Having been a city slicker all my life, I’ve never had much to do with horses. Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but the stereotype holds true here. I’ve had the occasional flutter on the Melbourne Cup, and like most people I know which end of a horse eats hay and which end doesn’t. Beyond that, what I know about horses could be written in capital letters on a pommel.
But when I moved to my adopted state of Queensland a few of years ago, I found the outback was much closer to my urban home than before, and that traditions of stetson-wearing stockmen riding doughty horses to work wild cattle loomed larger in my city-bound imagination. To my mind, campdrafting and rodeo, both recognised as national sports by the Australian Institute of Sport, were the modern-day epitomes of these outback traditions, and I felt somehow neglectful, even un-Australian, by not engaging with them, if only as a spectator. Eventually, my curiosity (and sense of patriotic duty) got the better of me and I went to Teebar for its annual rodeo and campdraft.
Teebar, 50km west of Maryborough, is little more than a rural postcode with a community hall beside a sports ground with purpose-built infrastructure for rodeo and campdrafting events. The popularity of the Teebar event was apparent on arrival when I had difficulty finding a parking spot within a cooee of the main gate. After queueing for entry, I joined the crowds who had come to watch the skills of campdrafting and the thrills and spills of rodeo. Many patrons were devoted followers of the circuit and had come from far and wide to free camp within the grounds.
I soon discovered that while equestrian events were the drawcard, they were not the only attractions. There was an inflatable playground and climbing tower for little kids, a muster of utes and customised four-wheel drives for big kids and numerous stalls selling custom-made leather goods, cowboy hats and country clothing. All day, food and beverages were dispensed by the ute-load from the kitchen in the community hall, while in the auditorium were displays of needlework and handcrafts, antique bridal gowns, home-made cakes, jams, jellies and prize-winning roses. It was a colourful and bustling reminder that sporting events such as this don’t occur in a vacuum but are highlights of the social calendar of regional communities, raising funds for local projects and charities and injecting much-needed tourist dollars into their economies.
The Teebar event is one of about 90 rodeos organised by the National Rodeo Association (NRA), founded in 1966, in a yearly calendar that stretches from North Queensland to Coffs Harbour, NSW. Contestants on this regional circuit must be members of the NRA. More than 600 of them are professional athletes who follow the regional and national circuits in the hunt for prize money and kudos for being a champion in their chosen sport. The NRA’s rule book is as thick as a brick and includes an Animal Welfare Code of Practice for the care and treatment of rodeo livestock.
The Australian Professional Rodeo Association is the national governing body for professional rodeo competitions, with its head office in the 'Rose and Rodeo City' of Warwick, Qld. Formed in 1944, it is the oldest national rodeo organisation in the world, with affiliations to similar bodies in Canada, the United States and New Zealand. The national circuit comprises over 100 rodeos annually that attract millions of spectators.
Central to most of this is the horse, a noble beast that I have always admired, from a distance, and valued for its contribution to human civilisation and, of course, the Sport of Kings. Those ones, however, were domesticated, not the manic, untamed broncos of the rodeo arena. The latter I find nothing short of terrifying and would no sooner climb onto one of them as jump off the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The same goes for cattle. I like a good steak as much as the next carnivore but to try and ride an angry 2-tonne bull is just sheer lunacy. So, I was eager to see how man and beast interacted in these quasi-gladiatorial contests about which I was blissfully ignorant.
The first event on the action-packed program was campdrafting, which continued more or less simultaneously with rodeo throughout the day. This is a uniquely Australian sport, in which a rider on horseback must cut out one beast from a herd of six cattle in the yard (the camp). To prove to the judges they have control of the animal they must block and turn it at least two to three times, then take it out of the yard and through a pegged course involving right and left hand turns in a figure eight, before guiding it through the gate to finish. The outside course must be completed in less than 40 seconds. The sport requires consummate skill and horsemanship, as well as a degree of nous in selecting a beast from the herd that will run well, but isn’t too fast for the horse.
The most popular breed of horse for campdrafting is the Australian Stock Horse, developed from bloodlines that can be traced back to stock that arrived with the early settlers. The Australian Stock Horse is bred for intelligence, courage, toughness and stamina. The exemplar is sturdy and agile, with a quick-moving, sure-footed walk, and a calm, responsive temperament. The ideal horse for campdrafting is considered to be about 15 hands (1.5m) tall at the shoulder, agile and fast for the cut out, but with sufficient body weight to push a big bullock around when necessary.
As fascinating as these impressive displays of horsemanship were, I was eventually drawn away by the loud music and cheering crowd to the rodeo arena, where I managed to find a vantage point with a prime view of all the action. I was instantly and irrevocably hooked. The program included breakaway roping, team roping, rope and tie, bull ride, saddle ride, steer wrestling, steer undecorating and barrel racing. For the uninitiated, as I was, a few words of explanation will aid your appreciation of these events.
The six standard events in rodeo are grouped into three rough stock or roughriding events and three timed events. The three rough stock events are: Saddle Bronc Riding, a classic contest considered the most technically difficult rough stock event, commanding the spotlight in most rodeo programs; Bareback Bronc Riding, the most physically demanding event, in which the contestant has no control over the horse, which is fitted with no halter or rein, just a leather pad with a special handhold; and Bull Riding, the ultimate test of courage and strength, demanding agility and intense concentration (sanity is optional but a strong sense of self-preservation may prove a disadvantage). Not surprisingly, this event usually carries the biggest prize money ($1000 at Teebar) and the riders deserve every cent.
These events are scored independently by two judges. Up to 25 points are awarded to the animal by each judge for its bucking action, strength and degree of difficulty and a further 25 points to the contestant for his style. All rough stock events are scored over eight seconds, taken from when the animal clears the chute and the cowboy needs to stay on board for the full eight seconds to make a qualifying ride. I couldn’t help but feel that those riders who got bucked off after almost eight seconds were getting a raw deal, but those are the rules.
Needless to say, these roughriding events are exceedingly dangerous. Being bucked off is the least of a rider’s problems, which really begin when he hits the ground and is vulnerable to a stomping, kicking and/or mauling by an enraged beast. For that reason, “clowns” are on hand to risk life and limb to distract the animal long enough for the rider to make an escape, if he can. For the record, the clowns are called RPAs — rider protection athletes — and whatever they get paid is nowhere near enough in my book. I witnessed several heroic feats by RPAs in the course of the morning’s rounds. Clowns are replaced by chap-wearing cowboys on hefty steeds for the bronc events to retrieve said broncs which usually bolt after dislodging their unwanted burdens.
The three timed events are Steer Wrestling, Rope and Tie and Team Roping. Steer Wrestling requires perfect timing, physical strength and team work between the steer wrestler and his helper, a mounted hazer, whose job it is to keep the steer running straight until the contestant leaps from his own horse, grasps the steer’s horns and throws it on its side — a contest usually won in five seconds or less from when the barrier is released. The Rope and Tie has been a standard cattle handling practice in Australia since the 1870s, requiring teamwork between the roper and his highly trained horse. After roping the steer from horseback, the contestant dismounts and runs to the animal, relying on his horse to keep it under control, then throws (flanks) it onto its side and ties three of its legs with a pigging string. Ladies Breakaway Roping is a version of the rope and tie, in which the contestants are not required to throw and tie the calf. Time is called when the rope breaks away from a string attaching it to the saddle.
Team Roping is the only true team rodeo event, in which two ropers — a header and a heeler — work to catch and control a steer. After the steer leaves the chute with a head start, the header ropes it around the neck, horns or head, then turns the steer while the heeler ropes both hind legs. The clock stops when both catches are made and the horses are facing the steer with no slack in the catch ropes.
There are two common elements in all timed events. First, the animals are given a head start into the arena from a special chute. The mounted contestant starts from behind a rope barrier, automatically tripped by the horse as it reaches the release point. The second is a system of time penalties for faults, such as riding over the start line before the cow leaves the chute. There are strictly enforced rules for the welfare of animals and a contestant will be disqualified for rough treatment.
An added bonus at Teebar was the inclusion of a Barrel Race. In this timed ladies event, the contestant must cross the scoreline and ride a clover-leaf pattern around three barrels and back across the scoreline. The time is generally recorded by use of an electric eye to the hundredth of a second.
I could write pages more describing these enthralling sports and they wouldn’t begin to convey the thrills and enjoyment I experienced at the Teebar rodeo. Although a relatively modest affair compared to some of the equine extravaganzas one can find on circuits across the country, it was colourful, exciting and rich in the traditions of the Australian outback. It was my first rodeo but I know it won’t be my last.
- National Rodeo Association: www.nationalrodeoassociation.com.au
- Australian Professional Rodeo Association: www.prorodeo.com.au
- Australian Campdraft Association: www.campdraft.com.au
- Australian Stock Horse Society: www.ashs.com.au