well they ride. The riders can use only one hand to hold onto the animal. If their free hand touches the horse or bull, they're out.

With the first jump out of the chute, those riding the bucking horses must "cover the horse" by placing their boots toward the front part of the animal or they are disqualified. A good rider will put his feet up front after every buck, Curley says. Putting the feet toward the back allows the rider to feel more of the horse's movements, making it easier to stay on.

Bull riders just have to hang on, but they don't have it any easier.

"They're just being whipped," Curley says. "The smallest bulls weigh about 1,500 pounds, and they get all four feet off the ground. They're amazingly agile animals. They can twist and turn in all directions."

Judges also score the animal on how well it bucks.

"If it's a good bull, it will buck real hard and spin," Montano says. "You don't have time to think, you just react."

A cowboy and his animal can score up to 50 points each. Whoever has the best combined score of a possible 100 points wins.

"Some guys are real good riders. Some have seen it on TV and want to try it out," says Montano, who has ridden in the Pendleton rodeo twice. "It's more balance than strength. You have to go with the flow of the bull."

Champions in each category--bull, saddle bronc (horse with a saddle) and bareback--receive a cash award of as much as $2,000, depending on the number of entries. Entry fees are $45 each.

"All you have to do is stay on, and you can make money," Montano says.

Getting off the animal is tougher. Once the eight seconds are up, a horn sounds and the cowboy can bail out. If he's riding a bull, he's usually thrown off.

"It blows my mind. The cowboy gets thrown and you think he's dead," Curley says. "But he just jumps up and brushes off the dust. How they do it, I don't know."

A rodeo clown distracts the bull while the cowboy picks himself up off the ground.

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