Cowboys and livestock gather in Houston

If Disney productions and the world of rodeo merged, what you might have is the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I had been to rodeos before, mostly small-scale affairs where cowboys with Stetsons angling over their eyes and their cheeks bulging with tobacco hung out by the fence while waiting for their rides. Every few minutes a manned horse or bull would be let loose for about three seconds’ worth of excitement followed by 10 minutes of preparing the next rider. Action when it happened was fast and violent, but oh, the periods between thrills were so long.

Modern rodeo has changed that. The annual Houston show is a slick and well-timed event. As one cowboy hits the ground or raises his hand in triumph, another is ready to go. The action is fast-paced with no down time. Even during breaks there is always something going on, beginning when a cowboy riding a fast horse carries an American flag around the arena floor. The lights dim, and the electric flag glows with the sensation of rockets bursting in air.

From late February through most of March the rodeo fills Reliant Stadium, the new arena built to house the National Football League’s Houston Texans. Stadiums are a Houston specialty, with the most famous of all, the Astrodome, now standing meekly next to Reliant. (The Astrodome looks like a thimble alongside the new facility, though, to be fair, much of the Astrodome was built below ground.) In terms of space and opulence, there is no arena quite like Reliant, which has brought rodeo into the high-tech world. Every grimace on a cowboy’s face, every sneer from a raging bull is captured on the big screens. After the dust has settled, an automated stage takes over the center of the arena. Each performance is followed by a concert. On the night I was there it was a sparkling Martina McBride who sang while the stage slowly rotated, giving everyone a frontal glance. Between songs McBride told the crowd that the Houston Rodeo was her very favorite place to perform and sounded sincere about it. (The crowd liked her, too, but on the next night Miley Cyrus set an all-time Houston attendance record. I felt the impact on the flight back to New Orleans on which there were a couple of mom-and-teeny-bopper-daughter combinations who had flown to Houston for the concert.)

On the grounds surrounding the stadium there is a fair featuring the expected thrill rides and unexpected competitions such as pig racing. In an adjacent building, the best and biggest of Texas livestock are shown off — big ol’ Brahma bulls, Herefords, most anything that’s well-bred and goes “moo,” “baa” or “oink.” At a given time the animals are trotted to a nearby rink where they are led around the space to be inspected and then are judged with others of their species and categories. Where we see simply beef, the judges note more, including the animal’s shoulder structures, rump and muscle tone. Back on the ranch it is a proud moment to be able to display a blue ribbon won in Houston.

In the bowels of Reliant stadium, about an hour before the rodeo, slick-looking cowboy announcers were recording interviews before a makeshift TV backdrop. Riders talked about the animals they would ride with much the same analysis that Drew Brees might use to discuss opposing linebackers. Cowboy folks, at least at the professional level, tend to be slim and speak with a slight drawl that is distinctly American, including the occasional Canadians.

Moments later we were at the opposite vantage point, high above in the press box where the rodeo press corps kept tabs of statistics that only a contender or a fanatic could really understand. On the field cowgirls (and please, there are no “cow persons” in the world of rodeo) were racing their steeds around barrels.
In an increasingly suburbanized America, rodeo faces tough competition for attention. But this is a business that is built around downfalls. When you experience one, you just dust yourself off and get ready to ride again.

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