Rough Riding for Five Minutes a Year

First published

A young rough-rider leaned against the dogging chute at Myrtletord and made a rare admission:

Never a week goes by when some part of me isn't sore.

Then why do you do it?

I don't know. I guess I just like to ride

What keeps you going?

Just beer and instinct.

The taciturn conversation left a great deal unexplained. Why do healthy young men take to professional rodeo riding? There are more than thirty of them on the Australia-wide circuit. They move from town to town like a travelling circus or professional violin players. If they are good they make £1000 a year. If they are very good, and can keep their crutches in the hall cupboatd, they make £1500. So, obviously they are not in it for money. Then why do they do it? They are not buffoons. The intelligence of the average rodeo rider is well above average.

The answer may be in the easy going life, the eternal wandering, the escape from suburban ham-stringing responsibility. And these rodeo riders cut quite a figure in the outback towns. In Mareeba, last year, a man was caught impersonating the champion rough-rider, Wally Woods. Now he was a man well worth impersonating, on a bucking bronco as reliable, as safe as a Bourke Street tram. At Mareeba he was actually bucked off a saddle horse, but for the first time since 1957.

Though they won't admit it there is satisfaction to be had from public adulation; and, talking as a man who has never ridden anything more dangerous than a comfortably enclosed sedan car, what good-looking men they are! You have to admire those snake hips, those flat waists and the easy graceful way they can lean against a veranda post. Mr. Dillon or Maverick compared with them are probationary bank clerks.

But is it worth it? They all say nothing ever happens to them. Greg Russell, at thirty-seven, is the oldest man on the circuit. He's never had much trouble, only a leg broken in two places, his right arm broken three times and various assorted dislocated shoulders and wrists; although there was one young man, Max Hillier of Corryong, who had twenty-two bone breaks by the time he was twenty-one. But you get used to it, like Ken Healy, of Kyabram, who rode at Cootamundra last November with a compound fracture of the thumb. The bone was sticking through the flesh. Also he had a broken rib. Broken ribs are minor irritants in the rough-riding business.

At Rockhampton, it is called the Rocky Round-Up. At Cloncurry, it is the Merry Muster. I asked Peter Poole, secretary of the Rough Riders Association, whether these names were not better than the American "rodeo." He didn't agree. He said rodeo was an international word that had been around for a long long time. It described the set-up perfectly. Looking at me, uncomfortably, straight in the eye, he said some people called it ro-DAY-0. This was wrong. The way to pronounce il Was like Omeo. It should be ro-DEE-O. Warwick, the rough-riders' headquarters, has a big one, and Myrtleford every year has a beauty. If you were looking for a place to make a really colourful movie of a rodeo, you'd choose Myrtleford. The main products of the district are timber, hops and tobacco. It is known as the "beer and smokes town." The local folk look most kindly upon people who take an interest in such products. The ground is in the shadow of Mt. Buffalo. There is a lane of 80-year-old elms and oaks to provide shade for picnic parties. One of the by-products of the hops industry is served in quantity. There are merry-go-rounds, and a string of bookmakers takes bets on the Mebourne races. And, of course, characters in elastic-sided boots come down from the mountains all around.

One of the biggest problems for modern rodeos is to find the right horses and the right bucking bulls. Bulls that are sufficiently mean. As one organizer put it: 'Right now we are too busy selling the bulls to the Americans for hamburgers. Nobody wants to buck them off at a rodeo.' For the Myrtleford rodeo the Beveridge brothers and Norm McGeehan bring down cattle from their properties on the high plains between Buffalo and Gippsland. Here the cattle are unbranded. They just roam. Sometimes the owners go for three years without seeing a particular herd. So Frank Johnson, the rodeo president, was able to put out the awesome catchline that here were bulls that never before had seen a human being. Curiously enough, when I was there, the High Plains bulls did not perform as well as the Brahmans from Queensland. Brahmans are top favourites in Oueensland for rodeos. One can hire them for £4 a day, plus transport. They look as if they were designed especially to frighten the wits out of the human race. All the angles are wrong. They have a great humped back, a bulbous head and dangling ears like drainpipes. They put on an awfully good show. During the seconds before they are released they thrash the side of the chute and the clatter of hoofs on timber sounds like the trumpeting of doom. They also have a guttural growl and once they have tossed their rider they charge everyone in sight. So it is always considered an excellent safety measure to sprint like hell for the fence. The crowd always appreciates a sight like that.

Perhaps the horses are an even greater problem. Too often rodeos have to fall back on wild, untrainable horses. They buck out of fear, and hence are unpredictable. They could fall crushing the rider underneath, or they could go into a straightforward catherine wheel. That is something every rodeo rider hopes will never happen to him.

Best of all is the trained bucking horse. He puts on the most spectacular show, and he bucks because he likes it. Some of them have such an understanding of the show that when the siren blows for the end of the 10-second ride, they immediately quieten down, almost as if it were a union rule.

The Rough Riders' Association is sensitive to charges of cruelty to the horses. At the Myrtleford rodeo there was an extraordinary thing. A buck-jumping horse suddenly stiffened in mid-air, and, by the time it hit the ground, it was dead. The horse had a broken neck. There was no fuss. A Landrover came into the arena. chain was put around the dead horse's neck and it was towed out. Peter Poole said this was quite rare and he contended that fewer horses were killed at rodeos than at horse races. In fact, he said, the horses were extremely well treated. They received excellent feed, comfortable conditions, and what with the way people left the saddle frequently, they did only about five minutes of buckjumping a year.

They were treated like pets. He gave an example. Every year the rough-riders vote for the buck jumper of the year, in much the same way that Victorians choose their Brownlow Medal champion footballer. Last year it was Sugar. This year it was Eldorado. Well, at Christmas time, 1960, they had their national titles at Surfers Paradise, Queensland. The reporters wanted to see Sugar, the champion buckjumper of the year. They were waiting to see a wild-eyed, prancing monster. Peter Poole said he pointed to Sugar over there. Sugar was wandering round the camp like a pet dog, taking lumps of sugar. The reporters were reluctant to believe that this was Australia's champion buck-jumper. So Peter had to point out that if they didn't believe, why, any one of them was free to give Sugar a ride. And he was sure that Sugar would prove his point.

These good buckjumpers were beautifully peaceful until somebody tried to ride them. Eldorado was a very good pedigree horse. He was used as an Olympic horse until one day turned sour, and bucked whenever anyone got on him. He may not have won a gold medal, but now Eldorado has another illustrious title. The standard events at mest rodeos are the bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, calf roping, bulldogging and the bull riding. The cham- pions are tossed only rarely, and they receive points for skills in riding that are not discern- ible to the untrained eye. The old-style rider used to grip the animals with their legs. One famous rider of the old days had spikes on the sides of his boots which he sunk deep into his saddle. So he was anchored as securely as Nelson's Victory at Portsmouth. Now the thing to do, as the horse goes up, is to throw your legs high in the air as if you were doing the splits. The only thing that keeps the rider on the horse is balance and faith. Ritchie Fraser. the aboriginal rider, is superb at this, and it always sets the crowd screaming.

Personally, I like the bulldogging. It calls for a special kind of toughness and special qualities of patience about losing large quantities of one's skin. The average age of the professional contestants in this event is twenty-four, as opposed to twenty-five for bareback riders, and twenty-six for bronco saddle riders. The calf is released from the chute and charges straight out across the arena at maybe 35 m.p.h. The contestant has to ride it down, fly out of the saddle and grab it by the horns. This can be most embarrassing if suddenly the steer changes course and doesn't happen to be there. But once having grabbed the horns, it is a test of the contestant's strength. He has to heave, and heave, and heave, and throw it on its side. Those who like a little more refinement go for calf roping. Here the average age of contestants is a more elderly twenty-eight years. The use of the lasso or lariat is not so common with Australian stockmen, but the skill of rough-riders like Doug Flanigan, Ray Crawford and Chilla Seeney, the brother of the Queensland tennis player Daphne Sceney, is unbelievable. But then as Will Rogers always used to say, "Spinnin' a rope's lots of fun ...that's if your neck ain't in it'

At some of the other rodeos the ladies take part. At Walgett they have a ladies' bullock race, in which the pretty young ladies of the district join in. At Marrabel there is a ladies' buckjump championship. In their last rodeo there were girls like Pam Lacey from WA, Shirley Casey, 'a genuine product of the outback' and Cookie Hutchison from N.Z., plus Rosemary Duggan. As one reporter put it, 'these girls would shake the teeth out of some novice events.'

The big novelty event at Myrtleford was the Wild Horse Race. They put six wild horses in the arena and for each horse there was a team of three: the mugger, who had to grab the horse by the car, the anchor man, who had to put a rope on him, and the jockey. The first man to mount his horse and ride him to the judging point was the winner. As always, the arena immediately became a fearful melee of flying hoofs, dust and sprinting men. Tommy Cannon of Parkes was the first to ride a wild horse. It went crazy. It charged three times round the arena. It crashed through a closed gate. It hurtled into the yards. An overhanging beam caught Tommy across the face and knocked him unconscious to the ground. Cowhands pulled him clear of the pounding hoofs. We thought Tommy was dead. A doctor and ambulance attendants came running. But slowly Tommy got to his feet. He shooed away the doctor and ambulance men. He wouldn't have a bar of them. His face where the beam hit him looked terrible. But he just walked over to one of his friends and asked to be hosed down with water. Half an hour later I sought out Tommy and asked him why he refused all medical help.

'Just hate being fussed over,' he said.

This article first apeared in Walkabout Magazine, September 1962. The article with pictures, is available online at Trove.