A cigarette hanging from his lips, Don Marcotte opened the chute and another steer roared into the arena with two horsemen in pursuit, lariats swinging.
It's another Sunday for Marcotte at his R&R Equestrian Park in Fillmore, the county's only public roping arena. For hours he tended the chute while about 50 riders from as far away as Los Angeles and Santa Barbara practiced roping steers.
The R & R is not an arena for the rhinestone cowboy. One small bench serves as the grandstand. When ropers want to compete in the two jackpots Marcotte offers, they can clip a $10 bill to a drawstring that goes up to the announcer's booth atop a little snack bar.
Inside the arena, faded signs against the railing advertise a backhoe company, a car dealership and a local chiropractor.
There's no sign on California 23 pointing to the arena which Marcotte has leased from the city of Fillmore for 11 years. It's a dusty spot outside town, surrounded by acres of brush and the mountains in the distance.
Yet, this is the place for the serious roper. Some of the horse trailers parked near the arena cost as much as a new BMW. Here, a roping horse runs $2,500 to $10,000.
Marcotte operates the arena on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights. His wife, Betty, runs the snack bar, and his daughter, Shelley Barta, announces and times the contestants.
"I used to rope," said Marcotte with a gruff Nebraska accent. "I still do when I feel like it."
It's not for the meek. Nor is it just for the wiry, muscle-taut cowpoke anymore. Among the riders were a grandmother, an 11-year-old boy, half a dozen stuntmen, a carpenter, a retired flower grower, a film producer and a dentist--all hoping to sharpen their skills for the local rodeo circuit.
"I was 39 when I took this up," said Della Velarde of Thousand Oaks. Now into her 15th year, she ropes with her husband, competing at rodeos in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.
"We're here every Sunday, the Lord willing," said Velarde, whose makeup and hairdo were still in place after two hours in the saddle.
Some, such as Encino dentist Chris Hansing, make the trek to Fillmore twice a week to practice and compete.
"It's a great stress release," said Hansing, wearing a spotless, starched white Oxford shirt. "When you're on a horse, there is just one thing you have to do."
Hansing, a look-alike for actor Mark Harmon, has been roping three years. He's so taken with the sport he has a miniature wooden steer in his office and between patients he practices with a short rope.
It's no wonder it takes endless practice. The ropers go after the steer in pairs, one on either side of the animal. The header, on the left, tries to rope the horns first. Then the heeler, aims for the back hooves while they are in the air.
"When we started, eight or nine seconds was a good time," said Wally Southard, whose silver belt buckle showed he won the Oldtimers Team Roping competition at the Ventura County Fair in 1982.
"Right now these young kids come in at five or six seconds," said Southard, who retired from the Navy and lives in Somis. He isn't the oldest oldtimer at the arena. Elmer Fontes, a retired flower grower, is 72.
"I never rode a horse until I was 55," said Fontes, a stocky guy in a blue T-shirt and cap. "I had to work for a living."
The competition at the arena is good-natured. Depending on the number of riders, the jackpots can be a few hundred dollars. The top-notch riders freely part with advice for the less experienced. Between tries, they relax on their horses, smoke a cigarette, sip a beer and josh each other about technique, rodeos or spills.
On Sunday they were still talking about the spill Donna Huddleston of Casitas Springs took recently.
"I roped the steer, got to the end of the arena and the horse went one way and I went the other way," said Huddleston, 36. "They took me out in an ambulance." At the hospital she was treated for a blood clot on her bladder.
Sunburned and tough as nails, she works as a heavy equipment operator. She started roping at the age of eight, and now teams up with her husband.
When a horse kicked her and broke her leg, it didn't stop her from competing at the Ventura County Fair.
"My husband lifted me up onto the saddle and (held) my foot in the stirrup with a rubber band," she said. Despite the cast, she won the most points and picked up a another belt buckle that year.
Getting thrown off the horse and kicked by a 400-pound steer isn't all these ropers have to worry about.
The weight of the steer can yank the stiff, nylon rope with tremendous force. Ropers have been known to lose a thumb with one, quick slice of the rope.
Times have changed some in the 11 years the Marcotte family has run the arena.
"There are more women now, and the new people are more serious about it," said Barta, a secretary who ropes with her husband. "They're not shade-tree cowboys."
WHERE AND WHEN: The R&R Equestrian Park is located at 308 Chambersburg Rd, which is also Highway 23, about one mile south of Fillmore. Riding and Roping starts at noon on Sundays and at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. Participants pay $10 per event. Spectators are admitted free.