You won’t often hear me talk about rodeo. A big part of the reason for this is that, as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that it’s both useless to tell other people how to conduct their lives, and it’s foolish to spout off opinions on subjects you don’t know too much about. I don’t feel like I know hardly anything anymore, and my life’s become a richer thing since I started asking to be taught instead of arrogantly insisting that I already knew all I needed to know. In my experience, that kind of conviction often exists in the void left by a lack of real knowledge and experience. The world exists in a million shades of gray, and even when you’re certain of yourself, it’s still important to acknowledge the reality that you’ll never bring anybody around to your viewpoint by laying in with your spurs or trying to whip them toward the finish line.
So while I might not like the way I see a lot of people ride at the rodeo — just like I might not like the way I see a lot of people ride in Grand Prix dressage — you won’t hear me talk much about it. I might also wish that more equestrian sports rewarded softness, feel, finesse and the health of the horse instead of simply performance. I might cringe to see a horse hurt or a calf bowled over or a kid pinned beneath a steer, but I understand that even in the best circumstances accidents happen, and I don’t think that every rodeo should be judged on the basis of the kind of wanton cruelty and careless carnage that some rodeos call sport. My point is, I would normally have very little to say about rodeo, because I feel it isn’t my issue, my cause, my fight, or my world to be commenting on. But tonight at my little local small-town rodeo, I saw something that I do think of as mine. I saw these.
If you don’t know what you’re looking at, I’ll be glad to tell you. The white brands on these horses’ necks means that they were wild horses, once. At some point in their lives — probably late in their lives, and I make that assumption for reasons I’ll explain in a moment — they were rounded up by helicopter and brought into captivity.
I won’t get into all of the arguments, politics and opinions surrounding the wild horse issue. There are whole books on the subject, and in this particular post it’s not the point. The fact is, these horses came in from the wild and they weren’t going to be put back again. They could’ve been adopted into private homes, but it’s unlikely they were even given that chance. The large white “U” you see clearly at the end of each brand — a match to the smaller U that you can’t see at the beginning of each brand — means that these are “sale authority” or “Burns amendment” horses. Simply put, sale authority strips away protections or sale prerequisites from wild horses who have been judged to be over ten years of age, or who have failed to adopt at three events. These horses, from the look of them, were probably deemed to be sale authority animals on the basis of age.
The fact that they wound up as bucking stock on the small-town rodeo circuit isn’t illegal or even frowned upon. It is within the government’s right to dispose of them as they see fit. You can walk away with one of these horses for a low, low price — I’ve seen them sold for a dollar — and then if you want to put it on the next truck to Mexico to be turned into horse steaks, you can do it. I know all that. I don’t agree with it, but I know it.
Still, walking up to those pens and seeing those brands on the horses was like a punch in the gut. Perhaps they were younger than they looked, but to me it was like stumbling across a group of grandmothers who’d been pressed into service as gladiators. It felt demeaning in a way that I still can’t entirely explain.
But then, that feeling itself isn’t necessarily rational. I eat meat, and those animals on my dinner plate undoubtedly suffered worse. The domestic horses in that bucking horse collection had clearly been through the wars, too; one seemed to have more branded flesh than unbranded, and another had a bleeding wound ripped into his hind end, most likely from the constant miserable fighting going on in the pen. But it was the presence of mustangs there that for me stung the worst. This wasn’t the life they’d been meant for. Their dignity was gone. And knowing that they’d fallen here from freedom seemed somehow almost unbearable to contemplate. Better perhaps than the other souls penned with them, they knew what they’d lost.
Though they’d spent most of their time in the pen with their ears pinned back, warning all comers not to venture too close, once the stock contractors brought them out for a mad run around the arena, you could see a little spark flare. Their ears came forward, at least some of the time. They moved as one unit, as if they’d never held each other at bay. And they stretched their legs out like if they could only run hard enough, they could fling themselves into another life.
The rodeo announcer assured us via loudspeaker that bucking horses love their jobs, that they perk up at the sight of the chutes. He also assured us that this stock contractor’s fine animals were ranch-raised, and came from long lines of bucking horses.
He said that they were “born to buck.”
Presumably, this was supposed to reassure the crowd that there was nothing unsavory about the evening’s entertainment. But I watched one of those sorrels gallop past me, with the wind picking up its mane, and the neat white brand beneath gave the lie away.
Herded back into their pens again, the horses only stared into the far distance, and kept their silence.