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RELUCTANT NOVICE

Greenhorn Learns the Ropes : A novice finds cowboy college rough and tumble, but the Pierce course hones the skills of top young rodeo competitors.

January 28, 1994|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; R. Daniel Foster writes regularly for The Times

WOODLAND HILLS — Cowboy carnage. That's what happens at rodeos--rope 'em, tie 'em, castrate 'em events where bulls end up emasculated and cowboys wind up bruised beyond recognition. I was about to learn the finer points of lassoing an enraged bull, tying him up and applying a scalpel to his most prized possession.

I wait with 23 students from Pierce College's rodeo class for a herd of Mexican Coriente steers and bulls to stampede down hills that surround the college's farm. Instructor Ron Wechsler is rounding them up from a nearby pasture.

Wechsler, an associate professor of animal science, appears in the distance looking like the Marlboro man amid a stand of scrub oak. Steers scatter down the hill before him as he shouts, "Heee yaaaa!" Traffic on the freeway roars in the distance.

The animals are herded into an outdoor holding pen while Wechsler explains the finer points of steer wrestling and team roping. Like a football coach, he scratches out a diagram in the dirt, showing how riders should approach an animal. The students, half of them women and most with some experience, shift their belt buckles--the size of dinner plates--spit on the ground and look interested. I try to keep my new Tony Lama boots from getting dusty.

*

The two-credit class is not required, but students like Jennifer Clark, 19, of Thousand Oaks and Scott Perez, 19, of Saugus are taking it to brush up on their skills. Some will compete in the Intercollegiate Rodeo Assn., which has 3,000 members from 300 colleges. Clark and Perez both started roping around age 7 and were named all-around cowgirl and cowboy by the California High School Rodeo Assn. three years in a row beginning in 1990.

Clark decides to show me some roping techniques while the animals are packed into a narrow holding pen that leads to a chute.

She twirls the rope, her arm crooked at a 90-degree angle as the lasso whips the air. "It's all in the wrist action," Clark says, letting the rope fly. It descends in a perfect arc around me and cinches my waist. I didn't recall this ever happening to Lorne Greene on "Bonanza."

Clark moves on to heeling--or lassoing a bull's hind legs--used when tying up an animal for branding and castration.

The problem with throwing a lasso at a running bull is that you have to hook the rope under the animal's legs before it hits the ground. Clark explains that you must twirl the rope in time with the animal's gait so the lasso slides under its hind feet. Of course, you also have to maneuver your horse, shout "yip yip yip yip yip yip" and chew tobacco without dribbling it down your chin. Clark claims it's the most fun you can have with your boots on.

*

Clark demonstrates heeling as I jump up and down in place, imitating a 550-pound bull running for his life. Her lasso lands in a neat hoop behind my boots and slides under them while I'm airborne.

After a few tries, I'm able to land the rope behind Clark's heels, but I can't get it under her feet. Perez, meanwhile, is off to the side doing impressive rope tricks--the ocean wave, the butterfly and the Texas skip. It looks like he's in the midst of a writhing dance of snakes.

Perez comes over to review our progress. We talk about bull riding and the kind of horses he and Clark own. "Hers is older than this college," he jokes. "She dyes the mane on it--to get rid of the gray hairs." Clark ratchets up her rope and lets it fly, landing like an angry tornado around Perez's head.

She cinches it tight and says, "What did you say, cowboy?" I feel like I'm on the set of "Thelma & Louise, Part II."

It's time to get the cattle lined up. Before they can be roped during events, horns must be wrapped. The fatter cattle, having grazed all summer, can get stuck in the chute and the wrapping makes their horns easier to handle.

An electric cattle prod works well to keep the animals moving through. I am the first to raise my hand when volunteers to use the device are called for, but Shardi Fontes, 18, of Oxnard beats me to it. I can tell she has used it before.

"A friend of mine brings one to bed with her," Fontes says as she zaps a stubborn steer. "She uses it to keep her husband on his side of the bed. It works pretty well." Fontes tells me her friend has prodded her mate just once during their 13-year marriage. I tell her she should hawk the gadgets at future Tailhook conventions.

*

The animals are ready to be released, and Wechsler and Clark mount horses to show us how it's done. A steer charges out of the pen, a bit dazed as it enters the large arena, where Wechsler keeps it running in a straight line while Clark whips up a momentum with her lasso.

It's my turn, but darn, the three-hour class is up and it's time to meander back down the freeway to the homestead. Before I leave, I jot down the brand name of the electric cattle prod--just in case anyone tries to steal my car while I'm stopped at a hitching post down in Rancho de Los Angeles.

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