Image: Alyssa Orr

I am not a rodeo person. Yes, I was born and raised in Texas, but I’ve always lived in big cities, seldom venturing into the hinterlands. I’ve seen livestock, of course, but usually while driving past it at 70 miles per hour. I’ve ridden a horse too, in summer camp, an exercise that proved equally frustrating for both me and the horse. 

So it’s no surprise that I spent my years as a college student here without ever once attending the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. In fact, I remember feeling slightly embarrassed each year at Rodeo time. Why, I wondered, in the 21st century, was the nation’s fourth largest city trying to make itself look like Cowtown, USA? 

Another question: was it fair for me to pass judgment on an event I’d never attended? Of course it wasn’t, which is why, on a Sunday afternoon last February, I parked downtown, rode the light rail south to Reliant Park, joined the herd of visitors streaming into the Reliant Center, and—rodeoed.  

I entered the convention hall for the Livestock Show which, mammoth though it was, felt like walking into a gerbil cage. (Maybe it was the pervasive scent of woodchips?) Everywhere I looked I saw animals in pens—cows, sheep, pigs, llamas, all with their own names and pedigrees—row after row of farm fare stretching out to infinity.  There were whole armies of men in matching shirts roaming the hall, and for no other purpose, it seemed to me, than to sweep up manure. I watched in awe as a man used an electric razor to trim the forehead of a mini-Hereford named Frank-n-Beans. 

Then it was on to the judging arena and the tail end of something called the junior ram-breeding competition. Teenagers held their animals in headlocks while a judge walked around, microphone in hand, assessing them thusly: “Lots of volume to it,” “He’s got good top lines,” “Not as fine in the face as some of these others.” My own assessment: “Every one of these rams looks exactly alike and he isn’t judging so much as giving a free-form spoken word performance.”

After an hour or two of this, it was time to transition over to Reliant Stadium and the Rodeo proper. First up: the chaplain led us in a prayer for the animals and contestants. Not accustomed to praying for animals, I felt like an atheist in church as I watched a sea of heads bow in unison. I expected the national anthem, although not the woman on horseback galloping around the arena while brandishing a flag that shot sparks from the tip. 

At last, the rodeoing began with the first event, tie-down roping. A palpable sense of excitement arose from the ... nearly-empty stadium.  Wait, where was everyone? Still at the Livestock Show or on the fairgrounds, it appeared. 

Tie-down roping was followed by bareback riding, team roping, saddle bronc, steer wrestling, barrel racing (why was that the only event open to women?), and, finally, bull riding and mutton bustin’. (Advice to fellow novices: When it comes to competitive rodeo, for my money nothing beats kids busting mutton, and judging by the audience cheers, I wasn’t alone.) 

It was only during this final event—just before the evening’s concert—that  the Reliant seats began to fill, which is when it finally occurred to me that not being a rodeo person is no barrier to enjoying the Rodeo. Its gates are equally open to lovers of llamas, funnel cakes, Demi Lovato—anybody, really, who’s in the mood for a month-long party to which the entire city is invited.

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