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Gary Borders: Be nimble when photographing the rodeo, or else

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Gary Borders
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It was a lovely night for a rodeo, the storm clouds dancing around the area but never landing, a sweet spring breeze wafting through. The nearly incessant rain of previous weeks meant the dusty haze that usually fills rodeo arenas was absent. The Mount Pleasant Rodeo was kicking off its 51st year.

Rodeos are as American as it gets. The queens and junior queens, decked out in their finest Western apparel, open the night by bringing in the American flag and waving to the crowd. The crowd stands, hats off, while the preacher prays for safe rides. And a raise the hair on the back-of-the-neck rendition of the National Anthem draws a hearty applause.

I don’t recall the last time I took in a rodeo, but it’s been a few decades. I clearly recall the last time I photographed a rodeo for a newspaper, which was in San Augustine in the mid-1980s.

I started shooting rodeos in high school while working for the Longview paper part-time. As a foolish teenager, I did not hesitate to get in the ring to get a better shot, nimble enough to climb up the railing if a two-ton beast with horns and a bad attitude threw its rider and headed my way. So when the rodeo came to town, to the dimly lit arena in San Augustine, I put on boots and got back inside the ring.

Even though I was only 30 at the time, I clearly had lost a few steps of speed from my teenage years. And I definitely should have been wearing sneakers that night instead of Ropers. As I fired away with my Nikon, I heard someone yell, “Get up the rail!” or something to that effect. I took my eye away from the viewfinder to discover the saddle bronc I had been photographing had thrown its rider and was headed right at me.

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Credit Gary Borders
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Jamie Howlett handles a bronco.

Up the rail I scrambled. This horse apparently was not fond of the paparazzi, because he just kept on coming at me, as I tried to get traction with my boots on the rusty rails. I ended up tossing my camera bag over the rail and vaulting over, landing unceremoniously on my back. The crowd politely applauded my acrobatics.

So the other night, I shot from the safety of the bleachers, which provided an excellent vantage point. There have been some decided improvements to rodeos. Bull riders usually wear helmets, though it apparently is not required. They all wore protective vests as well.

The bulls are well trained. They come out of the chute bucking furiously until either the rider survives for eight seconds or is thrown prematurely, quickly scrambling out of the way while the clowns in their protective barrels distract the beast, still bucking and snorting. But after a few seconds, the bull turns around and obediently trots out of the arena, probably looking for a snack.

My favorite event was mutton bustin’. Little kids wearing helmets hung on to a lamb that shot out of a chute, intent on joining her companions in the center of the arena. One little girl managed to hang on the entire time while nearly upside down, her little arms tightly clamped around the lamb’s neck.

It was time to leave. As I was headed out of the parking lot, Whiplash the Rodeo Monkey strolled by, on top of his border collie companion. The little monkey, wearing a red jacket and a straw hat, rode nonchalantly as its trainer led the dog by a leash. It was a bit surreal, seeing this veteran performer who at 22 years old is the three-time rodeo Entertainer of the Year, headed in for another night’s work rounding up sheep.